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Freedom Caucus bruised but unbowed in GOP primary fights

Freedom Caucus bruised but unbowed in GOP primary fights
© Greg Nash

The political arm of the conservative House Freedom Caucus has had a mixed record in the 2018 primaries.

The House Freedom Fund backed two successful candidates: Debbie Lesko of Arizona and Russ Fulcher of Idaho. And the conservative PAC hopes to notch a couple more victories in Tuesday’s runoff elections in Texas.

But it was defeated this spring in four other races where it went head to head with the GOP establishment and the Republican Main Street Partnership, which calls itself the “governing wing” of the GOP.

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The GOP civil war playing out in House primary races across the country isn’t only about Republicans trying to extend their eight-year rein in the House of Representatives.

It’s also a proxy battle over how much influence Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsTrump tests negative for COVID-19 on day of debate The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Iran, Russia election bombshell; final Prez debate tonight GOP power shift emerges with Trump, McConnell MORE (R-N.C.), Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanMcCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments McCarthy: 'I would think I already have the votes' to remain as House GOP leader Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats MORE (R-Ohio) and the Freedom Caucus can exert over the House GOP conference next year — and who might lead Republicans after retiring Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments Pelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats MORE (R-Wis.) steps down.

Ryan has endorsed his top deputy, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyRocky Mountain National Park closed due to expanding Colorado wildfire Trump is out of touch with Republican voters on climate change The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Iran, Russia election bombshell; final Prez debate tonight MORE (R-Calif.), to succeed him. But with the Freedom Caucus — a bloc of roughly 30 conservative bomb throwers — withholding their support, McCarthy can’t secure the 218 GOP votes he needs to be elected Speaker on the House floor.

On Monday, more than 100 conservative leaders sent a letter trying to draft Jordan, the founding chairman of the Freedom Caucus, to challenge McCarthy for Speaker.

Primary results in Ohio and Pennsylvania this month have been encouraging for the leadership-friendly Main Street Partnership, which counts House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersConservatives seize on New York Post story to push Section 230 reform Race heats up for top GOP post on powerful Energy and Commerce Committee Hillicon Valley: Trump backs potential Microsoft, TikTok deal, sets September deadline | House Republicans request classified TikTok briefing | Facebook labels manipulated Pelosi video MORE (R-Wash.) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversGOP lawmakers distance themselves from Trump comments on transfer of power Business groups back pandemic insurance bill modeled on post-9/11 law National Retail Federation hosts virtual 'store tours' for lawmakers amid coronavirus MORE (R-Ohio) among its members.

In Ohio’s 12th District, state Sen. Troy Balderson edged local township trustee Melanie Leneghan, who was backed by Jordan and the Freedom Fund, by just 653 votes in the GOP primary to replace former GOP Rep. Pat TiberiPatrick (Pat) Joseph TiberiOhio New Members 2019 Many authors of GOP tax law will not be returning to Congress GOP Rep. Balderson holds onto seat in Ohio MORE, a Main Street ally.

In another Ohio race, former NFL wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez, 33, trounced state Rep. Christina Hagan, 29, in the GOP primary to replace GOP Rep. Jim RenacciJames (Jim) B. RenacciLobbying world Ohio is suddenly a 2020 battleground Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 MORE, who is running for the Senate. Gonzalez was backed by Defending Main Street, while Hagan earned an endorsement from Jordan and the Freedom Fund.

Defending Main Street also proved victorious last week in Pennsylvania’s newly redrawn 14th District, where GOP state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler defeated Freedom-backed state Rep. Rick Saccone.

In Pennsylvania’s redrawn 13th District, establishment favorite John Joyce, an Altoona dermatologist, prevailed in an eight-way GOP primary. He had the backing of Defending Main Street, as well as the man who now holds the seat, retiring Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterLobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm Ex-Rep. Duffy to join lobbying firm BGR MORE (R-Pa.), a key leadership ally.

“Everywhere we went head to head with them we have defeated them, which hopefully gets us the best candidates in these districts in Pennsylvania and Ohio for the general election,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of the Main Street Partnership.

“Our goal is not anti-Freedom Caucus,” added Chamberlain, who also leads the group’s super PAC, Defending Main Street. “Our goal is to win the seats that are not gerrymandered and make sure Republicans continue to control the House.”

Jordan led the Freedom Caucus when it forced out Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerPelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats On The Trail: How Trump lost the law and order debate MORE, a fellow Ohio Republican, in September 2015. In a phone interview Monday, he defended the Freedom Fund’s track record.

“We’ve won lots of races, but, yeah, we’ve lost some, too,” Jordan conceded.

Overall, however, the Freedom Fund has had some key victories, Jordan said, beginning in 2015 with Warren DavidsonWarren Earl DavidsonHillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones House approves measure condemning QAnon, but 17 Republicans vote against it Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns MORE, who succeeded BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerPelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Jordan vows to back McCarthy as leader even if House loses more GOP seats On The Trail: How Trump lost the law and order debate MORE in Congress and then promptly joined the Freedom Caucus. The fund had helped boost Davidson in a crowded primary, Jordan argued.

In other races, the Freedom Fund has managed to preserve the status quo.

In a 2017 special election primary in South Carolina, Freedom-backed candidate Ralph NormanRalph Warren NormanHillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones House approves measure condemning QAnon, but 17 Republicans vote against it House rebuffs GOP lawmaker's effort to remove references to Democrats in Capitol MORE narrowly defeated Chamber of Commerce-backed candidate Tommy Pope in the race to replace former Rep. Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyTrump says he may lower corporate tax rate to 20 percent if reelected Is Social Security safe from the courts? On The Money: House panel pulls Powell into partisan battles | New York considers hiking taxes on the rich | Treasury: Trump's payroll tax deferral won't hurt Social Security MORE (R-S.C.). Norman won the seat and joined the Freedom Caucus.

After Rep. Trent FranksHarold (Trent) Trent FranksArizona New Members 2019 Cook shifts 8 House races toward Dems Freedom Caucus members see openings in leadership MORE (R-Ariz.), a vocal Freedom Caucus member, resigned in a scandal, the Freedom leaders quickly endorsed Lesko, a former state senator, at the urging of Freedom Caucus Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.). In the GOP special primary, Lesko defeated her former state Senate colleague, Steve Montenegro, who was embroiled in a sex scandal of his own. She went onto defeat Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, and then pledged to joined the Freedom Caucus that had helped elect her.

The Ohio race between Balderson and Langehan is still gnawing at Jordan, however.

“We went in big for Melanie and we lost by 653 votes. Would have, could have, should have, but I wished we had raised her a little bit more money,” Jordan said in the interview.

The fund and the associated House Freedom Action super PAC technically are independent of Jordan, Meadows and the Freedom Caucus. While Jordan and Meadows can raise money for the fund, they cannot coordinate with it on things like endorsements or where to spend money.

“In Columbus and Washington, the establishment was all in. We were out spent two-and-a-half to one. And we lost by 653 votes," he said.

“There is no substitute for winning,” added Jordan, who despite his frustration said he’d attend a D.C. fundraiser for Balderson later this week. “The fact that we were that close was amazing in and of itself. But I’m still ticked.”

The Texas primary runoff is Tuesday, and the Freedom Fund has endorsed a pair of candidates in the Lone Star State: Chip Roy, a former chief of staff to Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzQuinnipiac poll finds Biden, Trump tied in Texas China could cut our access to critical minerals at any time — here's why we need to act The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Goldman Sachs - Two weeks out, Trump attempts to rally the base MORE (R-Texas) who is running to replace retiring GOP Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Cheney asks DOJ to probe environmental groups | Kudlow: 'No sector worse hurt than energy' during pandemic | Trump pledges 'no politics' in Pebble Mine review Cheney asks DOJ to probe environmental groups  How effective are protests and riots for changing America? MORE; and Michael Cloud, who is running to fill the seat vacated by former GOP Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdThe biggest political upsets of the decade Members spar over sexual harassment training deadline Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations MORE.

Freedom Caucus leaders also like Bunni Pounds, who had worked as campaign manager for Rep. Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingLawmakers battle over future of Ex-Im Bank House passes Ex-Im Bank reboot bill opposed by White House, McConnell Has Congress lost the ability or the will to pass a unanimous bipartisan small business bill? MORE (R-Texas), the man she is now trying to replace. Chamberlain said Main Street is staying out of the Texas races.

“I hope we’re gonna get three out of three," said Jordan, a former college wrestling champ. “It’s like wrestling matches — you wrestle as hard as you can and hope you win. But when you lose, you learn from it and get ready for the next match.”