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As House Republicans Brace for Losses, Freedom Caucus Prepares for Growth

Hard-line conservative bloc has been raising millions to help recruit new members

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., was an early recruit of the Freedom Caucus and she is now the group’s only female member. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., was an early recruit of the Freedom Caucus and she is now the group’s only female member. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

At a time when most House Republican factions are preparing to see their ranks shrink regardless of whether their party loses its majority next week, one caucus is expecting its membership to grow.

The House Freedom Caucus, considered the most conservative bloc of Republicans in Congress, is expecting to increase its roster of 35 members to somewhere in the 37-to-40 range, based on the number of incumbent and recruited candidates they predict could lose Tuesday.

While a gain of two to five members is not much at face value, the House Republican Conference will most likely be a lot smaller in the next Congress. And the other major GOP caucuses, the conservative Republican Study Committee and centrist Tuesday Group and Main Street Caucus, are virtually guaranteed to have smaller memberships next year. So the more seats Republicans lose in the midterms, the larger the Freedom Caucus will be as a percentage of the conference.

But the sweet spot for a group that has gained power in the GOP-run House by withholding votes for key party priorities — in order to sway policies and processes toward its preferences — is a narrowly held Republican majority.

“It’s to our advantage to keep the majority,” North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the caucus’s chairman, said in an interview. “And it’s certainly a distinct advantage if we keep the majority and we grow our caucus numbers. Our leverage improves and becomes significant.”

The caucus was only formed in 2015, so it doesn’t have an established playbook for operating in the minority.  “Without a doubt” the group would lose leverage in that scenario, Meadows acknowledged. 

“Because then, what puts something across the top could be Democrat votes, not Republican votes,” he said. “There would be no Republican-only scenario. However, if you have 40 or 50 Freedom Caucus members, a number of the other RSC members will look to form coalitions with the Freedom Caucus to encourage the administration to look at more conservative policy.”

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Another positive the Freedom Caucus retains is the group’s relationship — fostered primarily by Meadows — with President Donald Trump and his administration. Any group of Republicans or Democrats wanting to get Trump on board with an idea might look to the hard-line conservative group.

The House Freedom Fund, the caucus’s leadership PAC, has spent millions on vulnerable members and Republican hopefuls the caucus believes would be good recruits, through direct disbursements to the candidates and independent expenditures made in support of their campaigns.

Meadows and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the caucus’s founding chairman, do most of the fundraising but other caucus members contribute money to the PAC.

In total, the Freedom Fund has raised $6.7 million this cycle through Oct. 17, the end of the pre-general reporting period. They’ve spent $6.1 million over the same time period, and ended Oct. 17 with $786,000 on hand. The group’s goal this cycle was to invest $8 million, which it could still do before Election Day.

The money is a sign of the Freedom Caucus’s growing influence in Congress. In the 2016 cycle, its leadership PAC raised $1.4 million and spent $1.2 million.


Potential recruits receiving Freedom Fund money this cycle include Chip Roy in Texas’ 21st District, Yvette Herrell in New Mexico’s 2nd District, Mark Harris in North Carolina’s 9th District, Greg Steube in Florida’s 17th District, Denver Riggleman in Virginia’s 5th District, Mark Green in Tennessee’s 7th District, Russ Fulcher in Idaho’s 1st District, Ron Wright in Texas’ 6th District and Ben Cline in Virginia’s 6th District.

Meadows and Jordan are campaigning Sunday for Tim Burchett in Tennessee’s 2nd District and might try to recruit him as well.

The PAC also spent money on eight candidates who lost in the primaries, with six-figure investments for two of them, Judd Matheny in Tennessee’s 6th District and Melanie Leneghan in Ohio’s 12th District. Leneghan, who lost to Troy Balderson by 653 votes in the GOP primary, sued to have the election overturned over ballot fraud claims but was rebuffed by the Ohio Supreme Court.

“We just try to find people that are really more committed to their district than they are to the Freedom Caucus,” Meadows said. “And as long they’re committed to their district, it normally bodes well for us.”

That theme was echoed in interviews with Herrell and Roy.

“It is appealing that Americans can see that there’s a group of elected officials in Congress that actually will stand up for their values,” Herrell said.

In the New Mexico state Legislature, Herrell said she’s bucked party leaders to do what she felt was right for her constituents. For example, she opposed so-called right-to-work legislation state GOP leaders were pushing after a minimum wage provision was added to a bill.

“I wasn’t going to be swayed or bullied into voting for a bill that I knew wasn’t good for constituents,” she said.

Roy, a former chief of staff to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, said Freedom Caucus leaders “were an enormously important factor, if not the deciding one” in helping him get through the primary and beyond.

He was attracted to the simplicity of the group’s message — most frequently cited by Jordan — that Republicans should be willing to fight to deliver on their promises.

“It is what I hear more often than not on the campaign trail from Texans is how frustrated they’ve been with Congress for not standing up and doing what they said they would do,” he said.

Roy said he would support Jordan for speaker or minority leader, while Herrell doesn’t plan to announce her preference until she is elected.

Tougher than usual

In a normal cycle, Freedom Caucus recruits would mostly be in Solid Republican races, but some of them face tougher-than-usual prospects this year, given the Democrats’ fundraising dominance and their base’s enthusiasm. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Harris’ race a Toss-up, Herrell’s race Tilts Republican, and Riggleman and Roy’s races LikelyRepublican.

If all the Freedom Caucus recruits are elected and join the group and no incumbent members lose, it would amount to a net gain of four members.

Herrell, Riggleman, Fulcher and Wright are running for open seats vacated by caucus members Steve Pearce, Tom Garrett, Raúl R. Labrador and Joe L. Barton, respectively, who are either retiring or running for other office. The caucus is also losing South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, who lost his primary to Katie Arrington, not seen as a potential recruit. 

The Freedom Caucus has already turned two of its early recruits this cycle into members. Debbie Lesko became the only woman in the caucus after she won a special election in Arizona’s 8th District in April, and Michael Cloud became the newest caucus member after his June special election win in Texas’s 27th District.

Lesko has been one of the top beneficiaries of the Freedom Fund this cycle. The PAC has also spent heavily to protect its vulnerable incumbents: Dave Brat in a Toss-up race in Virginia’s 7th District, Rod Blum in a Leans Democratic contest in Iowa’s 1st District, Scott Perry in a Leans Republican race in Pennsylvania’s 10th District, and Ted Budd in a Tilts Republican race in North Carolina’s 13th District. 

‘Learned the hard way’

Meadows said he and Jordan do not ask any of the candidates they spend money on to commit to joining the caucus — invitations would have to come later anyway via a vote of current members — but they do pitch the group to the candidates. They also let them know that leadership will likely try to convince them not to join by offering them prime committee spots or other incentives.

“We tell them what they’re going to get offered. And we’ve learned the hard way,” Meadows said. “We’ve supported a few candidates with significant, six-figure investments, only to find that they didn’t join the caucus. And so letting them know, it’s important.”

While Meadows didn’t name the candidates who’ve burned the group in the past, the Freedom Fund’s FEC filings from last cycle show $100,000 in independent expenditures spent supporting freshman Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, and another $34,000 in donations to his campaign. Banks is not in the Freedom Caucus

It’s unclear exactly how many of the Freedom Caucus-supported candidates will actually join, but Roy and Herrell both said they plan to join if elected and invited. And Meadows expressed optimism about most becoming caucus members next Congress.

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