Politics & Government

How House conservatives plan to win divided GOP primaries

In this July 28, 2017, file photo, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., emerges from a House Republican Conference meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington.
In this July 28, 2017, file photo, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., emerges from a House Republican Conference meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

Rep. Mark Meadows is on a bit of a winning streak.

Meadows, the chairman of the influential House Freedom Caucus, has backed two winners in Republican primaries during this year’s special elections — South Carolina’s Ralph Norman for the House and Alabama’s Roy Moore for the Senate.

Now Meadows is turning his sights toward the 2018 primaries, which are just a few months away in some cases, hoping to bolster his caucus with more rock-ribbed conservatives. Meadows’ political action committee, the House Freedom Fund, has already handed out more than $500,000 to candidates for the 2018 cycle.

Can Meadows, who wants to grow the Freedom Caucus from its current roughly 36 members to closer to 45, be a difference-maker in the heavily Republican districts he plans to target? The House Freedom Caucus has flexed its power in the past, helping to push former Speaker John Boehner from his position and thwarting heir apparent Kevin McCarthy from taking the role in 2015.

“In all humility, I don’t know that an endorsement from Mark Meadows is going to make a difference as much as the commitment of that particular candidate to really represent the people,” Meadows said. “If there’s a conservative district and we have a commitment from someone to join the Freedom Caucus, that sends a very strong message.”

The PAC distributed more than $702,000 to federal candidates in 2016 and took in more than $1 million from a variety of individuals, groups and PACs, none donating more than $30,800, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Meadows said his group won six out of 10 races in 2016.

This time around, Meadows and past Freedom Caucus chairman Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, will endorse primary candidates in eight to 10 heavily Republican districts where no incumbent is running for re-election, hoping to elevate the more conservative candidate.

“If we’re going to get in, we’re going to get in to win it and it won’t be a tepid endorsement. That’s why we spend so much time on the front end,” Meadows said.

Meadows and Jordan will interview candidates in person, and they used a specific criteria to evaluate candidates. Meadows wouldn’t divulge what goes into that criteria, other than to say it is “fairly sophisticated.”

They will only choose seats in districts that lean Republican by at least 10 points according to the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index. The index “measures how each district performs at the presidential level compared to the nation as a whole.”

They have not yet picked all their targets for 2018, but the House Freedom Fund has donated more than $12,000 to Judd Matheny, who is running to replace Rep. Diane Black in Tennessee’s 6th District. The district has a Republican score of +24 on the Cook index.

“The more conservative the district, the more conservative the member should be,” Meadows said.

Even a small amount of money can have an impact in crowded primaries.

Meadows’ endorsement and more than $45,000 in financial support from the House Freedom Fund helped Ted Budd separate himself in a 17-way Republican primary in 2016. Budd also benefited from nearly $500,000 in independent spending from the conservative Club for Growth’s PAC.

Budd captured 20 percent of the vote, nearly double his closest competitors in the 13th district, which includes the northern suburbs of Charlotte, High Point and western Greensboro suburbs. Budd won the general election by 12.2 percentage points, the closest of any of North Carolina’s 13 congressional elections.

“It was huge,” Budd said of the endorsement and money. “It was very encouraging. It really helped us. It gave us credibility at a time when I was brand new. I’d never run for office. It gave us the resources.”

Budd did not join the House Freedom Caucus after his election, but he said he is “very similar to them on many issues.”

Meadows’ preferred candidate, however, did not always win. The House Freedom Fund donated more than $163,000 to Mary Thomas, a candidate in the Florida panhandle. Thomas lost to Neal Dunn by about 1,700 votes in a three-way primary.

“That one was just a very difficult one. Our leadership got involved for the other candidate,” Meadows said.

Michael Steel, a former Boehner aide and Republican strategist, said there is nothing wrong with different factions of the party competing in the primaries, but it could pull resources from swing districts or districts where Republicans have a chance to add a new seat.

“The right and democratic way to select a candidate is to have difference aired and voted on in primaries,” Steel said. “What I get very nervous about is groups that tell voters that failure to achieve conservative goals in the past is due to a lack of fortitude and not a lack of votes.”

Meadows said he will not compete against incumbents, but that doesn’t mean he won’t criticize sitting Republicans. During a speech at the Values Voter Summit, sponsored by the Family Research Council, Meadows railed against incumbent members of Congress.

“It is time that we drain the swamp. That includes every single member of the House and Senate. If they’re not willing to do what they promised on the campaign trail, it’s time to send them home,” Meadows said during the speech.

Meadows, who often shoots with his son, equated some members to defective shells.

“You can leave that in the chamber and pull the trigger again and again and again and see if it fires or you can eject it and put in another shell,” he said. “I would suggest we have some members that are duds that have been left in the chamber too longer, and it’s time that we eject them. ... Quit trying to make them perfect. Eject them. Start over with a fresh shell.”

Asked about the remarks later, Meadows did not back down.

“If the shoe fits, wear it,” he said. “To suggest that all members of the Republican conference represent their district in a manner that’s reflective of the makeup of their district would not be accurate.”

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; Twitter: @MurphinDC

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