Parties Seek Answers to Anti-Incumbent PAC’s Motives

by Jessica Taylor April 9, 2012 · 3:20 PM EDT

The Campaign for Primary Accountability (CPA), a super PAC that claims no partisan allegiance and has targeted long-time incumbents randomly, has political strategists on both sides of the aisle perplexed.

Can the CPA defeat incumbent members of Congress by swooping into contests at the last minute? Is it really a partisan group masquerading as a non-partisan force?

The group has played in a handful of primaries in ultimately safe seats so far, claiming credit for the upset of Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) and for freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger’s (R-Ill.) win over veteran Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.) in the state’s member-vs.-member primary.

And now, with Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s, R-Va., controversial donation to the group, allegedly earmarked specifically to boost Kinzinger, the group may see its finances scrutinized like never before. Both parties are actively trying to discern its motives by the consultants and media firms it's using, and the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee has already put firms working with CPA on its black list.

So far, the group’s win-loss record is still well below .500. In addition to the Illinois contest, the super PAC spent about $250,000 to attack Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) in her successful race against Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), hit Alabama Republicans Spencer Bachus and Jo Bonner, and backed former Rep. Debbie Halvorson’s ill-fated challenge to Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.). That brings the group’s record to two wins and four losses.

The group also claims credit for pushing Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton into retirement after they attacked him early on in direct mail. Of course Burton, who won renomination with less than 30 percent in 2010, was vulnerable well before CPA even came into existence.

The group argues that it shouldn’t be judged by its win-loss record but, instead, by whether or not it can force long-time incumbents to run competitive races. But if that was the goal, CPA should have targeted incumbents months in advance instead of swooping in to try and take credit for defeating a sleeping incumbent.

It’s not surprising that the group is trying to manage expectations since it’s difficult to see how a series of defeats could help the group’s reputation or add to its clout.

Two weeks ago, CPA rolled out a longer list of potential targets, including two dozen members with primaries over the next few months.

The toughest test for the Super PAC could come in California, and some strategists believe the group’s decisions there could reveal something about CPA’s motives.
Since the Golden State now has a new “jungle primary,” where all candidates appear on the ballot and the top two finishers regardless of party proceed to the November ballot, there won’t be an actual party primary on June 5.

With 14 incumbents on CPA’s “watch list” in the Golden State, it’s highly unlikely the group could influence the first primary enough to knock a sitting member off of the November ballot, with the possible exception of Rep. Gary Miller (R), who is running in an entirely new district and could barely be considered an incumbent in the new district.

CPA’s list includes at least two members in competitive races -- something the group had said that it would stay clear of. Republicans Dan Lungren and Brian Bilbray face very credible Democratic challengers, and if either one lost in the primary, his seat would be guaranteed to flip to the Democrats. If the Super PAC targets either Republican, it would immediately be branded by GOP strategists as a partisan group.

In two weeks, CPA is targeting two races in Pennsylvania -- a GOP primary against Tim Murphy and a Democratic race against Tim Holden. While the PAC has pledged to spend as much $200,000 on each race -- and it is already on the air bashing Holden -- both challengers appear to be taking their primary threats seriously. That due diligence improves the prospects of both incumbents.

Holden is on television against his wealthy challenger, attorney Matt Cartwright, who has spent significant personal funds on his challenge. Privately, Democrats still expect Holden to win, but Cartwright’s resources and the geography of the new district (which was moved significantly north, away from Holden’s current district), certainly add a dose of uncertainty to the fight for the Democratic nomination.

Holden, a Blue Dog, was used to campaigning in a GOP-leaning district, and now that he’s in a more Democratic district with vastly new territory for him, those could all add to a tightening campaign, or even an upset.

Cartwright’s campaign just released a Thirty-Ninth Street Strategies poll showing him with a six point lead, 42 percent to 36 percent, what they say is a 22-point swing since February toward the challenger. But the poll demonstrated Holden’s vulnerability before CPA’s ad started airing on Thursday.

Murphy’s campaign released a Public Opinion Strategies poll in late February showing him with a 62 point lead over former Capitol Hill aide Evan Feinberg, who is running to Murphy’s right and has received the support of his former bosses, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and has been endorsed by FreedomWorks. But without significant financial muscle from those groups, national Republicans don’t expect Feinberg to be able to close that gap.

The Campaign for Primary Accountability remains something of an enigma to political insiders, who doubt that the group’s willingness to spend a few hundred thousand dollars in ads or direct mail right before the primary is going to defeat incumbents unless there are substantial other factors, such as scandal or a dramatically redrawn district.

Voters remain dissatisfied with Congress, the status-quo and many politicians, and many incumbents could see their primary numbers slide at least a little. But there is still little evidence that a huge anti-incumbent wave will drown officeholders or that the Campaign for Primary Accountability will be successful in doing anything but getting attention and helping consultants pay their bills.