Are the Club for Growth and Heritage Action for America out to depose Speaker John A. Boehner?
Leaders of both conservative advocacy groups stop short of saying so, but they are clearly clamoring for a House Republican leader more closely aligned with their principles.
And they are doing everything they can to steer the House GOP membership in their direction.
Heritage Action CEO Mike Needham told CQ Roll Call there is “a disconnect” between the GOP leadership “and the conservative voters they allegedly represent.”
He said his group is “dying to go into battle alongside leadership” but won’t cede ground on issues that matter to it.
“Leadership’s job is to get to 218,” Needham said. “Our job is to make it impossible for them to get to 218 unless they are doing the right thing.”
Chris Chocola, head of the Club for Growth, said if his group does its job, it will get enough of its endorsed candidates into Congress that “they’ll elect one of their own for leadership.”
Chocola said this while also noting that his group doesn’t “do leadership races.” The two groups — as well as others that have sprung up in recent years claiming the mantle of the tea party — have worked to defeat leadership’s agenda on a host of issues, with Chocola and Needham claiming credit most recently for helping to sink the farm bill. That bill failed 195-234 when a strategy that relied on Democratic support crumbled and Republicans were left without enough of their own members to pass it. The groups have also played roles thwarting other leadership-backed measures, ranging from transportation bills in the last Congress to a health care bill pushed by Majority Leader Eric Cantor earlier this year.
One GOP leadership aide ripped the groups in turn. “These groups are in the sales business. They sell false achievements to their members, seeking to raise money at the expense of conservative ideas. Thwarting the Obama agenda comes second, raising money comes first.”
Both groups “key voted” final passage of the farm bill along with a number of controversial amendments made in order to assuage more conservative members. Many of those members voted for the amendments, like one that would demand more stringent work requirements in order to qualify for food stamp benefits — but not the final bill.
Needham said Heritage Action had “very open lines of communication” with members leading up to decisive floor action. And it has built an army of seven D.C. lobbyists, 10 regional coordinators, 5,000 “sentinels” who organize their own grass-roots lobbying, and an email list of about 400,000 supporters in the three years it has been in existence.
Chocola noted that while Club for Growth did not lobby members directly, the fear of a Club-financed primary challenge has its own power.
“Members of Congress don’t like to be primaried and they are very concerned when that threat is presented to them. And so we present that threat,” he said. “Members of Congress know we exist, and they care that we exist, and they pay attention to things we say.”
Some conservative lawmakers credit the groups with pushing the House further to the right.
“We would have Republicans who would be voting much more like Democrats if it were not for the Club for Growth and Heritage,” said Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp, one of these group’s most reliable members. He voted against the farm bill, even though his home state of Kansas has a significant agriculture sector.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., who co-authored an op-ed with Needham last year calling on congressional leaders to split the farm bill into different sections, said while he thought Democrats ultimately “sunk the farm bill,” groups like Club for Growth and Heritage Action “did have a hand in it.”
“They raised awareness of the coalition and the unholy alliance that has been in place for so long between urban and rural members of Congress to pass a food stamp bill,” Stutzman said.
Club for Growth proudly avers a strategy of party purification, raising money for more conservative Republicans and funding primary challengers to more moderate members.
Of the 35 members who voted “perfectly” on the 10 amendments that Club for Growth key voted on the farm bill, 21 members received money from the group. Three members of the “Club for Growth 35” received more than $100,000 from the group in the last election cycle.
Stutzman said if you look at Club for Growth, “they do make an impact in elections.”
Heritage Action takes a different approach. Their campaign contribution strategy is not their main focus. Instead, they focus on messaging with their sentinels and running ad campaigns.
During the farm bill, Heritage ran about $100,000 in ads against the farm bill in certain Republican districts. When some members complained, they ran some more.
“When you start getting emails from constituents that Heritage is sending out, people notice,” Stutzman said.
But the question remains: What influence do these outside groups actually have on leadership?
When asked whether they were capable of taking down the leadership in 2014, Erica Elliott, the spokeswoman for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., simply said: “No.”
Asked to articulate whether they believed his group had an antagonistic relationship with Boehner and his allies in leadership, Chocola said, “I think we frustrate them.”
Some leadership aides suggested on Thursday, however, that the far-right bloc of the House Republican Conference that’s grown over the past two election cycles is frustrating all on its own, with its insistence on stonewalling policymaking for the purpose of making a political statement. The outside groups may just be giving these members a megaphone.
“I think we all are experiencing a sense of frustration,” said Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash. “They have an ideology that they arrived here with, no matter what the facts are, the ideology won’t change, so the vote doesn’t change.”
Reichert didn’t begrudge Boehner for not being able to keep these members in line, and neither did Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a longtime ally of Boehner and of members of the mainstream Republican establishment in the House.
Cole did indicate that things have changed in the way the House is run and that has, in turn, somewhat changed how Boehner controls his people.
“In the old days, you would have said, ‘OK, we give you your amendment, will you vote for the bill?’ And if they said no, they wouldn’t get their amendment,” Cole said.
Cole acknowledged that Club for Growth and Heritage do have influence but wondered what the end goal was. Though Chocola and Needham insisted the goal with the farm bill, as with everything else, was to compel the House to pass conservative legislation, Cole wondered whether it’s just tantamount to gridlock.
“The ultimate test will be, does this lead us to a better product? They defeated a bill that had a lot of spending cuts, a lot of real reforms, would have made real genuine progress,” said Cole, who voted for the bill. “If the product is worse than what we had and ends up in law, and I suspect that’s what going to happen, then maybe you ought to ask yourself, ‘Did we make the perfect the enemy of the good?’”