House Republicans already struggling to protect their historic majority this fall are confronting a multimillion-dollar shortfall in their campaign budget — driven partly by Freedom Caucus members and other hard-line conservatives who are boycotting the GOP’s campaign arm.
A bloc of conservatives is refusing to transfer cash to the National Republican Congressional Committee, convinced the committee is favoring moderate candidates over hard-line conservatives. Dozens of other Republican lawmakers also haven’t paid their expected party “dues,” including several in tough primaries or general election races who figure they need the money for themselves.
Several GOP sources told Politico that 3 in 10 members of the House Republican Conference are delinquent on their dues. And multiple senior Republicans said the shortfall exceeds $10 million.
“There’s a group of us who associate the NRCC with the establishment wing of the party,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who added that he has a “principled objection to paying dues to the NRCC.” The Freedom Caucus member noted that a former top NRCC staffer helped outside groups unseat his friend, Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, in a Republican primary last month, and said the committee is partly to blame. (The NRCC doesn’t spend money in Republican primaries and says it has no control over outside groups.)
Mulvaney also says he’s still upset by ads aired against him in early 2015 by American Action Network, a 501(c)(4) allied with then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The spots implored Mulvaney and other conservatives to end their blockade of a spending bill backed by leadership.
After that, several other Freedom Caucus members stopped paying dues.
“There’s a group that’s still smarting from the fact some of our own went after us, and we’ll be damned if we’re going to put money back in their hands,” Mulvaney said.
The dispute, which one chief of staff for a House Republican called a “brewing war,” is another sign that the schism between the activist and establishment wings of the House GOP Conference has spread to the campaign trail. Over the summer, conservative- and establishment-aligned outside groups poured millions into primary showdowns between far-right and center-right candidates.
Now it’s continuing in the general election, as Republicans are struggling to head off double-digit seat losses with Donald Trump leading their ticket. The refusal by conservatives to pay has enraged some House Republicans, who say the NRCC and leadership have no control over outside groups. They also note that the NRCC helped many of the nonpaying members get elected in the first place.
“Politics is a team game and outside of the HFC, almost every member of the Republican Conference is busting his or her ass to raise money and get Republicans elected,” said one senior Republican. “The HFC has chosen not to raise money or help get other Republicans elected, but for some reason they think they should control what the NRCC does or how it spends its money? That’s nuts.”
While the NRCC has about $2.5 million more cash on hand than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats outraised Republicans by more than $11 million combined in July and August.
A big chunk of the disparity is attributable to members not paying dues, several Republican sources said.
The NRCC would not comment on the dues figures provided to Politico. It downplayed the conservative boycott, saying in a statement that “we are always very grateful to our Conference for their commitment to ensuring we maintain and grow our historic Republican House majority.”
But the problem appears to be serious enough that GOP leaders have pleaded with members several times in recent weeks to pony up. On a conference call with dozens of members the last week of August, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and NRCC Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) urged lawmakers to donate. Walden said Republicans were getting outraised by Democrats in both big and small donations, and Ryan said he was disappointed in members who hadn’t paid their dues, encouraging them to work as a team.
And at a closed-door GOP conference meeting last week, Ryan and his top lieutenants told members they need to meet their assessments to close the fundraising gap with the Democrats. A PowerPoint presentation highlighted members who were current on dues and those who hadn’t paid, according to sources in the room.
Multiple lawmakers and staffers also told Politico the NRCC is cracking down on members who haven’t paid, even barring some from accessing committee resources or attending events until they do pay. One mid-August NRCC email to Republican chiefs of staff invited them to a reception on a rooftop terrace in downtown Washington, but only for “chiefs of members who have completed their assessments.”
The same goes with lawmakers: Country band Big & Rich headlined NRCC’s second annual “house party” last week at The Hamilton restaurant in D.C. But emails inviting lawmakers in early September noted that “only members who are paid in full” on their dues can attend. Dues are based on ability to pay, factoring in a member’s committee assignments and seniority.
Getting politicians to fork over their hard-raised cash is a recurring problem for the NRCC and DCCC. But the shortfall this year is especially pressing for Republicans — and increasingly appears to be based on ideological rivalries.
A former NRCC staffer defended the committee, saying “many in the House Freedom Caucus would not be there if not for the NRCC.” The committee spent $1 million help elect Mulvaney in 2010, the person said, among other caucus members who’ve benefited from the committee’s largesse.
At the crux of the conservatives’ boycott is a belief the NRCC is now supporting moderates who back the party’s leadership against conservatives who push the party further to the right.
“When those folks are going against us … would I support that with my money? No,” said Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a Freedom Caucus member who upset Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary two years ago.
Some conservatives, including Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), have instead decided to transfer money to right-leaning candidates they personally support. If those contenders win the GOP primary, it could mean more influence for conservatives.
Conservatives also suspect that leadership and the NRCC are behind outside establishment-aligned groups targeting the far right of the conference. When asked about NRCC dues, Brat said it’s “illogical for me to fund ads against myself” — though the NRCC does not directly play in primaries.
GOP leaders have told conservatives countless times they’re not trying to undercut them in campaigns, arguing they have no control over groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that might decide to target a conservative in a primary. Allies of leadership and the NRCC also note that one of the Freedom Caucus’ strongest outside allies, the conservative Club for Growth, has actively gone after sitting lawmakers, including Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.).
Others Republicans have been slow to contribute because they’re afraid for themselves. Several lawmakers or top staffers for lawmakers who’ve faced tough primaries said the NRCC doesn’t help them when they’re challenged by fellow Republicans.
“They want you to give a lot of money, but it weakens you in defending yourself in the primary, and for us, the primary is where we live and die now,” said the chief of staff for one member who no longer pays his dues.
In the meantime, top House Republicans are donating millions above their dues assessments to compensate for the shortfall. An altar call during last Tuesday’s GOP conference meeting, for example, brought more than $3 million, including $1.5 million from Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, $500,000 from House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas, $250,000 from Budget Chairman Tom Price of Georgia and $200,000 from Walden, sources in the room say.
Leaders were hoping to inspire more transfers. It’s unclear so far whether they’ve succeeded.