One Major Concession From The Speaker Election Isn’t As Major As It Seems

As now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy was frantically striking deals in Congress to secure him the speakership earlier this month, his allies at the Congressional Leadership Fund promised something that, on its face, seemed like a big concession. The political action committee promised not to spend money for any candidates in an open-seat primary in a safe Republican House district. In exchange, another major GOP group, the anti-establishment Club for Growth, agreed to endorse McCarthy for speaker.

This could potentially help more conservative Republican candidates win House primaries in 2024, since their more mainstream opponents will have less money behind them. The Congressional Leadership Fund has long been one of Republicans’ most prolific outside spenders in general elections, and in the 2022 midterms it dipped its toes into primaries as well. It issued its first-ever primary endorsements and spent more than $10 million as part of an effort to elect relatively moderate Republicans and more closely align the new GOP caucus with McCarthy. (So much for that.) So Jake Sherman, one of the most connected journalists in Washington, tweeted that the Congressional Leadership Fund’s agreement to stand down was a “BIG BIG agreement” and a “BIG WIN for conservatives.”

But when you actually look at what the Congressional Leadership Fund did last cycle, it’s more like a MEDIUM MEDIUM deal. The agreement is more of a non-proliferation treaty than a cease-fire. It has so many caveats that the Congressional Leadership Fund’s 2024 primary spending may not look all that different from 2022’s. But that alone could still be a big deal if it keeps the GOP’s most deep-pocketed establishment PAC from going nuclear on the hard right.

Until this most recent cycle, the Congressional Leadership Fund wasn’t a major player in primaries. In 2020, it got involved in only one, protecting incumbent Rep. Kay Granger from challenger Chris Putnam in Texas’s 12th District. But in 2022, it made independent expenditures for or against Republicans in 34 House primaries. And with the usual caveats about not reading too much into win rates,1 it was on the winning side in 29 of them. 

The Congressional Leadership Fund’s active primary season

Republican primaries in which the Congressional Leadership Fund made independent expenditures in 2022

District
Partisan Lean
Open Seat?
Preferred Candidate
Money Spent
CLF Win?
MS-03 R+28 Michael Guest $521,606
TX-38 R+27 Wesley Hunt 25,000
TX-08 R+26 Morgan Luttrell 707,886
TX-03 R+23 Van Taylor 202,906
FL-11 R+19 Dan Webster 39,849
NV-02 R+13 Not Danny Tarkanian* 241,875
ME-02 R+10 Bruce Poliquin 125,000
WI-03 R+8 Derrick Van Orden 25,000
PA-08 R+8 Jim Bognet 50,000
AZ-06 R+7 Juan Ciscomani 1,076,691
VA-02 R+7 Jen Kiggans 450,000
NY-02 R+6 Andrew Garbarino 102,548
NJ-07 R+4 Tom Kean Jr. 125,000
CA-40 R+4 Young Kim 877,575
MI-07 R+3 Tom Barrett 450,000
KS-03 R+3 Amanda Adkins 325,000
NH-01 R+1 Matt Mowers 1,350,467
NY-19 R+1 Marc Molinaro 100,000
PA-01 EVEN Brian Fitzpatrick 194,527
TX-15 EVEN Monica De La Cruz 124,500
AZ-04 D+1 Tanya Wheeless 175,000
NV-03 D+2 April Becker 50,000
NY-22 D+2 Steve Wells 1,035,976
NY-18 D+3 Colin Schmitt 200,000
IL-17 D+4 Esther Joy King 75,000
CA-45 D+5 Michelle Steel 75,000
NC-01 D+5 Not Sandy Smith* 589,634
TX-28 D+6 Cassy Garcia 100,000
CA-47 D+6 Scott Baugh 50,000
CA-13 D+7 John Duarte 172,380
CA-27 D+8 Mike Garcia 75,000
CA-22 D+10 David Valadao 791,822
RI-02 D+16 Allan Fung 50,000
TX-34 D+17 Mayra Flores 212,556

*The Congressional Leadership Fund spent money against Smith and Tarkanian but did not spend money supporting alterative candidates in these races.

Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean. Partisan leans have not yet been updated with the results of the 2022 election.

Sources: Federal Election Commission, state election officials

But the vast majority of this spending would still be allowed under the terms of the Congressional Leadership Fund and Club for Growth’s grand bargain. The Congressional Leadership Fund agreed only to stop spending in open-seat primaries in safe Republican districts; in fact, its president specifically said, “CLF will continue to support incumbents in primaries as well as challengers in districts that affect the Majority.” 

That means that, if this arrangement had been in place in 2022, it would have prevented the Congressional Leadership Fund from interfering in only two primaries that accounted for just 7 percent of its primary spending. Only six of the 34 districts in the table can be considered safely Republican (which I’m somewhat arbitrarily classifying as seats with FiveThirtyEight partisan leans2 redder than R+12), and four of those six had Republican incumbents running in them.

What’s more, the Club for Growth wasn’t opposed to the Congressional Leadership Fund’s preferred candidate in any of the 34 primaries the Congressional Leadership Fund spent money on. (Though some other anti-establishment actors, like the campaign arm of the House Freedom Caucus, did support a different candidate in Texas’s 8th.) So it’s hard not to wonder whether the Club for Growth actually got anything meaningful out of this deal — and whether the Congressional Leadership Fund really gave up that much.

But there’s probably a little more than meets the eye here. The agreement also stipulated that the Congressional Leadership Fund wouldn’t grant resources to other PACs that interfere in incumbent-less Republican primaries in safe seats. Instances of indirect spending like this are harder to track down, but we know that the Congressional Leadership Fund tried this strategy in at least one primary last year, donating money to a PAC that attacked far-right Republican Joe Kent in Washington’s 3rd District (although it wasn’t an open seat, so this specific instance wouldn’t have run afoul of the new rules either). 

And crucially, even if the pact doesn’t significantly change the Congressional Leadership Fund’s behavior, it will at least prevent them from throwing their weight around in more open-red-seat Republican primaries. The $10,767,799 that the PAC spent in GOP primaries in 2022 was a mere drop in the bucket compared with the $260 million that it raised for the cycle (most of which was spent attacking Democrats in the general election). There was always a threat that the Congressional Leadership Fund could get involved in primaries in safe Republican seats that the Club for Growth did care about, like Missouri’s 7th this year. Now, that threat is gone, at least on paper.

Then again, it was only a threat on paper to begin with.