The Men Who Stare At Incumbents, and Then Try to Beat Them

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 8 2012 1:48 PM

The Men Who Stare At Incumbents, and Then Try to Beat Them

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from Curtis Ellis, the former spokesman for Jack Davis's shoot-the-bastards independent congressional campaign in New York. He'd helped one wealthy guy screw up an election for the two parties. He was going to help Leo Linbeck, a Texas donor, do it in a bunch of other races.

"We've got a PAC that's taking on incumbents -- the Campaign for Primary Accountability," he said. "Right now we're running ads against Marcy Kaptur, which would help Dennis Kucinich. Imagine that. A Republican millionaire helping out Kucinich. That's a story, right?"

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It was, but not in the way he said it would be. Kaptur beat Kucinich, but CPA ads helped Brad Wenstrup, an Iraq War vet with no political experience, defeat the constantly-underperforming Rep. Jean Schmidt in an unfamiliar district. (Schmidt took her seat in a contested special election and proceeded to disappear until she called John Murtha a "coward" and appeared to be comisserating with birthers on video.) Cue: Stories in Mother Jones and the Washington Post about the new Super PAC. Tim Murphy's story tracks the funding that took out a congresswoman:

Linbeck, the son of fair tax crusader Leo Linbeck Jr., gave the group $775,042; TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, father of Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, ponied up $500,000; Tim Dunn, CEO of Crownquest Inc., a Midland-based oil and gas company, chipped in another $350,000. And $100,000 came from Eric O'Keefe, a Wisconsin philanthropist who's given generously to groups like the Club for Growth and US Term Limits.

And the result so far: A scalp. "Our model absolutely succeeded in Ohio," said Ellis. "We increased turnout and the voters were better informed. Usually when you see increased turnout in an election like this, it helps the incumbent. (One note: The contested GOP presidential primary also drove turnout.)

The next CPA target will be Alabama, home to Rep. Jo Bonner and Rep. Spencer Bachus. Schmidt was a back-bencher, but Bachus chairs the Financial Services Committee, and was embarrassed by a 60 Minutes special on members of Congress who might have used scoops from their hearings to trade stock. "We're going to end the Bacchanalia!" said Ellis. From there: Illinois's 2nd district, where Rep. Jesse Jackson -- who's been dogged by scandal since 2009 -- is running against former Rep. Debbie Halvorsson, a one-term progressive who won in the Obama wave.

"We're only talking about the races we've picked in this first quarter" said Ellis. "Beyond that, we're not sure. The criteria: We're only running in one party districts. We're not looking to switch seats between parties. What we look for are races where there are credible challengers, candidates who could do the job, not somebody with a funny hat who can get his name on the ballot. And we need polling that shows it's winnable."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.