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What Happened to the Campaign for Primary Accountability?

The CFPA put Rangel on its "hot seat."  (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
The CFPA put Rangel on its "hot seat."  (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Competitive primaries are raging, but one of the groups that received the most attention last cycle for ousting incumbents is still on the sidelines. So far this cycle, the Campaign for Primary Accountability is nowhere to be found.

After receiving glowing press coverage in 2012, the political action committee has been very quiet this year. Except for a small contribution from the group’s founder and a couple of strongly worded blog posts, the CFPA has been irrelevant thus far, even though primary challenges to House incumbents in Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts and California are well under way.

In early 2012, the Campaign for Primary Accountability PAC was all the rage. With the expressed goal of defeating longtime and unpopular incumbents of both parties, the group struck a chord with national media and received an extraordinary amount of coverage for a group with a thin track record.

The CFPA was featured in The Washington Post, New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today and was the focus of a prime package on the CBS Evening News. (Here’s a link to the full CBS interview with founder Leo Linbeck.)

But a month after that CBS story aired, Linbeck admitted to Paul Kane of The Washington Post that the group was out of money and that his personal contributions weren’t enough to keep up the momentum.

In total, the CFPA raised $3.6 million and spent $3.2 million (including $1.8 million in independent expenditures) during the 2012 cycle and finished the year with $394,295 on hand and $390,000 of debt to Linbeck.

But from January through October of 2013, the CFPA took in just $36,166, including a $20,000 loan on May 29 from Linbeck. The PAC spent $50,883, largely on bank, legal, accounting, and credit card processing fees. And it finished October with less money in the bank ($379,578) than 10 months prior.

On the group’s website, the only activity for the year appears to be a couple of mid-September blog posts about New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel being in the “2013 Democratic Hot Seat” and Alabama Rep. Spencer Bachus being in the “2013 Republican Hot Seat.” Bachus announced his retirement at the end of the September, but the group’s blog hasn’t been updated in nearly three months.

But the group is alive and well, according to CFPA spokesman Curtis Ellis.

“We’re actively assessing the races out there,” Ellis said in an interview this week. He cited Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry, Oregon Rep. Greg Walden and Pennsylvania Rep. Bill Shuster as other incumbents being watched.

Ellis explained that the lack of fundraising this year should not be taken as a sign that the group won’t be involved this cycle. The group never planned on stockpiling cash in the off-year, but instead will go to donors with specific race opportunities as necessary.

“We put money in when we need it,” Ellis said. “We like to point to particular races that make our donors perk up their ears.”

This time around, the group will point potential contributors to its record. Of the 10 members that the CFPA initially targeted, eight will not be serving in Congress in 2015. Indiana Rep. Dan Burton retired before the 2012 elections and Bachus isn’t running for re-election next year. Ohio’s Jean Schmidt, Pennsylvania’s Tim Holden, Illinois’ Don Manzullo, and Texas’ Silvestre Reyes lost in primaries last year. Illinois Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. resigned his seat last year and Alabama Rep. Jo Bonner resigned his seat this year.

Of course the fate of each of those incumbents is much more complicated than the CFPA simply targeting them. For example, Schmidt apparently forgot she had a primary challenger and didn’t run a campaign. Manzullo lost to fellow Rep. Adam Kinzinger, not just some random outsider. And Holden was running for re-election in a dramatically redrawn district that was more liberal than the territory he had represented for years. But nevertheless, the super PAC has a track record that it can point out to try to stir up donations next year.

Texas Rep. Ralph M. Hall and Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur are the two remaining incumbents from the initial target list.

“At this point in the cycle, more challengers are stepping up,” Ellis said, as the group watches for the candidates to show an initial level of competency and fundraising capability before getting involved.

While the general elections are nearly a year away, some primaries are right around the corner. Ellis mentioned Erika Harold’s challenge to GOP Rep. Rodney Davis in Illinois’ 13th District. That primary is set for March 18. And the filing deadline in Texas is on Monday with a March 4 primary.

“We have a proven formula now,” Ellis said. Only time will tell whether the money will materialize and the CFPA will be a relevant force in next year’s elections.

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