One super PAC takes aim at incumbents of any party

March 7, 2012

In two Ohio congressional primaries Tuesday, a Texas-based group spent almost $190,000 supporting a pair of candidates who could not be more different: a tea party conservative and a liberal icon, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio).

The group’s enemy is incumbency — of any ideological stripe, anywhere in the country. The Campaign for Primary Accountability, founded by the son of a Houston construction magnate, is targeting longtime incumbents in House districts that are otherwise safe for their party. Group leaders say these long-term lawmakers who face scant competition have created a “permanent political class” that has poisoned politics.

The organization is one of a new class of super PACs able to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money that aims to alter the balance of congressional races, much as similar groups have done in the Republican presidential race. There are Democratic super PACs devoted to holding the party’s majority in the Senate and retaking the House and Republican ones with designs on just the opposite.

But no super PAC has sought to tap into the public outrage toward Congress quite the way that the Campaign for Primary Accountability has.

“We’re trying to make the electoral system competitive, so that Congress will become more accountable to the voters,” Leo Linbeck III, the founder of the new super PAC, said in an e-mail interview. “It’s not about policy, it’s about governance. We’re not interested in shifting power between Republicans and Democrats. We’re interested in shifting power between Congress and the people.”

The group was one for two on Tuesday night. Republican Brad Wenstrup — a veteran of the Iraq war who had never held office — scored a surprise victory over Rep. Jean Schmidt (R) with the group’s help. But Kucinich lost in a redrawn northern Ohio district to Rep. Marcy Kaptur, another Democratic incumbent.

Group leaders said they will target numerous incumbents — and they appear to have the power to do it. At the end of January, the super PAC had collected nearly $1.9 million, according to reports with the Federal Election Commission, and $1.6 million of that came from just four mega-donors who wrote six-figure checks. Linbeck, who works for his father’s company and has others of his own, has given at least $775,000.

While those amounts pale in comparison to the tens of millions flowing into presidential super PACs, House primaries are small-scale affairs and a modest ad campaign can be pivotal, especially one that comes just before Election Day.

“We’re there to equalize, to make these races competitive,” Curtis Ellis, spokesman for the Campaign for Primary Accountability, said Wednesday in an interview.

The next target for the new super PAC is Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), chairman of the Financial Services Committee, who is under an ethics investigation for stock trades he made during the 2008 financial crisis.

Linbeck’s super PAC has already spent $53,000 on TV ads and phone calls to Republican voters in Bachus’s Birmingham-based district — and more is on the way before Tuesday’s primary, in which a little-known state legislator is challenging the 10-term Republican. One ad calls Bachus “a debt-raising, status-quo politician” who is now under investigation.

Bachus said his internal polling has shown that the ethics probe is not hurting him, but he has one potential problem: his incumbency. “By far,” he told reporters, “the biggest negative is: He’s in Congress.”

He accused the super PAC of “not doing their research” against him and reiterated that his stock trades were legal and ethical, citing the work of a former Securities and Exchange commissioner who reviewed the material.

Even if Bachus loses next week, Republicans are not likely to give up his seat. The district leans so heavily Republican that Bachus won in 2010 with 98 percent of the vote.

The largest beneficiary of the new super PAC has been Kucinich, who publicly distanced himself from ads that accused his opponent, 15-term Kaptur, of owning a “fancy condo” in Washington’s suburbs worth nearly $500,000.

Ellis said there were no ethical issues that led the group to back Kucinich. Rather, it was the antiwar liberal’s fierce independence from his party’s leadership that held appeal.

“No one was ever more independent, no one has ever accused Dennis Kucinich of being beholden to party leadership,” Ellis said.

In Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District, just 86,000 Republicans cast ballots in the primary for Schmidt, who was expected to coast to victory. Less than three weeks before the primary, Wenstrup had just $100,000 in his campaign account.

The Campaign for Primary Accountability stepped in and spent $49,000 on radio and Internet ads, as well as phone calls to voters in the final week of the campaign. Wenstrup won by six percentage points.

Ellis used to work for former Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), a liberal lawmaker who lost reelection in 2010. He said the group employs about a dozen workers at an office in Houston, where they’re mapping out a target list.

Most of the donors have Republican leanings. Linbeck’s previous few donations included $2,000 for George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign.

J. Joe Ricketts, the founder of Ameritrade whose family purchased the Chicago Cubs, gave the group $500,000, its second-largest donation. The most political member of the group is Eric O’Keefe, who helped found U.S. Term Limits in the early 1990s. Having decided his pet cause will never become law, O’Keefe is seeking to limit terms through the ballot box, through a $100,000 donation.

Records show they have spent money in five races, three of which are for seats held by Republicans. The group was ready to spend heavily against Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) until he announced he would retire, and Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) is also on the group’s list.

“Elections should be a transmission belt between the voters in a district and their representative,” Linbeck said. “If the belt is broken, if the incumbents are not representative of, and accountable to, the people of the district, we try to step in and fix it. It’s really that simple.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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