A relatively unknown group spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to influence primary elections around the country has been meet with criticism from those trying to understand the group’s motivations. The targets of the group, both Republicans and Democrats, have accused the group of trying to “buy” elections. The New York Times criticized the group’s methods in an editorial saying that “unlimited political money breeds corruption and cynicism, and cannot produce a better government.”
“When you operate outside the typical thinking of the DC insiders, no one is going to know what to think of you,” Curtis Ellis said. Ellis is the spokesman of the Campaign for Primary Accountability (CPA), an organization which is attempting to use a super PAC to shake up politics as usual.
According to the group’s web site, its purpose is to “level the playing field in primary elections” and “give voters the facts they need to make informed decisions.” The group attempts to achieve this by targeting long serving incumbents in safe congressional districts. The group says targeted lawmakers must also have a “credible challenger” and be “unpopular” among the district’s constituents. If an incumbent meets all four of those requirements, the CPA will then support the challenger or oppose the incumbent.
CPA targets lawmakers through a super PAC that purchases advertising in their respective districts. According to the Center for Responsive Politics data, the CPA has received $1.8 million in contributions and has spent $1.1 million on independent expenditures. The majority of its expenditures have been against incumbent Republicans in contested primaries. Of the expenditures against candidates $723,000 has been against Republicans, and $240,000 has been against Democrats. The CPA has also spent $173,000 supporting candidates, all Democrats. In keeping with being nonpartisan, the group will not spend money in the general election.
Two-thirds of the $1.8 million contributed to the CPA’s super PAC has come from Texas. That includes a $350,000 donation from Midland businessman Tim Dunn, who is the CEO of CrownQuest Operating, LLC. Dunn is among the most influential players in the Texas conservative movement. Empower Texans, arguably the most influential conservative group in Texas, is funded in large part by the Dunn family.
Leo Linbeck III
The largest contributor to CPA’s super PAC is Houston area builder Leo Linbeck III, who is the CEO of Aquinas Companies, LLC. In total, Linbeck has donated more than $775,000 to the group’s super PAC. This is a departure for Linbeck who in the past had only donated a few thousand dollars to a few Republican candidates, including former President George W. Bush. His father, who co-founded the powerful tort reform group Texans for Lawsuit Reform, has given far more money to Republican and conservative causes. Linbeck appears to be the driving force behind the group. He has appeared on CPA’s behalf both in print and on screen. The Dallas Morning News recently conducted an extensive interview with him, and last week he appeared alongside one of the group’s leaders on MSNBC during the Dylan Ratigan Show.
3900 Essex Lane, Houston, Texas (Photo: Google Earth)
The group is also headquartered in Linbeck’s backyard. According to records filed with the FEC, CPA is located at 3900 Essex Lane, Suite 250 in Houston, Texas. The super PAC is located in the same building as Linbeck Group, LLC, a building that carries the Linbeck name. American Strategic Analysis and Performance Services (ASAP), is according to its website “a privately held LLC that assembles public affairs research, plans and analysis for non-profit, corporate and political campaigns.” Linbeck is listed as ASAP’s owner and CEO. Jonathan Martin, who is the treasurer of the CPA super PAC, is listed as the Controller of the company. FEC records show that ASAP has received $340,500 from CPA to collect polling data used in determining whether or not to target incumbents.
The use of ASAP might be almost a requirement for the organization because of the criticism that CPA has received from the political parties. According to Rothenberg Political Report, the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee has already put firms working with CPA on its so-called black list.
In an interview with the Texas Independent, Ellis said Linbeck is the “prime mover” of the organization. “He asks questions, looks at data, and looks at solutions,” said Ellis. “It struck him that Congress has a 90 percent disapproval rating but incumbents also have a 90 percent reelection rate. Almost 90 percent of the House districts are considered safe districts because the outcome of the fall election is considered a given. The only opportunity to get some turnover is in the primary election.”
“However, only one out of every ten people are voting in the primaries,” said Ellis. “Linbeck saw a bunch of ninety percents lining up. If you wonder why we have the most extreme partisanship in Congress it’s because of who votes in the primaries; only the most extreme partisans are voting. To get more people voting and participating in primary elections will help reduce this problem. And this doesn’t require any new laws. We are working in the world as it is.”
Ellis says while there are plenty of election reforms that one could make a very good case for to change the system, CPA is doing something now to change things. “While we are waiting for a majority of incumbents to adopt the very reforms that will probably disadvantage them, let’s effect this change now,” said Ellis.
As the Houston Chronicle reported, CPA is looking at targeting several Texas members of congress. Republican Reps. Joe Barton of Ennis and Ralph Hall of Rockwall and Democratic Reps. Silvestré Reyes of El Paso and Eddie Bernice Johnson in Dallas are being targeted. The PAC is also looking at other incumbents, including Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes; Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin; Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio; Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston; Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands; Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Midland; and Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano.
“The major question mark regarding the whole effort is its effectiveness in reducing partisanship,” said Mark Jones, a professor and chair of the political science department at Rice University. Jones told the Texas Independent that it would have to be judged on a “case by case” basis. “Many challengers seem to be more partisan rather than less partisan. This seems to be more the case with Republicans rather than Democrats that you are getting more conservative Republicans being elected in the primaries.”
However, Jones does think the group is raising a good point. “Throughout the United States, and in Texas it might be more extreme, the reelection of a candidate takes place in the primary,” said Jones. “Incumbents play a strong role of what their districts look like, and the idea of providing seed money to a viable challenge has some validity. Particularly in cases like Sylvester Reyes who is an incumbent that has a strong control over the Democratic party apparatus.
While Jones see Reyes as a possible successful target for the CPA, he thinks it is unlikely that the super PAC while be able to defeat possible Republican incumbent targets. “The challenger quality isn’t very high on the Republican side,” said Jones. “One super PAC doesn’t make a campaign. Most of the Republican candidates don’t have the resources they need even with support from the super PAC. If I had to pick one incumbent who is most vulnerable, it would be in El Paso [Reyes].”
Top Stories Photo Credit: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: skez, JoesSistah