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What Happens When a Key Vote Isn’t So Key

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Geoff Davis had some sharp criticisms for Heritage Action for America earlier this week.

House Republican leaders' decision to ignore a key-vote threat by Heritage Action for America and pass a short-term transportation bill this week demonstrates the sometimes-uphill battle upstart groups face to build influence in Washington, D.C.

Heritage Action, however, is somewhat unique in that it is directly connected to the Heritage Foundation, one of the oldest and most influential sources of conservative thought in the United States.

Despite that connection as well as the group's close ties to the Republican Study Committee Heritage Action has a mixed record of influencing leaders, as demonstrated by Tuesday's decision to pass the transportation bill by voice vote. The group has even engendered the resentment of some rank-and-file Republicans.

"Heritage Action is a self-interested fundraising organization ... a worthless organization to the conservative movement," Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) told the conservative Daily Caller in a Web interview earlier this week.

Davis went on to insinuate that Heritage Action and other groups are manipulating conservative voters.

"A lot of people who may be conservative are also profiting off the anger they are creating outside," Davis said.

Heritage Action has had repeated run-ins with Republican leadership this year, including over the continuing resolution this spring and the final debt deal. Those incidents, along with the group's opposition to the transportation bill, have led to complaints that it is trying to hold the party hostage to its ideology.

Leadership aides who mostly agreed with Davis' assessment explained there are several key differences between Heritage Action and other, more established organizations.

Groups such as the National Rifle Association and National Taxpayers Union built their political brands in part on lawmaker accountability programs such as annual scorecards that rank Members' ideological fealty.

But Heritage Action and a number of relatively new tea-party-affiliated organizations have yet to demonstrate the type of muscle their older brethren have used not only to influence legislation but also to target for defeat lawmakers who have crossed them.

"These [established] groups have a record of making sure their ratings count on election days," a GOP leadership aide said, arguing that Heritage Action has not displayed the sort of clout with voters that would make it a major factor inside the Beltway.

A second leadership aide agreed.

"People care about their [American Conservative Union] rating, they care about their NRA rating, they care about their National Right to Life rating, but some of these self-interested organizations trying to hold things hostage, like Heritage Action, are not that influential."

Heritage Action Communications Director Dan Holler dismissed the attacks.

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