Super PAC targets congressional incumbents
Fredreka Schouten and Gregory Korte
Feb 13, 2012
WASHINGTON – Leaders of a new $1.8 million non-partisan super PAC say they're out to level the playing field against entrenched incumbents in Congress through a novel strategy: targeting them in primary elections.
But its contributions come from a handful of wealthy donors — some who have championed conservative causes and others with ties to a challenger in one of the races it's targeting.
The largest donor to the Campaign for Primary Accountability is Leo Linbeck III, a Houston construction company chief executive who gave more than $775,000 to help create the super PAC in 2011. He's a prominent figure in the charter-school movement and recently launched a push with another of the super PAC's backers, Wisconsin conservative activist Eric O'Keefe, to create health care compacts that would shift Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health care funds to states to use as they wish.
Linbeck said his group is not pursuing any ideological or partisan agenda, but has a straightforward goal: influencing primaries in congressional districts that are safely Republican or Democratic. That's the point at which disaffected voters can have the greatest impact on the election, he said. "We thought that the money advantage incumbents had in primaries was so substantial that there had to be a way to level the playing field," he said. "We're trying to create equity in the system."
The 2010 federal court rulings that opened the door to super PACs spending unlimited corporate and union money to influence the presidential primaries also paved the way for congressionally focused super PACs to raise and spend unlimited amounts.
The Campaign for Primary Accountability ranks No. 13 among all super PACs in total fundraising.
The super PAC is targeting Republican and Democratic incumbents facing primary challenges in five states with fliers, automated calls and door-to-door visits.
Targeted lawmakers include Rep. Silvestre Reyes, an eight-term Democrat from El Paso; Rep. Jean Schmidt, a four-term Republican from suburban Cincinnati; and Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a 15-term Toledo Democrat whose district was redrawn by the GOP-controlled state legislature to put her in a primary contest with Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland.
Linbeck said he's never met any of the candidates the PAC is supporting. But at least one donor to the campaign has a more personal connection. Campr II Partners — a partnership-within-a-partnership owned by El Paso real estate mogul William Sanders — contributed $18,750 to the super PAC last year. His son-in-law, Robert "Beto" O'Rourke, is challenging Reyes in the Democratic primary. Sanders had already given $2,500 to his son-in-law's campaign. That's the maximum an individual can donate to a congressional candidate for a primary or general election.
Sanders did not respond to phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment. At least $22,750 in the super PAC's contributions came from people who also contributed to O'Rourke's campaign.
"This is a clear example of how special interest money and family wealth is being used to undermine the vote and will of the people," Reyes said. "This contributor is using the super PAC to help influence the outcome of this election."
Linbeck said individual donations are not directed to specific contests. "I can't speculate on people's intentions" for contributing to the PAC, he said. Thirteen of the super PAC's 16 donors are from Texas. "You talk to people who live near you," Linbeck said.
Other big contributors include J. Joe Ricketts, a founder of online brokerage firm TD Ameritrade. Ricketts, whose family trust bought the Chicago Cubs in 2009, gave $500,000 to the super PAC in December.
Ricketts has invested in politics before, donating nearly $1.2 million to a super PAC called the "Ending Spending Fund" in the 2010 election. That super PAC, focused on ending congressional earmarks, spent more than $860,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., according to federal records.
"I am concerned about our nation's future and want the next generation to have the same opportunities that previous generations have had," Ricketts said in a statement about his decision to give to the Campaign for Primary Accountability super PAC. O'Keefe, a long-time advocate of congressional term limits, donated $100,000.
Those targeted by the super PAC aren't buying its anti-incumbent rationale.
"That's Texas Longhorn-style bullcrap," said Steve Fought, a spokesman for Kaptur's campaign. But Fought struggled to find another explanation. "I can't get into Linbeck's head. I have no idea."
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