Jul 20, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Republicans' low-key primary offensive

Illustration of a tiny elephant about to be crushed by the foot of a giant one
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A well-funded Republican political apparatus has quietly sought to tip the scales in key GOP primaries this year, funding local-sounding super PACs to try — with limited success so far — to knock off hard-right Republican candidates, records show.

Why it matters: Newly released campaign finance records show how Republican operatives aligned with GOP leadership in Washington are trying to surreptitiously kneecap more extreme elements that could cost the party some key House and Senate seats.

  • So far, the effort prevailed in just one of six races, underscoring the challenges in pulling a party still in thrall to Donald Trump's political brand away from the fringe.

Details: The operation's nerve center is a super PAC called the Eighteen Fifty Four Fund, formed this year by Kevin McLaughlin, the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

  • Eighteen Fifty Four, named for the year the Republican Party was founded, was formed to "supplement" the work of super PACs aligned with the party's House and Senate leaders, a spokesperson told Axios in April.

The intrigue: Those leadership-aligned groups have generally stayed out of intra-party primary fights. But according to new financial filings, Eighteen Fifty Four has bankrolled groups explicitly devoted to opposing more hard-right candidates in those contests.

It provided 100% of the funding through the end of June for five groups:

  • Old North PAC spent $1.1 million supporting North Carolina House candidate Kelly Daughtry and opposing her two primary rivals. One of those opponents, Bo Hines, prevailed in the May primary.
  • 1818 PAC spent $615,000 opposing Illinois Rep. Mary Miller's Republican primary bid against Rep. Rodney Davis in a rare incumbent vs. incumbent contest. Miller prevailed last month.
  • Hoosier Values spent more than $900,000 in support of Indiana House candidate Stu Barnes-Israel and against one of his primary opponents, Michael Sodrel. Both lost to former state Sen. Erin Houchin in the May primary.
  • 1788 PAC spent $78,000 backing Virginia House candidate Bryce Reeves and opposing primary rival Yesli Vega. Vega prevailed in the primary last month.
  • No More Mo spent $175,000 opposing Rep. Mo Brooks' Alabama Senate primary bid. Brooks lost to nominee Katie Britt in June.

Eighteen Fifty Four also provided a $500,000 cash infusion for Honor Pennsylvania, a super PAC backing David McCormick's Pennsylvania Senate bid.

  • McCormick narrowly lost to Republican rival Mehmet Oz in May's primary.

An Eighteen Fifty Four spokesperson declined to comment on its funding for those satellite groups.

Between the lines: Eighteen Fifty Four has raised about $3.6 million this cycle. It's largely funded by an affiliated nonprofit group, the Common Sense Leadership Fund.

  • Also founded by McLaughlin, CSLF has run millions of dollars in issue ads attacking vulnerable Senate Democrats such as Arizona's Mark Kelly and New Hampshire's Maggie Hassan.
  • Eighteen Fifty Four has also received funding from American Patriots PAC, a group backed by Republican megadonors such as Ken Griffin, Paul Singer and Charles Schwab.
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