Will the real Republican Establishment please stand up?
In the four years since the Supreme Court struck down fundraising regulations that effectively gave the Democratic and Republican parties a monopoly on large-scale political activity, a collection of Tea Party-affiliated organizations has arisen in Washington that competes with the GOP for campaign contributors, money and influence -- and over what legislation to push and which candidates to nominate.
The groups, including the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund, have moved aggressively to kill legislation they oppose and oust incumbent Republicans they deem insufficiently conservative.
Like the national Republican Party, which they deride as the “GOP Establishment,” they have become an establishment of their own, a confederation of well-financed Tea Party groups that support a web of sister organizations and employ a legion of political professionals who live and work inside the Beltway. Having a leadership class in Washington is an awkward contradiction for a once-decentralized movement that represented the grassroots of middle America against the entrenched interests of a GOP elite mainly based in Washington.
Jon Fleischman, a conservative activist in Orange County, Calif., and persistent critic of the national Republican Establishment, said some — though not all — of the conservative groups in Washington suffer from the same problems as the GOP. To his mind, they are headquartered in the capital, driven by a few people at the top, promote whatever policy agenda suits them and fail to take the time to understand what the grassroots want from government.
“There are groups that I think started with good intentions that have gone native,” Fleischman said. “I have a concern that there are organizations in D.C. today that used to be the outside groups and now they’re the inside groups. I worry that others could follow that path, and that’s why I stay vigilant."
The groups resist the notion that they have developed the trappings of the Establishment. But they are raising and spending significant resources — on infrastructure, staff, advertising or a combination of all three — much like the national Republican Party and its affiliated campaign committees.
Conservative advocacy organizations have existed in Washington for years. But the landscape changed in January 2010 after the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that the government could not restrict how much money corporations, nonprofits and other third-party organizations spend on political activity. That paved the way for a new class of organizations -- super PACs and Internal Revenue Service-approved nonprofits -- to raise and invest millions of dollars to influence elections and policy.
The new conservative groups that sprouted, coinciding with an ascendant Tea Party, chose to operate as ambitious insurgents rather than Establishment insiders.
Among them were Heritage Action for America, an offshoot of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, which does not get involved in elections, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, a super PAC created by then-Sen. Jim DeMint, who now heads the Heritage Foundation. Both emphasize that they consult heavily with the grassroots. They are joined by the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, two established organizations that have maintained their credibility as outsiders.
Although the groups have varying interests and don't officially coordinate, they are rarely at odds on policy or in the primaries. They all backed October's government shutdown, encouraging the congressional Republicans who instigated the 16-day partial closure as a means to defund Obamacare.
“We’re a principled alternative to the party,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, a former Indiana congressman. “If we oppose something that Republicans want to do, and our members — who are overwhelmingly Republican — throw money at us to stop it, maybe there’s a lesson there.”
On Capitol Hill, their competition for power has taken the form of numerous “key vote” alerts urging House and Senate Republicans to oppose legislation promoted by their caucus’ leadership. In the House, where Republicans hold the majority, the key votes have made it difficult for GOP leaders to pass legislation that isn't conservative enough for the Tea Party.
On the campaign trail, the competition has mainly threatened Senate Republicans.
Led by the Senate Conservatives Fund, the groups are mounting challenges in more than a half dozen Republican primaries, three of which feature senior GOP incumbents: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Sen. Thad Cochran in Mississippi and Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas.
Republicans on the receiving end of criticism from the Tea Party Establishment charge the groups with hypocrisy, although they think some are worse offenders than others.
"Mainstream" Republicans acknowledge that politics in the nation’s capital is a big business that has helped breed a permanent political class occasionally more in tune with K Street than Main Street.
But unlike the Tea Party groups, Republican regulars say, they are not sullying the Republican brand or enabling Democrats to advance their liberal agenda by defeating GOP legislation or the most electable conservative in a primary. The insurgent groups operate just like they do, except they don’t have to fear Election Day since they're not the party of record.
“The folks that are often attacking the Establishment have very much establishment patterns to the way they do business,” said Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.