Sen. Jim DeMint speaks during the American Grassroots Coalition and Tea Party Express rally Wednesday on Capitol Hill. DeMint and Rep. Jim Jordan have coordinated on conservative messaging during the debt limit debate.
For conservatives, President Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment prohibiting Republicans from engaging in internecine warfare is no longer inviolable.
What for months had been a quiet campaign to pressure the GOP into a more conservative footing has, over the course of the debt limit negotiations, blossomed into a full-blown insurrection, led by Republican Steering Committee Chairman Jim DeMint (S.C.) in the Senate and Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (Ohio) in the House.
And at a Wednesday Conference meeting, the conflict was exposed raw, as Republicans dressed down Jordan for his tactics.
According to aides familiar with the situation, Paul Teller, the RSC’s executive director, and top DeMint aides, including Communications Director Wesley Denton, have worked closely for years in coordinating their work.
DeMint has led efforts to coordinate with the House Republican Study Committee.
“We’ve worked a lot with the House guys,” DeMint said, particularly with regard to raising the debt ceiling. “I think a lot of the [conservative] folks feel like the plans that are being presented are more political than they are solving our debt problem.”
To a large degree, the cooperation makes sense: The RSC and the Steering Committee act as the conservative caucuses for their respective chambers, and the groups view themselves as the “conscience” of the GOP.
“A lot of us are frustrated that a few people go behind closed doors and try to make all of the decisions. I am not sure that is going to work, because it’s not just us, but I think it is a whole lot of people around the country feel left out of the process. We try to be their voice here,” DeMint said, adding, “I think we’ve created our own table. I am not sure we have a seat at the table as much as we have another table.”
Since the November elections, which for the first time gave DeMint a natural base of four to six GOP conservatives in the Senate and swelled the ranks of the RSC in the House, both organizations have grown increasingly bold.
And as the debt fight heated up, Teller, Denton and activists formed a listserv to trade information, discuss strategy and map out how they would attack Democrats and Republicans.
The list included RSC and Steering Committee aides, aides to other Republican lawmakers in both chambers and a number of conservative activists and groups, including redstate.com blogger Erick Erickson, the Cut, Cap and Balance Coalition, Heritage Action for America and others.
According to aides familiar with the email group, Teller and other aides routinely used the listserv as a way to gin up opposition to leadership proposals — and not just those from within the House.
A series of emails sent to activists last week, for instance, fired directly at the Senate’s top Republican, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who at the time was attempting to work out an agreement with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
“Let’s keep promoting CCB and bashing the McConnell-Reid plan,” Teller wrote, adding that, “I’m now more confident than ever that a final solution cannot come before, say, August 4th or 5th. We MUST get past August 2nd if we conservatives are to win.”
A few days later, on July 20, he again emailed the group, writing to activists and others, “Let’s kill Gang of Six today. Today. Dead.”
Those emails typify Teller’s aggressive language and willingness to attack Republicans, several GOPers said.
“That right there gives you an idea of what we’re dealing with here. I mean, we’re talking about public service here,” a senior GOP aide said.
The aide argued that coordinating on message and revving up conservative activists is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.
“There are a fair amount of conservatives who, by driving the conversation and driving activists, they have changed conversations from what could be pretty tepid to pretty aggressive solutions. ... I mean, we’re talking about trillions of dollars in cuts here. That would have never happened,” the aide said.
“But eventually, you have to figure out what team you’re on,” the aide added, noting that, “If you are fighting your Speaker ... in a war with the president, you have lost focus of what side you are on.”
The situation came to a head in the House on Wednesday, when it was discovered that Teller and other RSC aides were actively working with organizations to defeat Boehner’s proposal and had put together a whip list of undecided lawmakers for conservatives to target.
Several of the Members on the list are also members of the RSC and were none too pleased that their dues were being used to gin up attacks against them, according to numerous lawmakers and staff.
In that email, an RSC junior staffer wrote: “Today is the day to kill the Boehner deal. We need statements coming up to the Hill every hour of the day in mounting opposition to the plan. If we keep this from ever coming to the Floor, we have a greater chance of victory than defeating a vote on the floor.”
In an apparent reference to a previous email from Erickson, the aide continued, “To echo Erick’s email, we need some serious heat up here,” before listing the Republicans whom the activists were to target.
During Wednesday’s Republican Conference meeting, Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.) read the text of an email that Teller sent to outside activists.
According to a copy of the email, Teller wrote: “Guys — not feeling good. Just got out of Conference, and there was a lot of rally-‘round-the-Speaker sentiment, even while admitting the plan was ‘not perfect.’”
Teller’s email went on to complain about the process outlined in the closed meeting, noting that the “bill text will be available tonight and will likely be on the floor Wednesday morning, in clear violation of the 3-day layover rule. The CCB pledge is nowhere to be found in any of these deliberations.”
Walden — who bluntly told Teller that he was “privileged” to be in the meeting — then lit into the aide, saying, “You should not use that privilege to tear down this team for outside organizations.”
Walden then demanded that Teller explain himself. But — in a move that shocked Members and staff who were present — Teller refused.
Jordan apologized for the emails during the meeting, and in a statement, RSC Communications Director Brian Straessle also apologized.
“This action was clearly inappropriate and was not authorized by the Chairman or any other members of the staff. This has never been — and never will be — the way we do business at the RSC,” Straessle said.
But Republicans dismissed the notion that Jordan was unaware of what his staffers were using the email list for. “Jim Jordan knew exactly what he was doing,” one Republican lawmaker said Wednesday.
The RSC action also rankled Republicans in the Senate.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he believes it was “wrong” for the RSC to go after Members.
“I don’t think anything that represents a body, which that group certainly does, has the authority or a right to go out and target en masse people like that,” Burr said.
DeMint’s spokesman, though, was unapologetic. “Sen. DeMint strongly supports RSC Chairman Jim Jordan and the things he is doing. He thinks he is doing the job that he was elected to do, which is to fight for conservative policies,” Denton said regarding the RSC fracas.
And DeMint still enjoys the support of new Members he helped elect.
“I think he has been both a friend and someone we feel like we can work with toward really trying to fix some serious problems up here,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said.
DeMint backed Paul in his primary victory over Trey Grayson, who was supported by McConnell.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said, “We have naturally coalesced, and he is a natural leader.”
“The only power we have is the power of these ideas that voters are demanding to change and reform Washington,” Denton said.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.