Five years ago, a loose constellation of conservative groups upended Republican politics and sometimes appeared to call the shots for the GOP in Congress.
Now, those disrupter groups have been sidelined by the greatest disruption in American politics: President Trump. Republicans rarely talk about these outside groups, who have abandoned their past practice of challenging GOP incumbents in primaries. Almost no one pays attention to the conservative voting scorecards that proliferated a few years back.
“All of them are less powerful because we have the president, and that would have been true with any president, but it’s really President Trump that drives these sorts of things now,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a 15-year veteran who regularly supports leadership.
The president either “validates you or undermines you,” and conservative voters know which side their congressman is on, Cole said. “What most members care about is, what’s my scorecard with the president of the United States?”
The groups acknowledge that times are different, but they contend that the Trump administration is filled with allies who hear them out. “The combativeness is on the wane and the influence has gone up,” said Andy Roth, vice president of government affairs for the Club for Growth, a political shop backed by fiscal libertarians.
The groups decided to be “a little less public” with how they handle internal debates, particularly during consideration of the tax-cut package, according to Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action for America. “We talked it through in the background. You can get a lot done that way.”
It’s a remarkable turnabout from earlier this decade, when they conducted nonstop public feuds with John A. Boehner, then the House speaker, and Eric I. Cantor, then majority leader. The leaders’ fortunes seemed to rise or fall based on whether the outsiders called for a yea or nay on big legislation.
Their currency was based on stoking fear. Heritage Action, a rapid-response offshoot of the wonky Heritage Foundation, kept a running scorecard of voting records that was almost like a daily tracking poll.
Groups like Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, which was founded by former senator Jim DeMint, weaponized these rating systems through well-financed campaigns in GOP districts, particularly those from reliably conservative ones where there was little chance of losing the seat in a general election.
Incumbents who had grown happy and content suddenly found themselves facing the threat of a financially flush opponent in the primary. Some of Boehner’s most reliable votes disappeared, as rank-and-file Republicans abandoned the speaker on several attempts at a fiscal grand bargain with President Barack Obama in 2011 and 2012.
In early 2013, feeling its political oats, the Club posted a target list of 10 incumbents that its leaders wanted to take out in Republican primaries in 2014 and vowed to expand the list. “We like candidates who put their conservatism ahead of their party affiliation,” Roth said.
That fall the outside groups effectively overruled a Boehner-Cantor strategy and called the play that led to a 16-day shutdown of the federal government.
It was a political disaster, with public approval for the Republican Party hitting all-time lows, and it sowed the seeds for a much more intense political civil war in which the establishment GOP fought back. No one on the Club’s 2014 hit list lost in a primary, and Senate Republicans went five years without losing an incumbent in a primary.
Establishment Republicans say the groups faced a donor revolt after losses in general elections from far-right candidates.
“Third parties have been burned by bad candidates that they got behind in primaries who they spent great resources on, who went on to flame out in significant manner in the general election,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — whose 2016 presidential campaign essentially ran on the establishment line — hired Michael Needham, the longtime chief executive of Heritage Action.
Some speculated it signaled that Rubio was looking for conservative inroads for another presidential run, but other GOP strategists privately suggested the move said more about Heritage Action: Needham can have more influence with Rubio than with the faltering think tank.
Moreover, scan the endorsement list on the websites of Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund and one will find plenty of candidates they are backing. What won’t one find? A single conservative challenger to a Republican incumbent in the House or Senate.
Call it the Trump effect. The vast majority of congressional Republicans have supported his agenda and that is what primary voters care about.
Cole conducted a poll in his district and found Trump at 93 percent approval. “I’m not interested in arguing with a guy that has 93 percent of the voters that elect me,” he said.
That’s put the brakes on the well-financed campaigns of the past. “There is not much of an appetite among GOP voters to get rid of their congressman,” Roth conceded.
To be sure, some Republicans still face modestly difficult primary challengers, but these upstarts do not have the financial backing they would have had four years ago.
The groups point to their alumni in administration posts to demonstrate their continued clout. Russ Vought, the former vice president of Heritage Action, is now the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, where he reports to Mick Mulvaney, who was a staunch Heritage ally when he served in Congress.
With a Republican in the Oval Office, the far-right conservatives have a sense of optimism that some of their policy dreams can make it into law. The passage of the tax-cut plan marked a high-water moment of coordination between congressional GOP leaders and the conservative agitators.
But then came March’s budget-busting $1.3 trillion spending bill, which easily passed with Republican majorities in the House and Senate. Needham accused Republicans of paying “lip service” to the federal debt and engaging in “profligate spending” with full control of Washington.
Once Trump gave his reluctant blessing to the legislation, there was no political check against Republicans the way there used to be.
Rubio — Needham’s new boss — happily voted yes.