Congress isn’t exactly popular. Its job-approval ratings have hovered below 30 percent for years, and lately, the numbers have sunk especially low; just 15 percent of Americans say Congress is performing well. Yet members of Congress are almost always reelected. In 2004, nearly 99 percent of U.S. House incumbents were reelected. Even in 2010, a year that supposedly featured massive turnover, 86 percent of House members retained their jobs. In the past decade, members of Congress seemed just as likely to die in office as lose a campaign.
The people behind a new Super PAC—Campaign for Primary Accountability—believe congressional job security is a serious problem. They say it disconnects politicians from the voters and empowers special interests. They’re aiming to do something about it, spending millions to help underdog challengers unseat incumbents from both parties in primary races. They call it “leveling the playing field.”
The group has targeted a dozen longtime House incumbents across the country. In Texas, the PAC, which bills itself as nonpartisan, is going after one Democrat, Silvestre Reyes of El Paso, and one Republican, Ralph Hall of Rockwall.
“We want to prove that it is possible to beat entrenched, unpopular incumbents,” wrote Leo Linbeck III, a conservative Houston businessman and the Super PAC’s top donor, in an email to the Observer. “Shaking up an ossified, dysfunctional system is a natural consequence of restoring accountability. Not the goal, but a side effect.”
Curtis Ellis, a spokesman for the Campaign for Primary Accountability, says the Super PAC will challenge only longtime incumbents in safe districts. The group doesn’t want to alter the partisan or ideological makeup of the House, Ellis said. It also chooses only races that have credible challengers and districts in which polling shows the incumbent is relatively unpopular.
Ellis says the Super PAC is simply trying to get some younger, new voices into the political process, people who will listen to voters. The Constitution designed the U.S. House as the “people’s chamber,” with members serving two-year terms so that the body would experience more turnover and be more responsive to the public.
It just hasn’t worked out that way. The Washington system is designed to favor incumbents. Gerrymandering creates safe districts with few competitive general election races. A polarized, hyper-partisan political environment leads to few primary races, and when House members are challenged in a primary, special interests ensure incumbents can overwhelm their opponents with millions of dollars in campaign money. The process makes lawmakers more loyal to big-money special interests than their constituents.
Campaign for Primary Accountability wants to restore some power to the voters by giving qualified challengers a chance. “We’re the equalizer,” Ellis says. “The challengers have to be serious. They have to lift their weight. But we can help.”
It’s easy to question the group’s claims of nonpartisanship because many of the Super PAC’s top contributors are conservative, including Linbeck whose father is a famous tort reformer and co-founder of the Houston-based Texans for Lawsuit Reform. Linbeck has contributed $750,000 to the Super PAC, according to the most recent federal filings released on April 30. Other major contributors include Midland oilman Tim Dunn ($350,000), a Republican donor and vice chair of the conservative Austin think-tank Texas Public Policy Foundation.
“They’re the bane of my life,” said Reyes, the El Paso Democrat. “They’ve been very public about their ability and willingness to undermine the democratic process.” Reyes labels the group an unaccountable Super PAC that’s providing a vehicle for ultra wealthy conservatives to exert influence. He said the group’s goal is to take out Democrats and any Republicans who aren’t sufficiently supportive of the tea party, which Reyes called extremist. “I think their goal is to have a Congress of 435 individuals … who will do their bidding.”
But so far Campaign for Primary Accountability has spent more money attacking Republicans ($968,000) than Democrats ($533,000). The group has supported and opposed tea party-backed candidates. And it has also backed liberals. It spent $194,000 to help liberal attorney Matt Cartwright defeat Democratic incumbent Tim Holden in Pennsylvania. Ellis points out that the Super PAC backed Cartwright, who opposes fracking, even though many of its donors are oil barons who support the practice. Campaign for Primary Accountability has spent $1.8 million on seven congressional primaries, wining three of them, not including the two Texas races. The group is going after longtime New York Democrat Charlie Rangel in the June 26 New York primary.
In Tuesday’s Texas primary, the group is trying to unseat the oldest member in Congress, 89-year-old Ralph Hall. The Republican from Rockwall County, who switched parties in 2004, is campaigning for a 17th term. He faces two challengers in the primary, telecom executive Steve Clark and former NASCAR driver Lou Gigliotti. Two years ago, Clark and Hall squared off in the 2010 GOP primary with the incumbent winning with 57 percent of the vote thanks to a huge financial advantage.
This year the Campaign for Primary Accountability could spend as much as $200,000 to defeat Hall. The PAC is running an attack ad that blasts Hall for serving in Congress too long. “When Ralph Hall went to Congress Jimmy Carter was president,” the commercial begins, before ripping into his votes on issues from Cash for Clunkers to raising the federal debt.
Hall told The Dallas Morning News he would have appreciated a heads up before the Super PAC decided to target him. “If they’re just targeting me because I’m an incumbent, they have a right to do that, but if they look in my record, they probably would not target me,” he told the newspaper, adding that he had a tea-party friendly voting record. The congressmen and his supporters, including some tea-party leaders, say he’s a fiscal conservative who has protected the district from a meddlesome, interfering Washington.
The blog Rockwall Conservative, based in Hall’s home county, recently defended him, criticizing the Super PAC ad and other claims about the congressman reported in a recent Dallas Observer blog. “The article mentions Ralph’s votes to increase the budget, but fails to point out he opposed and voted against TARP under President Bush. Mr. Linbeck’s opinion that he became ‘debt-conscious the moment a Democrat steps into the White House’ is at best incorrect, at worst an outright lie,” wrote the Rockwall blogger.
On Thursday, the Rockwall Conservative reported that Rockwall and Hopkins County tea party leaders were supporting Hall’s reelection. The reason? His incumbency is a plus for the district. The leaders cite his chairmanship of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which oversees NASA, the EPA and FEMA, among other agencies. Without his leadership, the statement reads, Texas’ economy could fall victim to “overregulation.”
In El Paso, the Campaign for Primary Accountability has more material to work with in its efforts to defeat eight-term Democrat Reyes. The PAC has spent $195,000 against Reyes. It’s running a TV ad that says Reyes has been in Congress too long, paid out $600,000 in campaign money to himself and his family and supported a federal contract for a company (for the virtual border fence) that hired three of Reyes’ children.
Reyes’ opponent, former El Paso City Council member Beto O’Rourke is running an ad that makes similar accusations, though Ellis said the Super PAC isn’t coordinating with any campaigns (that’s forbidden by federal law). An El Paso Times fact-check deemed the accusations against Reyes as “true.”
But Reyes calls the charges “outright lies.” He said the company in question, a defense contractor named International Microwave Corp. (IMC), bought out a company that two of his children worked for. So two of his children did end up working for IMC, though only because their company had been subsumed. The congressman said he had nothing to do with it. “They’re all college educated, and they all got jobs on their own,” he said.
Reyes is famous for once failing to know which Middle East groups were Sunni and which were Shiite Muslims—while he was the nominee to lead the House Intelligence Committee. “Speaking only for myself,” Reyes was quoted in The New York Times in 2006, “it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.”
For his part, Reyes has attacked O’Rourke’s character, accusing him of wanting to legalize drugs and pointing to a long-ago charge of burglary (from when O’Rourke was in college).
O’Rourke, 39, is considered more liberal than Reyes. He did endorse legalizing marijuana to reduce cartel drug violence. He also was a main proponent of El Paso extending benefits to domestic partners of city workers, a major victory for gay rights.
But what matters to Campaign for Primary Accountability is that O’Rourke would bring a fresh perspective to Washington and restore some power to the voters in El Paso.
The irony isn’t lost on Linbeck that he’s using a part of the D.C. system—an unregulated Super PAC—that many people find distasteful to, he says, affect change.
“Yeah, life is strange, no?” he wrote in an email. “It’s really a question of whether you believe in unilateral disarmament. We don’t think we should let the forces of centralized power be the only folks to use Super PACs. They’re not going to stand down, so we don’t have much choice but to engage. We don’t believe that incumbents are going to change the law in any way that will disadvantage them. So we have to win at the ballot box.”