Super PAC targets incumbents of any stripe

June 18, 2012

Until three weeks ago, Leo Linbeck III had never voted in a primary election. “I’m the perfect example of a clueless buffoon,” he said.

The 49-year-old construction company magnate winced when he opened his ballot and discovered the one thing that drives him batty: His congressman, four-term Rep. Ted Poe (R), was unopposed and all-but-guaranteed a fifth term in the reliably Republican district that wraps in and around Houston.

“Why should that be? We only have one guy who can represent our district? I have seven choices for U.S. Senate but only one for the House? Really? It brought home just how broken the system is,” Linbeck said.

After barely paying attention to politics most his life, Linbeck is a major force behind this year’s most outside-the-box super PAC, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, and funneled at least $1.3 million of his money into the endeavor. While most PACs aim to boost the chances of a favored candidate or to bring down an ideological opponent, the super PAC has a decidedly different goal: to oust incumbents. Of both parties. And why not?

So far, the super PAC created by the full-time businessman, part-time academic and father of five — including three adopted children — has helped defeat two veteran Republicans and two long-time Democrats, knocking out almost 65 years of combined House experience. Next up is the biggest target yet: Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), the 41-year veteran who is facing a stiff primary challenge June 26.

Not surprisingly, the super PAC has drawn bipartisan blasts of its own. Rangel, for example, has called it a “right-wing tea party super PAC.” A Republican tagged it as “another liberal super PAC” that supports “ultra liberals” such as Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio). Some whispered that the super PAC’s funders are anti-Catholic.

Linbeck — a devout Catholic who attended Notre Dame, just as his father did and just as his son Leo IV will do in the fall — chuckles at how little people know about him. He’s conservative, but he says he’s never spent more than 10 minutes inside any organized Republican Party activity. Previous political donations, almost all to Republicans, were given out of loyalty to friends raising money for candidates he’d never met.

What has fueled Linbeck is his exasperation with a political system that he says keeps backing veteran lawmakers responsible for Washington’s fiscal and bureaucratic woes. Exhibit A: In 2010, although Congress’s approval ratings hovered in the low teens, all but four of the roughly 400 House incumbents who sought their party’s nomination got the nod — about the same 99 percent re-nomination rate as always.

Against entrenchment

A self-described “conservative communitarian,” Linbeck says the nation has drifted too far from its Jeffersonian democratic roots. Who’s to blame for this political entrenchment? According to Linbeck, politicians and operatives of all stripes who have grown too comfortable and too influential in Washington. “Do you really think that Karl Rove or John Podesta or Bill Burton or Ed Gillespie, do you really think those guys want decisions to be made anywhere else than Washington?” he asks.

Sitting atop a 12-story office building, the offices of Linbeck’s corporation, Aquinas, offer 360-degree views of Houston and a vast expanse of southeastern Texas. Inside his spartan personal office, Linbeck has drawn intersecting lines that form an axis on a large white board. There’s the horizontal left vs. right, Democrat vs. Republican paradigm, then the vertical centrist vs. communitarian paradigm. In his world view, both Rove and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) — ideological opposites — sit atop the vertical axis.

Yet Linbeck rejects the tea-party-infused ethos that any citizen could make a better congressman than the officeholder. Linbeck’s model lawmaker is a state legislator or city councilman or a successful businessman with real skills, real-world experience and no intention of setting down roots in Washington. “Congress is not an entry-level position for leadership,” he said. “It’s a serious job.”

But electing — or reelecting — an enlightened lawmaker here or there won’t make much of a difference, Linbeck says. “What you really have to do is disrupt that whole system, and you have to break these cycles of incumbency.”

This view befuddles many long-time Washingtonians, particularly incumbents who say experience and seniority make them more effective lawmakers.

“Because they don’t really seem to have any logical goals and their attacks are indiscriminate, I almost have to believe it’s an ego trip,” said Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), a 10-term congressman and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee who survived more than $200,000 worth of super PAC attacks to win his March primary. “This is really tearing apart the structure of this body. It’s a bullying tactic, and it attacks experienced legislators indiscriminately.”

Precisely what Linbeck had in mind.

‘Hit by a ton of bricks’

Linbeck’s road-to-Damascus moment came five years ago, when he attended a speech by Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve and a former Clinton administration official. Fisher explained the federal government’s long-term unfunded liabilities for Medicare, putting the figure at $84 trillion. “It was just like getting hit by a ton of bricks, because I wasn’t paying attention,” Linbeck recalled.

Soon, he found kindred souls, mostly conservatives who could be considered former Republicans let down by the George W. Bush White House and its profligate spending. People such as Tim Dunn, an oil man from Midland, Tex.; Joe Ricketts, the former Ameritrade chief executive and owner of the Chicago Cubs whose $10 million campaign against President Obama drew recent attention; Eric O’Keefe, a self-described “recovering libertarian radical” who led a term-limits movement in the 1990s. The group recently added a key ally in the form of Jerome Armstrong — a member of the liberal vanguard of net-roots bloggers from the past decade. Linbeck hopes Armstrong can offer advice on targeting Democratic incumbents and give the super PAC the bona fides to raise money from wealthy liberals.

By late last year, the group had pooled $2 million, with Linbeck providing nearly half the start-up funds. Legally forbidden from coordinating with candidates, the super PAC has a lean operation with no full-time staff members — although the principals sometimes convene in Linbeck’s office building, they more often are thousands of miles apart, brainstorming with consultants across the nation.

Through May, the super PAC had spent $2.7 million, peanuts compared with super PACs working in presidential campaigns. Yet it has hit on a formula that seems to have had an impact, especially in low-turnout House primaries. If the challenger can spend at least $250,000, the super PAC comes in with an equal amount to make the race competitive. That’s what happened in late May in El Paso. Former city councilman Robert “Beto” O’Rourke spent roughly $250,000 in the final seven weeks of the Democratic primary; the super PAC spent $240,000 helping O’Rourke defeat eight-term Rep. Silvestre Reyes, despite the incumbent’s war chest.

There was a time when a heavy turnover of lawmakers was relatively commonplace. From 1932 to 1950, six elections produced classes of more than 100 House freshmen. Since then, that level of churn has occurred only once.

“We’re there to facilitate people firing their long-term, entrenched incumbent. We’re the catalyst,” he said. “But once people have figured this out, how much help will they need from us? If they need our help, we’ll be there.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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