Conservative insurgents strike blow against GOP establishment

Reuters

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during the fifth annual Washington Ideas Forum at the Newseum in Washington November 14, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • Cold cash, together with control of institutions, is what makes the Establishment the Establishment.

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  • In the current GOP civil war, the insurgents have secured their own money, and they control their own institutions.

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  • The GOP leadership and its allies in the business lobby have a hard fight in front of them.

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Cold cash, together with control of institutions, is what makes the Establishment the Establishment. But in the current Republican civil war, the insurgents have secured their own money pipelines, and they control their own institutions – which means the GOP leadership and its allies in the business lobby have a hard fight in front of them.

The firing and hiring of conservative staffer Paul Teller makes it clear that the anti-establishment has built its own establishment.

Teller was a House staffer for more than a decade, and was longtime executive director of the conservative Republican Study Committee. The RSC always exerted a rightward pull on party leadership, but it is nonetheless a subsidiary of the party.

After the 2012 election, the Republican Establishment captured the RSC, in effect, by getting Congressman Steve Scalise elected chairman. Scalise is a conservative, but he is also a close ally of the party leadership – much more so than his predecessors Jim Jordan and Tom Price. Scalise immediately swept out most of the RSC staff.

Last month, Teller was accused of working with outside groups such as Heritage Action to whip RSC members – and Scalise showed Teller the door.

In the old days, this might have been a disaster for Teller. He had lost his job and landed on the wrong side of the party leadership. Anyone who picked up Teller would be spitting in the eye of the Establishment. But this week, Sen. Ted Cruz announced he had hired Teller as deputy chief of staff.

The Establishment no longer has the power it once had to demand obedience.

How did the party leadership maintain such power in the past? Basically with money. Party leaders had a near monopoly on access to money, both in terms of raising funds for candidates and landing jobs for individuals.

Floor leaders and committee chairmen have always been the GOP’s main contact point with corporations’ political action committees and lobbyists. If a member stays on the good side of party leaders, the leaders make a phone call to a lobbyist who throws the member a fundraiser.

Similarly, if a staffer always played nice with the Establishment, that brought with it job security: Even if your boss retired, you could land on your feet, as the leadership would recommend you for a job in another office, or K Street would hire you.

You can see how this would make dissenting staffers and members watch their words and actions. Sure, members were allowed to vote against the leadership – as long as the leadership didn’t need your vote. But at the end of the day, you had to play ball, otherwise you got no money for re-election, and no jobs for you or your staff.

But Teller landed on his feet — and today any conservative staffer disposed to fight the party leadership can hold out the same hope. The GOP Establishment has lost its monopoly, and the insurgents now have many bases of power – and thus many sources of money.

Conservative activist groups have always existed inside the GOP, but because they couldn’t raise and distribute large amounts of money, they functioned mostly through moral suasion – which means they were largely powerless. Eventually, these Beltway conservative groups grew dependent on the GOP, and instead of holding the party accountable, they often ended up being the establishment’s liaison to the conservative base.

Today’s conservative groups are fully armed, though. Thanks to advances in Internet fundraising and changes in campaign finance laws, the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks, and the Club for Growth can raise and spend enough money to compete in GOP primaries with the Chamber of Commerce and lobbying firms.

Beyond these new pipelines of campaign cash, the insurgents now control institutions – institutions they created, and ones they took over. Jim DeMint, who founded the Senate Conservatives Fund in 2008, left Congress in 2013 to head the Heritage Foundation.

Heritage used to be a faithful ally of the GOP – at least when it counted most. Under DeMint, Heritage is a scourge of the GOP leadership and an enforcer of a hard limited-government line.

And the Senate offices of Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul are three insurgent beachheads on Capitol Hill. Being a senator doesn't merely give one a vote — it gives these men the budget to staff a congressional office. As they gain seniority, the Tea Partiers will get control over budgets for committee staffs.

When a member's re-election, or a staffer's ability to pay the mortgage, doesn't depend on the Establishment's favor, the Establishment may need to find a new way to gain conservatives' loyalty.

Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at [email protected] His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.

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