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‘Super PAC’ Increasing Congress’s Sense of Insecurity
Jennifer Steinhauer and Jonathan Weisman
The New York Times
Mar 8, 2012

WASHINGTON — Representative Jean Schmidt of Ohio never had it easy.

Since her first House race, in 2005, Ms. Schmidt, a Republican, had endured tough primaries and had vexed members of both parties here more than once. Yet she was expected to prevail again on Tuesday and overcome a primary challenge from Brad Wenstrup, a doctor and Iraq war veteran who has never held political office.

But as Congressional election attention turned to the defeat of Representative Dennis Kucinich in another part of the state, Mr. Wenstrup, aided by a new “super PAC” that is targeting incumbents in both parties, dealt Ms. Schmidt a stunning upset. It was a warning shot to all incumbents, especially those who have run afoul of conservative voters over the last year.

On Wednesday, lawmakers and political experts were still weighing whether Ms. Schmidt’s loss meant that her political luck had simply run out or was a sign of things to come. But her defeat clearly illustrated both the power of third-party groups to successfully intervene in races where they may not have gone before and the threat to all incumbents in a country that is down — way down — on Congress.

“It is hard to raise the money you need to challenge an incumbent,” said Curtis Ellis, a spokesman for the Campaign for Primary Accountability, the new Houston political action committee that is taking aim at incumbents in districts where one party has the definitive advantage. “This is why we are using this new tool given to us by the Supreme Court to equalize the playing field for challengers.”

While Ms. Schmidt was outspending her opponent, the group spent about $200,000 against her. Its efforts included direct mail appeals, radio advertising, phone banks and a Web video criticizing her for voting to raise the debt limit. Her office did not respond to requests for comment.

The group has also jumped into House primaries in Alabama. It is running tough ads questioning the ethics of Representative Spencer Bachus, a senior Republican from the state, and has spent $21,000 to try to defeat Representative Jo Bonner, another Republican, in the primary next Tuesday.

The super PAC, which has spent nearly $500,000 of the $1.8 million it has raised this cycle, has also supported opponents of Democrats like Representatives Jesse L. Jackson Jr. of Illinois and Silvestre Reyes of Texas. It got behind Mr. Kucinich, the liberal Democrat, in a redrawn district, but Representative Marcy Kaptur still beat him, 56 percent to 40 percent.

For Republicans, a year of tough votes in Congress has left some Tea Party-backed challengers to conclude that they have an opening to run to the right of even very conservative members, raising the prospect of a House in which the majority next year is narrower but the membership even more ideologically divided. Members say there is little they can do to stop the onslaught of third-party activity.

“Obviously, when the Supreme Court made their decision to open up corporate war chests, this is the result,” Mr. Bonner said. He initially said he had no idea who was behind the group, but then allowed that he did know that one of its top donors, J. Joe Ricketts, the founder of TD Ameritrade, is an owner of the Chicago Cubs.

“I’m going to have to take my little boy’s Cubs hat and throw it away, I guess,” he said with a shrug.

For experts who make their living studying Congressional races, Ms. Schmidt’s loss was still a muddle on Wednesday.

“We are trying to figure this out, too,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, an editor at The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter. “This is a redistricting cycle, and more incumbents lose in redistricting cycles.”

But there is no doubt that candidates are nervous.

“People are very cynical toward the institution,” said Representative Jeff Fortenberry, Republican of Nebraska. “That’s shown in our 11 percent approval rating. It used to be that the individual member was a bit immune to that and it was the institution itself that suffered. But I do think that is transferring now unto the individual members.”

Republicans who have largely applauded the conservative-leaning Supreme Court are now feeling the sting of its decisions on campaign finance with the Campaign for Primary Accountability’s efforts.

Mr. Bachus, one of the super PAC’s biggest targets, fumed about “these three guys” — Mr. Ricketts, Leo Linbeck III and Tim Dunn, its top donors — who had dropped $250,000 against him.

Mr. Bachus, who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and has drawn scrutiny for his personal investment practices, said he had asked a friend from Houston to contact Leo Linbeck, the grandfather of group’s largest donor, to no avail.

Mr. Bonner said he believed he would survive the primary next week, in large part because his campaign war chest far exceeded the money being spent against him.

“If I hadn’t had $1 million in my account, I could be underwater right now,” he said. “We’ll see next Tuesday, but the response from most people in my district is they’re offended that some out-of-state group hiding behind the cloak of darkness is trying to play in a race in South Alabama.”

Primaries are a part of life, lawmakers said.

“There are just a lot of folks who want to be in Congress,” said Representative Chuck Fleischmann of Tennessee, a Republican who has multiple challengers in the state’s Congressional primary in August.

“I have committed myself just to doing my job,” he said, “and I hope and pray in the end my constituents will reward me for that.”

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