Boehner reaches out to the tea party

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2010; A1

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner has long had a knack for raising campaign money from Wall Street firms and blue-chip corporations - and he typically spreads it among rank-and-file House Republicans to bolster loyalty.

But this year, Boehner has broadened his strategy as he tries to position himself as the next House speaker. He has transferred more than $320,000 of his business-funded war chest to 39 avowedly anti-establishment candidates who have been endorsed by elements of the tea party.

The donations to tea party hopefuls from Oregon to Alabama show more than the Republican Party's broad embrace of insurgents in a year when Democrats are on the defensive. Boehner's contributions - in some cases made before the tea party candidates became official GOP choices - also appear to reflect his pragmatic desire to promote connections with a new crop of impassioned conservatives, some of whom could hold the keys to a Republican takeover of the House.

It's a relatively new political tack for the former plastics and packaging salesman from Ohio, who has exceeded all other House members in collections from Wall Street - with more than $2.9 million - and also ranks at or near the top of members favored by large health insurers, oil firms, student lenders, drug manufacturers, and food and beverage companies, according to tallies of campaign disclosures.

Some of the tea party candidates who have won his financial backing have built their campaigns on disdain for special interests and their influence over elected officials in Washington. Although some could never hope to attract the kind of corporate-directed cash that Boehner routinely takes in, the transfers from his leadership PAC and personal campaign committee have accelerated their campaigns and given a stamp of approval to their candidacies.

Don Seymour, Boehner's campaign spokesman, said the congressman "is doing everything possible to support all of our Republican candidates - whether it's contributing directly to their campaigns, raising money for the party, or simply meeting with and listening to voters."

One tea-party-backed candidate to get Boehner's help is Steve Stivers, a former state legislator and lobbyist for Ohio's Bank One who has accused his Democratic opponent of supporting "taxpayer-funded bonuses given to failed Wall Street executives." Stivers's spokesman, John Damschroder, said he thinks the $14,000 was given - mostly before the state primary election - because "speaker-to-be Boehner knows how critical Ohio is to control of the House."

Boehner also has given $14,000 to Ohio candidate James Renacci, a former mayor, car dealer and nursing home operator who has attacked his Democratic opponent for having "lobbyist friends" and for attracting support from "special interests." Renacci spokesman James Slepian called the money "a vote of confidence" and a reflection of the importance that Boehner attaches to the race as a step toward Republican control of the House.

"I don't know the extent of John Boehner's relationships with lobbyists, but they certainly haven't been a factor in this race," Slepian said.

Another tea-party-backed candidate to receive help from the minority leader is Tim Burns, a former pharmaceutical software entrepreneur who is vying for the seat in Pennsylvania once held by the late John P. Murtha (D). Burns has campaigned hard against Washington and has publicly dismissed his opponent, who was a congressional district manager for Murtha, as a Washington insider.

Jake Parsons, Burns's spokesman, said the $19,000 Burns received from Boehner - some of it before the state primary - as well as money from other Republican leaders have "been critical to helping get Tim's message of 'fixing Washington' out."

South Carolina candidate Tim Scott, an insurance agent and conservative former state legislator who has promised that he would "bring common sense back to Washington," is one of 13 Republicans endorsed by the tea party group FreedomWorks to receive at least $20,000 from the leadership committees and personal campaign committees run by Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

Scott's campaign manager Joe McKeown said the contributions show that the Republican leadership is eager to get "true" conservatives elected, but declined to say whether they also meant Scott's views were aligned with those of Boehner and Cantor.

Florida candidate Allen West, a former Army officer and early tea party favorite who once criticized Republican lawmakers as "a lesser version of the liberals [on] big spending and corruption," has also taken $15,000 from the two House leaders, much of it before the state primary, as part of a more than $71,000 haul from at least 37 House Republicans.

His campaign manager, Josh Grodin, called that sum of little importance compared with the more than $5 million he has raised from individual donors, a record that shows he is "beholden to nobody - no special interests, no PACs."

Like Boehner, Cantor has invested at least $230,000 in tea party-backed candidacies. Boehner's total represents more than a third of all his donations to House Republicans this cycle.

Their financial outreach is noteworthy because they are two of 36 House members - just 8 percent - to score at least 93 percent on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's lifetime voting scorecard.

In contrast, heroes of the tea party movement, such as Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), are among the lowest-scoring Republicans in that ranking, and some tea party leaders have scorned any alliance with Wall Street or other monied interests.

Where the two branches of the Republican Party - insurgent and incumbent - appear to converge most clearly is on the issue of curbing the Obama administration's appetite for stronger business regulation. Last year, Boehner was aligned with the U.S. Chamber, for example, in opposing a House-approved consumer-protection bill, bankruptcy legislation, new safety regulations for chemical facilities and executive pay limits.

This year, he lined up with the health insurance industry to try to block President Obama's health-care legislation - which tea party candidates widely criticize - and deserted most of his Republican colleagues by voting in February to preserve an antitrust exemption for health insurers.

The vote came shortly after Boehner received $23,500 from four insurers at a Florida golfing fundraiser, adding to the more than $916,000 he has received from such firms since he entered Congress in 1991, according to a tally for The Washington Post by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

He also lined up with the financial services industry in trying to block Obama's regulatory reforms, appealing for lobbying help last December at a meeting with dozens of Wall Street representatives and subsequently requesting campaign donations from executives at J.P. Morgan Chase and other investment firms. Between last December and this past June, when Boehner and 172 other Republicans voted against the reform, his campaign and political action committees collected nearly $200,000 from Wall Street, according to the center's tally.

"Boehner is always upfront and straightforward about where he stands . . . and his commitment to creating new jobs and cutting spending is rooted in his belief in a smaller, less costly government," said Michael Steel, his spokesman.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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