The Defunding Way of Fundraising

By Kim Strassel

The defund ringleaders are raising money off fellow Republicans. That won’t expand the GOP’s appeal.

Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMin

Most things in Washington come down to money, another word for power. To understand the depths of the anger many good Washington conservatives are feeling for the ringleaders of the defund ObamaCare movement, follow the money.

That anger got attention this week, as news leaked that a private Senate Republican lunch erupted into tirades against Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Republicans demanded Mr. Cruz explain how the defund strategy he landed on them—which has led to shutdown—now leads to a GOP victory. He had no answer.

The more poignant moment came when Mr. Cruz was asked, according to Politico, to renounce attacks on GOP senators by a group that Mr. Cruz has fundraised for—the Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF). “I will not,” he responded. And of course he will not. Because what everyone has heretofore been too polite to say is that this defund exercise is (in part) the oldest of Washington stories—fundraising, and power.

The defund campaign is best viewed as just one (lucrative) moment in a larger power play by a handful of outside conservative groups. Thanks to campaign-finance laws and social media, the center of gravity has for some time been shifting away from party organizations and big donors.

This is by no means a bad thing; the more Americans engage in politics, the better. Yet what guys like former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (who is behind groups like Heritage Action and SCF) know is that there aren’t currently many dollars in attacking Democrats. There are, however, a lot of conservatives who are angry that Mitt Romney failed to win the presidency, that Republicans failed to win the Senate, and that (by extension) the GOP has failed to roll back any of President Obama’s liberal agenda. Groups like SCF have used this to their advantage—ginning up a militant defund strategy, beating up conservatives opposed to the tactic as sellouts, and cashing in on the grass-roots fury.

According to its three latest monthly disclosures to the Federal Election Commission, the SCF has raised $2.6 million—more money than it raised the previous six months combined. In August alone—the height of the defund hoopla—it raised $1.53 million. While SCF claims its mission is to “elect true conservatives to the U.S. Senate,” it has not spent one dollar this year in support of a Senate candidate.

Plenty of the money it has spent has gone back into efforts to raise yet more money: polling, political consultants, fundraising list rentals, and attack ads against sitting conservatives—which encourage the grass roots to donate. The SCF on Thursday sent out another blast, complaining that 25 Senate Republicans had “betrayed” conservatives in the recent budget fight, and ending with a plea to make a “contribution of $5 or more today.”

Defund groups attach a “donate” line to pretty much everything, along with creative ways to “text” or send money online. Heritage Action’s website gives donors the option of paying in installments.

The donations, sent by average Americans, sometimes go for the Washington trappings these groups decry. SCF, a small operation, in recent months has spent $26,000 on an interior decorator. It has spent another $38,000 on rent.

So, yes, some Republicans are angry that their reputations have become a fundraising tool. And yes, some of their ire has settled on Sen. Cruz and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who, for instance, cut ads for SCF that led viewers to a Web page with a big “donate” button in its middle. Those groups have used such donations to attack Cruz colleagues who were fighting ObamaCare and pushing for free-market health-care reform in Congress back before the Texan was a U.S. Senate candidate.

SCF head Matt Hoskins tells me his group’s defund campaign is not about fundraising and notes that they’ve spent more than they’ve taken in. “This is about stopping ObamaCare, and you have to raise money to do that,” he says.

Yet you also need money to wield power, and that’s the other piece of this campaign. Defund aside, the groups in play look to be gearing up for a party purge, using this campaign to soften up some sitting members, and the money they raise to launch primary attacks—which can be healthy if they are intellectually honest.

The problem is that these groups are hitting a political outer limit. The reality is that John Boehner and Eric Cantor preside over a GOP that is considerably to the fiscal right of the free-spending Bush crowd. Yet the Club for Growth and Heritage Action can only justify their existence by operating four or five steps to the right of leadership.

The result is campaigns that would cast the most effective reformers in the GOP—Sen. Tom Coburn, House Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—as little more than RINOs. This is the polar opposite of the Reagan philosophy to expand the party’s appeal.

These attack campaigns also violate Reagan’s 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” To say nothing of fundraising off them.

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