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The Red Wave That Wasn’t

How GOP leadership snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

National,Harbor,,Md,-,March,6,,2014:,Senator,Mitch,Mcconnell
Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY)(By Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock)

It wasn’t the midterm result Republicans expected in the final weeks of the election. Aside from bright spots in Florida and Ohio, Republicans struggled. Dr. Mehmet Oz was humiliated by an invalid in Pennsylvania; Doug Mastriano humiliated himself.

Republican voters did their part. When one accumulates the popular vote for House races across the country, Republicans won by three percentage points—a margin that was once just under five points but narrowed as votes from deep-blue districts trickled in over weeks after Election Day. That kind of turnout for Republicans “would normally translate into GOP gains of 20-30 seats,” according to the Cook Political Report. But Republicans have as of early December netted only eight seats, bringing their total in the House to 220. At most, Republicans will hold 222. In races that seemed to be easy flips, Republicans flopped.

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Republican voters across the country are starving for some accountability, and justifiably so. They should look no further than GOP leadership, namely House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Throughout the 2022 midterms, GOP leadership gave exorbitantly to liberal and squishy Republicans—the type that would vote to codify same sex marriage—over America First candidates who wanted to take the party in a new direction. GOP leadership lit money on fire in the primaries to prevent America First candidates from making it to the general. When some of them made it through the primaries bloodied and bruised, McCarthy and McConnell filled their pots, put them over the fire, and left the room, only to return and try to save some of these candidates in the general election when they found themselves in hot water.

Don’t let the establishment blame former president Donald Trump. The only reason Republicans took the House was because Trump pulled several House Republicans across the line in 2020. The GOP’s overperformance with Trump on the ballot also gave Republicans redistricting power in crucial states like Arizona and Florida. But never mind all that: Candidate quality matters! these Republicans screech, blaming Trump for endorsing candidates the establishment always wanted to write off as fringe.

Establishment Republicans are correct in that candidate quality does matter—to a certain extent. Take Oz, for example. Some of the first skeptics after Trump’s Oz endorsement were the former president’s strongest supporters who were befuddled by the endorsement because Oz was a cookie-cutter corporate Republican who stayed out of the class and culture war. Trump’s endorsement of Oz certainly swayed the primary in the doctor’s favor, but Oz ultimately lost not because he was a paradigm-shifting America First candidate. Rather, Oz lost because he embraced an establishment Republicanism that made him unviable in a state like Pennsylvania.

From the start, it appeared McCarthy would have a relatively easy go of it this election cycle. Republicans had massive advantages. President Joe Biden and his allies in Congress were floundering on almost every front. If Republicans had just a decent performance in the midterms, it was almost a sure bet that McCarthy would hold the gavel come January.

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But McCarthy wasn’t content with that, particularly during the primaries. A report from the Washington Post in late September outlined exactly how McCarthy’s inner circle went about trying to damage Republican primary candidates who wanted to change how Republicans work on Capitol Hill and called for new blood to fill leadership positions that would better fit the GOP’s MAGA base.

In Washington State’s 3rd Congressional District, for example, McCarthy’s campaign arm took aim at Joe Kent, a former Army Special Forces operator who preached foreign policy restraint and championed working class Americans, in his primary against pro-impeachment Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler. Kent, like many in the Republican base, was fed up with the establishment. “The Republicans… the corporate GOP, they’re absolute snakes and we need to root them out,” Kent said on the primary trail. “We have Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, these guys really want to see Jaime Herrera Beutler go forward… They want to be able to say ‘Hey, this Trump America First thing, that was a flash in the pan.’”

Through the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), run by McCarthy ally Dan Conston, McCarthy invested heavily in Kent’s downfall. Other groups, such as the WFW Action Fund, Take Back The House 2022, and the little-known Conservatives for a Stronger America, received funding from the CLF and used it to bolster Herrera Beutler. Some ran advertisements that tried to label Kent a far-right extremist. Others made ads that claimed the exact opposite: Kent was secretly a leftist who wanted to “defund the police” and supported Bernie Sanders. All outright lies.

After Kent narrowly beat Herrera Beutler in the August primary, both the WFW Action Fund and Conservatives for a Stronger America reported receiving funds from the CLF. In the case of the WFW Action Fund, that total amounted to nearly $1 million in the leadup to their ad campaign against Kent. Take Back The House 2022 received $200,000 from McCarthy’s campaign outfit to try and help Herrera Beutler stave off Kent.

The network of organizations that received money in order to impose McCarthy’s will on the GOP primaries was vast and had a number of go-betweens. In the case of Conservatives for a Stronger America, funding disclosures showed it received most of its money from the Eighteen Fifty-Four Fund, a fund that Axios reports is  “aligned with GOP leadership.” The Eighteen Fifty-Four Fund’s three backers, federal records show, were the WFW Action Fund, American Patriots PAC, and the Common Sense Leadership Fund, a nonprofit that is not required to disclose its donors.

WFW Action also received $100,000 in funding from Fix Congress Now!, which was almost totally inactive in 2022 but appears to have served as a middle man for WFW Action and a group called Unite America PAC. Unite America PAC provided $102,450 to Fix Congress Now!, which then passed $100,000 on to WFW Action. Unite America PAC’s stated mission is to take power from the political “extremes” by intervening in campaigns and pushing for changes to the U.S. election system. The primary backers of Unite America PAC are two big Democratic donors: Riot Games executive Marc Merrill and Kathryn Murdoch, ex-wife of Fox News executive James Murdoch.

Unite America spokesman Chris Deaton confirmed that their donation to WFW Action was to support Herrera Beutler and told the Post that the group “affirmatively supported pro-democracy Republicans this primary cycle.” A spokesperson for the WFW Action Fund, Olivia Perez-Cubas, said their support for Herrera Beutler was because of their “dedicat[ion] to building and expanding the ranks of GOP women in Congress.”

When the general election came around, McCarthy did take a trip to Washington to help Kent raise money. Kent’s Democratic opponent, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, had a massive spending edge in the final month of the election, outspending Kent by more than three to one.

It wasn’t just in Washington’s Third that McCarthy’s campaign arm and its direct and indirect allies spent large sums trying to weaken conservative primary candidates. In Florida’s 13th District, $1.6 million was spent in the primary against Anna Paulina Luna, who won her bid for Congress by eight points. American Liberty Action PAC, which also received funds from the Eighteen Fifty-Four Fund, spent about $2.5 million in August and September in efforts to defeat pro-Freedom Caucus candidates and so-called election deniers, such as Anthony Sabatini, who lost his primary election in Florida. In McCarthy’s home state of California, the CLF spent $800,000 helping pro-impeachment Rep. David Valadao survive his primary against pro-Trump candidate Chris Mathys. The CLF also threw money at primary efforts to defeat Sandy Smith in North Carolina and backed Republican Tanya Wheeless against Kelly Cooper in Arizona.

A memo from the American Accountability Foundation circulated on the Hill and provided to The American Conservative found:

Of the over $365 million Republican Leader McCarthy had at his disposal to direct to candidates, he directed $76,671,587.56 of it to conservative members of and candidates for the Republican Conference and $126,435,136.61 to liberal/establishment members or candidates for the Republican Conference. This breaks down to conservatives receiving 20.99% of campaign funding, with liberal/establishment candidates receiving 34.62% of the funding. The remainder was distributed to Members and candidates who are not an obvious fit in either of those categories.

Across the Capitol rotunda, McConnell was also sabotaging Republican candidates who balked at his leadership.

Throughout the 2022 midterm cycle, there was major disagreement between McConnell, who controlled much of the Senate’s warchest, and Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). Whereas Scott wanted to take a more hands-off approach to the primaries and let Republican voters determine their candidates, and in the meantime use NRSC funds to promote digital fundraising and advertising that would nationalize the election, McConnell saw the primaries as a way to solidify his grasp on Republican leadership.

Steven Law, a McConnell acolyte who formerly directed the NRSC before moving over to head the Senate Leadership Fund, told Politico, “It seemed to us that the posture of the committee was that all candidates are equally great. I just don’t think that’s objectively true.”

McConnell’s campaign arm did spend large sums of money on Senator-elect J.D. Vance’s bid in Ohio and Rep. Ted Budd’s Senate bid in North Carolina, providing about $32 million and $37 million respectively. Budd ended up winning by more than four points. Vance won by more than six and a half.

The move that infuriated conservatives in Washington, however, was McConnell’s complete abandonment of Blake Masters in Arizona and Donald Bolduc in New Hampshire.

In a meeting on October 20, Law decided that the SLF was going all-in on Oz’s race in Pennsylvania, after Oz managed to climb back from a double-digit deficit in the polls to make the race against Fetterman almost a dead heat. “It just suddenly became crystal clear that if we win this race, we probably win the majority,” Law told Politico.

The decision to focus on Oz in Pennsylvania, rather than other races like Masters’ in Arizona, was long in the works. In August, Law informed other campaign arms of the conservative movement that it was canceling reservations in Arizona. According to Heritage Action executive director Jessica Anderson, Law said Masters was a “bridge too far” but refused to elaborate what that meant. Law told Politico he does not remember using the phrase.

“We can’t pull out of races nine weeks out. We just can’t,” Anderson told Politico. “It’s just crazy to me.”

Rachel Bovard of the Conservative Partnership Institute echoed Anderson’s complaints in a phone interview with TAC. “He pulled money out of winnable races in Arizona, in New Hampshire,” Bovard said. “And this whole notion that he spent all this money to help J.D. Vance—yes, he spent money there. But he also wasted money in Alabama because he just doesn’t like Mo Brooks. And the amount of money he spent helping Lisa Murkowski fend off a challenger from the right—not against Democrats, against Republicans.”

“All that money could have gone to better use,” Bovard said.

Heritage Action’s Sentinel Action Fund, which started in the spring, ended up spending $8 million in Arizona and $2 million in New Hampshire. 

When it became clear that the red wave had failed to materialize, the McConnell team’s promotion of the candidate quality narrative kicked into overdrive. By no means was this narrative something that randomly cropped up in the election’s aftermath. For weeks, McConnell and his inner circle were telegraphing their next move should Republicans fall flat on election day. In October, McConnell was already warning that “candidate quality” in competitive Senate races could hamstring the GOP’s ability to win back the majority. 

McConnell’s message angered Republicans who had inside information on his campaign maneuvering. Though Scott did not mention McConnell by name, he wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, “Many of the very people responsible for losing the Senate last cycle are now trying to stop us from winning the majority this time by trash-talking our Republican candidates.” The op-ed was widely interpreted as taking aim at McConnell’s campaign arm.

But even in races where McConnell got his man, such as Laxalt in Nevada, Republicans failed to win. When all was said and done, the SLF spent $240 million, more than ten times the amount Trump spent in the general election. Either the candidate quality narrative extends to McConnell’s favored horses, too, or the narrative is simply a distraction from McConnell’s failures.

Terry Schilling, president of the American Principles Project, called most members of GOP leadership “sell-out Republicans.” 

“The biggest problem facing the Republican Party is that it has been correctly branded as a fundamentally unserious party incapable of any real victories,” Schilling said, citing the Obamacare repeal failure. “America needs to make many big changes to avoid catastrophe, but that won’t happen until GOP leadership gets serious about delivering for the American people.”

Some members of the GOP conference seem to agree. Now, both McCarthy and McConnell are facing real challenges to their leadership claims. In the Senate, Bovard told TAC, “the discontent with McConnell has been building.”

Throughout the 2022 midterm election cycle, Scott hinted at a potential challenge to McConnell’s leadership. Back in February, Politico reported that Trump was encouraging Scott to challenge McConnell. 

Scott, joined by other GOP senators such as Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Mike Lee of Utah, circulated a petition encouraging McConnell to delay leadership elections until after the Georgia runoff so all potential GOP senators could attend. “We are all disappointed that a Red Wave failed to materialize, and there are multiple reasons it did not,” the petition read. “Holding leadership elections without hearing from the candidates as to how they will perform their leadership duties…violates the most basic principles of a democratic process.” Other prominent senators, such as Marco Rubio of Florida, Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Ted Cruz of Texas came out in favor of a delay.

Their complaint fell on deaf ears. McConnell went forward with the internal leadership election, cast by secret ballot, on November 16. Scott decided to challenge McConnell and received ten votes. The margin seems large—the final tally was 37 to 10, with one vote of present—but Scott’s performance remains a real feat, sources told TAC.

“McConnell is going to be leader for this Congress,” Bovard said. “But I think his leadership power has diminished. Five years ago, it’d be unimaginable that ten people would publicly oppose him.”

Russ Vought, president of the Center for Renewing America and former director of the Office of Management and Budget under Trump, concurred in a phone interview. “I think that’s an impressive showing and it’s a real crack in the facade.”

The discontent goes beyond just the final vote tallies in states where Republicans fell short, Bovard told TAC. “He [McConnell] has the power to, sort of, control who gets elected. He has a very specific type of senator he wants to elect and that’s someone who’s going to not challenge him.”

Because of the sheer scale of GOP campaign money that McConnell controls, “members sort of feel compelled to support McConnell because of all the money he’s dumping into their races,” Bovard said.

“It’s a feudal situation. The Senate has become very feudal. It’s McConnell and a bunch of serfs, basically,” Bovard said.

“It’s also reflected in how he runs the Senate floor,” Bovard went on to say. “In fairness, a lot of this started under Harry Reid where the goal became to take as few votes as possible and to protect your vulnerable members that way, by just completely shutting down the Senate floor. And McConnell has just continued it. It’s led to a lot of frustration because they’re incredibly powerful people who do nothing but rubber stamp nominations for a living now. It’s terrible.”

“I think that signals that this is maybe the last Congress that he will be leader or he’s on his way out in some regard. That’s how I would take this,” Bovard said.

While McConnell will survive for the next congress, McCarthy’s fate is still very much in the air. Though McCarthy, like McConnell, won his own Republican caucus election—the final tally for McCarthy was 188 to 31 over Freedom Caucus protest candidate Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona—nothing will be final until the House votes for the speaker on the floor in early January.

Some conservatives are still trying to hold leadership accountable. Vought has been one of the most vocal supporters of the effort to prevent McCarthy from becoming House speaker for the next Congress. Vought told TAC that the secret ballot vote for McCarthy’s nomination was being twisted in favor of McCarthy. The real relevance of the vote to nominate McCarthy, according to Vought, is that it “show[s] the extent to which the number of members have already materialized for the future floor vote.” Because of the GOP’s razor-thin majority margin, they don’t need 31 GOP objectors on the House floor come January 3. “We need about five,” Vought claimed.

Bovard agreed that “it’s possible he [McCarthy] might not win the speakership.”

The reason that McConnell seems safe and McCarthy is not comes down to rule differences for the different chambers. 

“For the speakership, they go through a roll call, and they have members articulate who they’re for,” Vought explained. “One of the dynamics that's important on the floor is someone at the top of the alphabet—because they go alphabetically… So this momentum will build for conservatives as you get down the alphabet list and I think all of the dynamics are set up for this leverage to be used,” Vought continued. “My gut is that McCarthy will have to step down, and there will be a conversation about who will step up.”

Even if McCarthy refuses to step down, he still has to get 218 votes on the House floor to become speaker. “If he doesn’t win 218, the ballot just remains open,” Bovard told TAC. “So they keep voting until they either vote for someone else, or someone else puts up their nomination. They can go round and round and round.”

In that scenario, McCarthy would be left scrambling. “He’d be cutting deals on the floor to get votes,” Bovard said. But if the representatives who have come out fully against McCarthy stick to their guns, Bovard said, the task might be impossible for McCarthy.

Vought said the vote for House speaker is “an important opportunity for House Republicans, House conservatives, to seize the moment that is right in front of them and change the way Washington, D.C., and the cartel works and has worked for some time.”

“In some respects, this is a historic opportunity,” Vought continued. “Because the margins are such that House conservatives have the ability to ensure that there is a paradigm-shifting speaker that is consistent and in tune with where the grassroots is.”

Vought put it bluntly: “I think that McCarthy’s speakership is on life support right now.”

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