The ‘Hell No’ caucus and primary cash

Politico looks at the incentives facing Rep. Tom Cotton and his new colleagues

Earlier this week, Politico’s John VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote a smart story about what they described as the “Hell No” caucus—the group of hardline conservatives in Congress willing to defy Republican leadership rather than compromise with Barack Obama on taxes and spending.

The piece examined both the ideology of the group and the way that many of its members get elected to Congress. Here what’s they wrote about the ascent of freshman GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, newly elected to represent Arkansas’ 4th district:

But he was virtually invisible until he won an audience with the Club for Growth. The Club has pioneered a technique that has helped make Congress an even more polarized mess. Instead of wasting time on high-profile races, the group intervenes in contested Republican primaries, often putting its money on the most conservative of a conservative bunch, like Cotton.

Politico’s article illustrates a point that emerged in a story I wrote last week about the money behind the 26 House Republicans who expressed public opposition to Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B” proposal in fiscal cliff talks in the waning days of the last Congress. My piece looked at the campaign contributions received by these representatives, and found that when they found themselves in competitive races—either in the primary or the general election—their biggest contributors tended to be extremely conservative outside spending groups rather than traditional donors.

Politico considers the role this outside spending plays in Boehner’s well-documented struggles to control his caucus, and its implications for the chances of future compromise in the House:

Republican leaders generally sit out primaries, so the Club’s aggressive, free-spending intervention has helped create a new generation of lawmakers who owe their success more to the Club than to Boehner and the GOP establishment.

Add this to the list of reasons Boehner often seems impotent these days.

So when it comes to Plan Bs, or tax-hike compromises, or the upcoming debt limit fight, lawmakers like Cotton have little incentive to take one for the Boehner team. So they don’t—and won’t.

Interestingly, the Club for Growth—the outside spending group highlighted in the Politico story—in fact barely contributed to the 26 Republicans who blew up Boehner’s fiscal cliff strategy in the previous Congress. Aside from a small contribution the Club made to Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, the hardliners in the last Congress got much more support from other conservative outside spending groups such as FreedomWorks, Americans for Tax Reform, and the Now or Never PAC.

Even in districts where they didn’t spend money, conservative spending groups still may have managed to influence House Republicans, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute argued in our story last week. He said that Congress members in conservative districts were now much more fearful of a well-funded primary challenge from the right than from losing a general election.

“As much as anything, it’s the threat of money spent against rather than money spent for,” Ornstein said. “You live by the ideological sword, you can die by it.”

Follow the author on Twitter @SashaChavkin. For more content like this, follow @USProjectCJR.

Related post:

The money behind the fiscal cliff hardliners

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Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin. Tags: