House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (right) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy are two of the original Young Guns who launched the group in 2008.
A freshman facing a Member twice his age in Illinois. A Senate octogenarian in Indiana. A five-term Tennessee Congresswoman from a safe district. A former House aide challenging an incumbent in North Carolina.
All of these varied Republicans benefited from YG Action fund, a super PAC, and its sister groups run by two former top aides for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
In the world of outside niche groups, it’s no wonder the Young Guns spinoffs have prompted some head-scratching since its inception last year. The super PAC originally struggled with fundraising, while Capitol Hill aides privately expressed confusion over its purpose.
But YG Action is coming off its first massive fundraising quarter, raking in $5.3 million from April through June. The money poured in just in time for its next big test: helping Richard Hudson win a contentious GOP runoff in North Carolina on Tuesday. The group has spent $524,000 to boost the former Capitol Hill chief of staff.
“For us, Hudson is one of those definitive races where we thought it was a combination of a Young Gun model candidate — young, conservative, next generation,” said John Murray, president of the three YG entities and Cantor’s former deputy chief of staff. “Our function in life is to build a sustained Republican majority in the House.”
In their industrial chic office space in northern Alexandria, Va., Murray, Brad Dayspring, Cantor’s former communications guru, their attorney and an intern casually plot their party’s path to the 113th Congress and beyond. The office vibe makes it feel like a long way from Capitol Hill. Murray’s corner office clothing rack holds at least a week’s worth of dry cleaning, flanked by red, white and blue leis and an acoustic guitar.
It’s not easy to explain the three entities that fall under the YG umbrella — all of which have nuanced missions and legally separate purposes. There’s the super PAC, YG Action Fund; the nonprofit, YG Network; and the wonk shop, YG Policy Center.
They make independent expenditures for candidates, such as Hudson, through the super PAC. Among other missions, the nonprofit served as a testing group for energy policy messaging in the Indiana primary. It also recently started a partnership to cultivate young donors with MavPAC, a political project of George P. Bush.
For months, the group has received criticism for its spending choices — even though the candidates it backed won in almost every case. Murray and Dayspring said they operate separately from their former boss as required by law.
“While we are former employees of Eric Cantor, we are building our own entity based on our own decision-making and have a rigorous way in which we go about things that are totally independent of any elected official,” Murray explained, as he sipped from a red Solo cup.
They swear by YG Action’s equation to evaluate candidates. They add up typical criteria such as age, region, the competitiveness and cost of a district. They also plug in a “conservative cause score” from the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks. They include rankings from political handicappers Stu Rothenberg, a Roll Call columnist, and Charlie Cook.
In March, the super PAC spent $50,000 on radio advertisements to push freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) over the top against 10-term Rep. Don Manzullo in a redistricting-forced primary.
A month later, YG Network spent $208,000 supporting six-term Sen. Dick Lugar’s (R-Ind.) failed re-election. Lugar, an 80-year-old with a record of working across the aisle, is the antithesis of the Young Guns brand, Republicans noted.
Also in May, the nonprofit arm spent about $30,000 to boost Luke Messer, now the GOP nominee in retiring Rep. Mike Pence’s (R-Ind.) district. It sent direct mail leading up to the primary that tested new energy messaging.
“I would consider it something that helped us but not probably what we would have sent had we been doing it ourselves,” Messer said Friday.
In June, when a top 2010 Young Guns candidate, veteran Jesse Kelly, ran in a closely watched Arizona special election, YG Action and its sister entities didn’t spend a dime.
Later in June, the nonprofit ran a six-figure radio and digital advertising buy to boost 13 House Members for supporting a domestic energy bill. Democrats plan to target only a couple of those Members. The other Republicans, such as Reps. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) and Mike Conaway (Texas), represent solidly GOP seats.
“I just think that they lack focus as an organization. Small buys, safe seats, Lugar, etc.,” said one seasoned House Republican operative, who, like many others, declined to speak for the record. “To the extent they have been involved there have been some real head-scratchers in terms of where they have chosen to invest and how much.”
Murray said it all fits in the group’s long-range goals. It will spend the vast majority of its $30 million fundraising goal going on offense this fall targeting open seats and Democratic incumbents.
Additionally, the nonprofit has sponsored female focus groups as part of its “Women Up” initiative. Its super PAC will host a happy hour for young professionals with Cantor, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and almost two dozen other Members this week.
Those two Republicans, plus House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.), are the original Young Guns who launched the group in 2008. Since then, the brand has grown and changed significantly. In 2010, the three Republicans ascended to the top of House leadership. Also, the National Republican Congressional Committee started using the Young Guns brand as its benchmark fundraising and infrastructure program for candidates. In October 2011, YG Action spun off into its own entity.
“I think their goal is to further the Young Guns brand of the next generation of conservative leaders in the country,” said Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), one of the original Young Guns candidates recruited in 2008. “This is really a way for an outside organization with outside donors, money and, really, involvement to kind of further what we’ve been doing internally.”
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.