(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
By Fredreka Schouten and Christopher Schnaars, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - Campaign donations to some of the House's most prominent Tea Party insurgents tumbled in recent months, and several of the chamber's most conservative new members struggled to match the fundraising pace of their business-backed primary challengers, new campaign filings show.
Fundraising fell in the July-to-September fundraising quarter for two-thirds of the 42 House Republicans elected since 2010 who signed an August letter that urged House leaders to tie dismantling the Affordable Care Act to a bill funding the government, a USA TODAY analysis shows. That letter, circulated by first-term Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., helped ignite the budget showdown that shuttered parts of the government for 16 days this month.
In Detroit's upscale Oakland County suburbs, first-term Republican Rep. Kerry Bentivolio raised $59,177, a 10% drop from his haul in the previous fundraising quarter. In less than a month on the campaign trail, however, Bentivolio's primary challenger, lawyer David Trott, raised nearly $650,000. Trott tapped $200,000 of his own funds plus donations from prominent business leaders in Michigan, including billionaire Amway heir Dick DeVos.
In Florida, first-term Rep. Ted Yoho, who argued that a debt default would "stabilize the world's markets," took in $51,000 during the third quarter, down from $117,900 during the previous three months.
Meanwhile, another Tea Party-aligned lawmaker, two-term Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais, failed to match the fundraising pace of his GOP primary challenger, state Sen. Jim Tracy. Tracy ended September with nearly five times the cash reserves of DesJarlais, whose support among the party's establishment eroded after a series of personal scandals.
"This could be the beginning of the revenge of Main Street," said Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. Republicans rode a wave of Tea Party anger with the health care law and bank bailouts to take control of the House in 2010, he said, but "a lot of mainstream Republicans are starting to worry that Tea Party Republicans are costing the party more than the support they bring in."
In recent weeks, primary challengers to Tea Party-aligned incumbents have emerged in at least other three other congressional districts - in North Carolina, Alabama and in western Michigan. In Michigan, Rep. Justin Amash, a rising star among conservatives who was part of an attempted coup earlier this year against House Speaker John Boehner, faces investment manager Brian Ellis. (Ellis entered the race in October after the books closed on the third fundraising quarter of the year.)
The fundraising reports come as a growing number of Washington trade groups, typically aligned with Republicans in Congress, have raised concerns about the economic toll of Washington's fiscal crises. Several business leaders say they are considering backing primary challengers to Tea Party incumbents.
"Our members are going to be a lot more active because they are getting frustrated," said the National Retail Federation's chief lobbyist, David French, citing the recent fiscal showdown and the "general sense of dysfunction in Washington."
He said it's too soon to put a precise price tag on the shutdown's cost to the industry, but said retailers are worried about the effect of recurring budget confrontations on consumer confidence as the nation heads into the $602 billion holiday retail season. "Pessimistic and disengaged consumers are not good for retail," French said.
The National Association of Manufacturers, meanwhile, plans to host a fundraiser later this year for Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, an eight-term Republican. He faces a primary challenge from Bryan Smith, a lawyer backed by the anti-tax Club for Growth and Tea Party-affiliated FreedomWorks. Both groups have supported Republican upstarts in recent elections and this week called for lawmakers to vote against the Senate-brokered deal that end the partial government shutdown.
FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe denounced the agreement as "complete surrender," because it failed to delay or disrupt the health care law.
In the end, Simpson was one of 87 House Republicans who voted for the compromise. "The easiest, most politically expedient thing for me to do would have been to vote 'no' and protect my political right flank," he said in a statement. "Doing so, however, would have been the wrong thing to do for my constituents and our economy."
So far, Simpson, a veteran appropriator and Boehner ally, is ahead in the money race. He raised $437,000 in the July-to-September fundraising period - including $4,000 from Boehner, federal records show. Smith collected nearly $276,000.
Asked about Simpson's fundraising edge, Smith campaign manager Carrie Brown said in an email that she's "confident that as voters become aware of Mike Simpson's liberal voting record and support for higher taxes and more spending that they will support Bryan in next year's primary."
Russ Walker, FreedomWorks' political director, said the early fundraising advantage of Republicans in the party's business-oriented wing, doesn't mean they will prevail.
"Money can't buy the support of the grassroots," he said. "After these last several weeks, the grassroots will be more fired up than ever to replace the guys in DC who favor the status quo."
Campaign-finance reports released this week do not cover candidates' fundraising during the partial government shutdown, which began Oct. 1. Some Tea Party-aligned lawmakers saw an increase in campaign funds during the third quarter. Meadows, the freshman Republican from North Carolina who first circulated the letter seeking to link the Affordable Care Act to continued government funding, saw a 49% increase in his total receipts over the previous quarter.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who became the public face of the fight against the health care law after leading a 21-hour filibuster-style Senate speech in late September, collected nearly $1.2 million for his Senate re-election committee and leadership PAC, from July 1 through Sept. 30. That's roughly on par with his previous fundraising.