New 'Super PAC' Takes Aim at Incumbents
Alicia Mundy & Douglas Belkin
The Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
Mar 18, 2012

The leaders of the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a new political-action committee that is roiling House primaries across the country, are conservative and mostly Republican. But the heartburn they have been causing is bipartisan.

The Houston-based group helped upset Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt in her Ohio primary race, forced incumbents in Alabama to double their expected spending, and this week is aiming at two high-profile contests in Illinois, including that of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Democrat.

The so-called super PAC has about a dozen more longtime Capitol Hill denizens in its sights, including two in Pennsylvania next month.

One of the group's founders, Texas construction mogul Leo Linbeck III, said "the establishment" is the group's target. "The primaries haven't been about Republicans and Democrats, but about the ruling elite versus the citizens," he said. "We're here to give voters a new choice."

Not many established politicians and operatives are excited about dealing with more choices in an election year complicated by a long, expensive GOP presidential-primary season, and for everyone else by the fallout from redistricting and Congress's basement-level approval ratings.

The Campaign for Primary Accountability has forced parties and candidates to pay attention to primaries that otherwise may have been a formality. That costs money, and in some cases, jobs.

Ms. Schmidt's loss in Ohio involved several factors, one of which was the PAC's torrent of negative automated phone calls and mailings to voters. It used the same tactic in Alabama.

"This super PAC is engaged in the politics of destruction, without regard for the facts and just as alarming without any positive issue agenda whatsoever," said Randy Hinaman, a consultant to Alabama Rep. Jo Bonner.

Mr. Bonner and the other targeted Alabama Republican, Rep. Spencer Bachus, both won their primaries last week. The PAC still views the results as a win: The incumbents "couldn't take the elections for granted" and had to scramble for the right to compete in November, said spokesman Curtis Ellis.

That may be one reason that the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is trying to maintain the Republican majority in the House, suggested the group's efforts are counterproductive. "We support our members, and will only work with firms and organizations who share our mission to strengthen our majority in the House," said NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay.

FreedomWorks, an activist tea-party group, criticized the focus on incumbents, rather than a specific policy goal. "They are targeting a random collection of candidates," said FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe.

The Campaign for Primary Accountability has raised about $1.8 million, according to a recent federal filing, not a lot in national terms, but enough to throw a wrench into an individual House race. Most of the funds came from four key supporters, including Joe Ricketts, the founder of TD Ameritrade Holding Corp., as well as a Texas oil man and a Texas telecommunications executive. Mr. Linbeck, whose father played a big role in revamping tort law in Texas, has contributed $775,000.

"We are efficient in our strategy and tactics," said the other co-founder, Eric O'Keefe, a leader in the term-limits movement in the 1990s and in fighting current labor-union efforts to recall the GOP governor of Wisconsin.

The group uses a statistical model to identify what it sees as the most vulnerable incumbents in districts where one party is dominant. That means if it is successful, the group won't change the partisan balance or power, just the ratio of establishment figures to newcomers.

Tuesday's Illinois primaries are the next test. In one race, the PAC is backing freshman Republican Adam Kinzinger over 10-term Rep. Don Manzullo, a conservative backed by tea-party leaders. The two are facing off because Illinois's redistricting process combined their districts. Polls show them tied.

The PAC has bought $100,000 in TV time for anti-Manzullo ads and has spent close to that on mailers attacking him for supporting some spending programs in Congress.

Mr. Manzullo's campaign spokesman, Rich Carter, said, "It's very unfortunate that the super PAC came in. They don't have any ties to Illinois and they are trying to single-handedly sway an election." Mr. Linbeck said the PAC polls showed Mr. Manzullo is vulnerable, otherwise, he added, "We actually kinda' like the guy."

Mr. Manzullo's campaign has attacked the PAC as a liberal scheme. Longtime liberal Democrat, Mr. Jackson, another target, views the group as pro-conservative, according to a recent fund-raising letter he sent that told of the PAC's efforts to "steal" the election in his Chicago district.

Mr. Jackson has had to campaign harder than usual in this primary, according to local Democrats. He has a double-digit lead in polls.

"Jesse Jackson's constituents should thank us," said Mr. Ellis, the spokesman. "He will be a better congressman because of us, because he had to go to his constituents and ask for their vote this time."

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