One of the unusual and successful sideline stories of the 2012 campaign was that of the Campaign for Primary Accountability. Now the super PAC that targets incumbents in both parties is picking its first targets for 2014.
The brainchild of Houston construction magnate Leo Linbeck, III, the multi-million dollar super PAC seemed to emerge from nowhere last year, spending roughly $1.5 million on “informational advertisements” in House primaries of both parties in which veteran incumbents were being challenged for re-nomination.
In quite a few cases, the incumbents went down at the hands of members of their own parties.
Among those targeted by the CPA that lost were Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio and Democratic Reps. Tim Holden of Pennsylvania, and Silvestre Reyes of Texas.
The super PAC also played a key role in the primary defeat of 10-term Rep. Don Manzullo by freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger when the two Illinois Republicans competed in the same district.
“If a primary challenger raised and spent at least $250,000, and we were there to match that amount, our record of winning was 100 percent,” CPA spokesman Curtis Ellis told me.
He noted that where CPA did get involved and their favored candidate lost to incumbents — Republican Reps. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania and Spencer Bachus of Alabama are cases in point — it was simply because “Mr. Outside” could not raise the $250,000 against “Mr. Inside.”
Even as some pundits dismiss the winning challengers as merely riding on the wave of anti-incumbent venom among voters, Linbeck and the CPA are gearing up for 2014 by compiling a list of targets.
Ellis singled out GOP Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and 11-term Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez as the PAC’s first targets for the next election cycle.
Although Smith is well-liked by conservatives for his skepticism about immigration reform packages, the congressman has been in office since 1987 and faces a primary challenge from San Antonio businessman Matt McCall. Gutierrez, a product of the Chicago Democratic machine, has faced intra-party challenges before and is likely to again.
“It is not simply that we want to defeat all incumbents, not at all,” Ellis said. “We look to districts where there is a longtime incumbent and research — polling and gathering data on the ground — shows that there is openness to an alternative within the incumbent’s party.”
Asked if the CPA had done its polling and research in the districts of Republican Smith and Democrat Gutierrez, he replied without hesitation: “Yes.”
A case can be made that CPA is careful about where it deploys its resources. Ellis noted that veteran Democratic Rep. Mike Honda faces a spirited primary challenge in his Northern California district from former Commerce Department official Ro Khanna. But Honda is a popular figure among Democrats, CPA’s research concluded. “So we won’t be involved in that one,” said Ellis.
The CPA will be adding more incumbents to its list of targets. Ellis said his group is expected to be involved in primary challenges to 22-term Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York and Republican Reps. Jo Bonner and Spencer Bachus (again), both of Alabama. In addition, he said, seven-term Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California could be a likely target.
Critics say that the group simply goes on a hunt for incumbents regardless of party or ideology, and simply likes to “bring home trophies” of incumbents with a vulnerable streak who sought re-election.
Perhaps. But few can argue that the CPA did indeed have an impact in helping to defeat incumbents whose losses were on the screens of few political prognosticators anywhere.
“But it takes a good challenger for us to do our job,” said Ellis. “Just call us the
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