One year ago, the Senate Conservatives Fund, a conservative-aligned outside group, seemed poised to be a significant force in Washington. Working with Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), it pushed hard against funding Obamacare, a fight which contributed to the government shutdown. It promised to back viable conservative candidates to take out Senate incumbents -- and, then, to back House candidates as well. Politico blamed it for "roiling the GOP" shortly before the shutdown; to restore ties damaged by his advocacy of a shutdown, Cruz reportedly had to agree not to support the SCF moving forward.
A year later, the impression one gets of the group is significantly different. Founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, it appointed former Virginia attorney general (and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate) Ken Cuccinelli as its president in June. By then, its record in the primaries was mixed. By now, it's worse.
SCF lost four of the six Senate races where it endorsed a candidate, and lost four of seven settled matches in the House. In only one race, Ben Sasse's Senate bid in Nebraska, did the group invest disproportionately and come away with a win -- and even then, the upswell of support that helped Sasse cruise to a 27-point victory means that the SCF's role was diluted, at best. The priorities mentioned in the announcement of Cuccinelli's hiring say a lot: "SCF has already spent over $6.5 million supporting candidates in 2014 elections and helped nominate Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Joni Ernst (R-IA). SCF also helped Chris McDaniel (R-MS) surge into a run-off and is working to nominate T.W. Shannon (R-OK), Dr. Milton Wolf (R-KS), and Col. Rob Maness (R-LA)." The first two candidates mentioned -- Sasse and Ernst -- won their primaries by massive, no-one-group-can-take-credit margins. The other four all lost or, in the case of Maness, are almost certainly going to lose. (He trails in his race by 34.)
Here's how the SCF fared this year, ranked by how much money it invested.
|Candidate||Seat||Result||Margin (% points)||Spending|
|Ben Sasse||Senate (NE)||Win||27||$763,763|
|Matt Bevin||Senate (KY)||Loss||-24.8||$480,370|
|T. W. Shannon||Senate (OK)||Loss||-13||$359,864|
|Rob Maness||Senate (LA)||$323,909|
|Chris McDaniel||Senate (MS)||Loss||-1.8||$274,735|
|Joni Ernst||Senate (IA)||Win||38||$183,762|
|Milton Wolf||Senate (KS)||Loss||-7.3||$118,241|
|Tom Cotton||Senate (AR)||$103,339|
|Alex Mooney||House (WV)||Win||13.7||$66,050|
|Matt Schultz||House (IA)||Loss||-4.9||$53,468|
|John Ratcliffe||House (TX)||Win||5.6||$38,773|
|Barry Loudermilk||House (GA)||Win||32.2||$14,667|
|Bryan Smith||House (ID)||Loss||-23.2||$14,377|
|Chad Mathis||House (AL)||Loss||-17.4||$14,078|
|Jim Bridenstine||House (OK)||$4,649|
|Bob Johnson||House (GA)||Loss||-7.6||$546|
|Dave Brat*||House (VA)||$0|
* Endorsed after the primary.
Of the five races where it spent the most, the SCF lost or is losing four of them. It spent $1.07 million on races it won -- or $303,000, minus Sasse. It spent $1.3 million on races it lost. It lost some surprises, too. Cruz did an ad for Oklahoma's T.W. Shannon, hoping to leverage the senator's popularity into victory. It didn't work. Shannon got creamed by Rep. James Lankford.
The one race that was close enough that an outside group could make a significant impact was Chris McDaniel's in Mississippi. The SCF helped him "surge into a run-off" by getting him 0.5 percent more of the vote than incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran. McDaniel lost the run-off by 1.8 points. Nor was the group successful in taking out other incumbents. Its big Senate wins were Sasse and Ernst, each of whom was running for an open seat.
A spokeswoman for SCF offered her assessment. "Our members know that our candidates are underdogs," she said. "The establishment has a lot more money and is willing to smear conservatives candidates with false attacks. But they still want us to keep fighting because otherwise we wouldn't have people like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul in the Senate today." Winning elections is hard -- and it's rare when outside groups do spectacularly well with their endorsements (though the embodiment of the Republican establishment, the Chamber of Commerce, has a strong record this year). For the Senate Conservatives Fund, though, their heft in 2013 was built on the threat of their very large electoral stick. This year, that threat evaporated.
This post was updated with comment from SCF.