WASHINGTON — A super PAC deal reached just as negotiations seemed at a stalemate. Floor speeches turned immediately into fund-raising appeals. A meeting in the offices of a web of conservative groups that bring in millions of dollars.
The competing money interests surrounding Representative Kevin McCarthy’s weeklong quest for the speaker’s gavel this month didn’t capture the public eye like the made-for-TV drama unfolding on the House floor over 15 rounds of voting. But this behind-the-scenes activity was perhaps more revealing about the nature of today’s politics.
Money is a regular part of leadership battles, where fund-raising prowess is practically a job requirement, and there have long been debates about whether dedicated congressional campaign committees should spend to protect incumbent lawmakers from upstart challengers. But the deals cut during the speaker’s votes involved entities that legally are supposed to be separate from specific candidates and parties.
The starkest illustration of that came in the evening of the second day of voting, after the sixth round failed to secure McCarthy the speakership. Republican leadership was scrambling just to get enough support among their membership to even adjourn for the day. As all signs pointed to an intractable stalemate, news began to break of a deal. It was not struck among McCarthy and his detractors inside the Capitol, but rather by two super PACs outside of it.
They are the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is unaffiliated with -- though proudly “endorsed” by -- House GOP leadership, and a PAC related to Club for Growth, which advocates for small government and staunch conservative policies. In a press release full of contortions to make it seem to relate to the speaker’s race while legally keeping it at arm’s length, they announced they had reached a deal on Republican primaries: CLF would not get involved in GOP primaries for an open but safe Republican seat, which conservative holdouts and their ally, Club for Growth, had been pushing for.
The title of the press release: “CLF & Club for Growth come to key agreement in support of Kevin McCarthy for speaker.” At the bottom were two disclaimers: “Congressional Leadership Fund is an independent 527 super PAC, not controlled by any federal officeholder. Kevin McCarthy has endorsed CLF. No one in Congress or their staff has directed or suggested CLF take any action here.”
Club for Growth had previously urged a vote against McCarthy, but backed him after the deal, pending rules negotiations with the conservative faction.
The next day, negotiations over concessions among the anti-McCarthy faction, centrists, and leadership showed signs of progress. The following morning, the first cracks in the dam emerged as more than one dozen of the holdouts switched to vote for McCarthy, giving him and his allies momentum that allowed them to persuade the remaining dissenters to vote “present,” securing his election late that night.
Many of those who switched their votes insisted the deal between the two super PACs was not relevant to their negotiations, citing the procedural changes in the House they were fighting for. But, they did acknowledge it was welcome.
“That wasn’t really a consideration for me,” said Florida Representative Byron Donalds. “I was happy to see it because there’s been a concern of members, but honestly, it wasn’t a part of my calculation.”
“We heard about it the last minute, but Club for Growth is a great organization,” added South Carolina Representative Ralph Norman. “I trust the judgment that they have.”
“That was obviously out there in the news,” said Texas Representative Chip Roy, a leader of the negotiations with McCarthy. “It really didn’t impact anything … other than, obviously, there was some concern that we had made mention of over a month ago.”
“It’s a positive step,” said Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, who was one of the votes that ultimately switched only to present. “I don’t think it’s dispositive.”
The simultaneous downplaying and supporting the deal spoke to a fact that has lately become blurred in Washington: By law, independent super PACs are not supposed to coordinate with candidates for office.
“It’s kind of hard to have that conversation in the context of our official duties,” Roy acknowledged. “But it’s obviously part of the whole reality of everything.”
Adav Noti, an executive with the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, said it speaks to how open the flouting of the spirit of campaign finance law has become.
“If you have to say in your press release that, ‘P.S., we didn’t break the law in doing this,’ I mean, it indicates pretty strongly that something is wrong with the entire idea,” Noti said.
In fact, while some wryly noted the irony of rhetoric of “draining the swamp” being tossed around on the House floor as groups that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns cut side deals, it’s become common for super PACs to be viewed as belonging to party leadership, despite supposedly being independent.
“It lays bare the lie that these super PACs that we got in the wake of ‘Citizens United’ and ‘SpeechNow’ [Supreme Court decisions] are these independent groups,” said Robert Maguire, research director for the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The entities that should enforce campaign law, such as the Federal Election Commission or Congress itself, “are either asleep at the switch or too deathly afraid of touching the issue,” Maguire added.
And while that super PAC deal was the most public example, it wasn’t the only way moneyed interests factored into the race.
One of the lawmakers who voted against McCarthy, Tennessee Representative Andy Ogles, told his local news station WKRN that he approached McCarthy for an intense conversation on the House floor because he “received a text the night before where I had been threatened by a very wealthy donor ... someone I’d never met” for his opposition to McCarthy. Ogles said McCarthy was “apologetic” and said he had nothing to do with the texts.
Many of McCarthy’s detractors are aligned with a network of conservative tax-exempt groups under the umbrella of the Conservative Partnership Institute, run in large part by former members of Congress Jim DeMint and Mark Meadows. The advocacy and training organization, which pulls in millions of dollars that it shares with its network of hardline conservative groups, served as host to at least one meeting of the anti-McCarthy faction, according to a Yahoo News reporter who witnessed members going into the meeting. Roy name-checked one of those groups, the Center for Renewing America, as “critically important” to their effort through the support of its president, Russ Vought, in an interview with RealClearPolitics.
The group advertises itself as a counter to the “D.C. Swamp” where “special interests” rule lawmakers, by providing resources to conservatives who go against the “establishment.” According to its tax documents posted by the money-in-politics outlet Sludge, the Conservative Partnership Institute pulled in $45 million in contributions and grants in 2021.
Gaetz brought that line of criticism directly to the House floor, where he attacked McCarthy for “selling shares” of himself to lobbyists and being in the pocket of special interests, which provoked the rare sight of Democrats applauding for him while some Republicans walked out in disgust.
The Florida Republican then turned that same language into a fund-raising appeal, telling supporters the only way to stand up to those interests is by donating to candidates such as Gaetz who don’t take PAC money.
Maguire criticized that type of fund-raising as well, arguing that social media and stars of the far-right conservative world such as Gaetz are able to counteract big money interests by keeping their supporters angry with messages such as election denialism.
“It ends up being just as poisonous but in a different way, because they end up spreading election lies, other kinds of lies, to make people as angry as possible,” Maguire said.
In the end, McCarthy was victorious, and his detractors declared victory in their extracted concessions, such as more power to influence legislation, promised hardline spending cuts, and the ability for any one member to call for a vote of confidence in the speaker at any time.
McCarthy celebrated the win with his backers and staff, cheering and hugging in the marble-floored hallways of his Capitol offices.
There, smiling in the hall behind McCarthy in a photo captured by The Washington Post, was Dan Conston, president of the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC.
Tal Kopan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @talkopan.