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That McCarthy PAC Concession? It Could Elect Far-Right Candidates in 2024.

To secure him the speakership, a PAC linked to Kevin McCarthy promised to change how it handles races in safe Republican districts.
January 9, 2023
That McCarthy PAC Concession? It Could Elect Far-Right Candidates in 2024.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., addresses the 118th Congress after he won the speakership on the 15th ballot on Saturday, January 7, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

After months of miscalculation, four days of humiliation, and fifteen ballots, Kevin McCarthy has finally secured his dream of becoming speaker of the House. Along the way, he made concessions that will give extremists more power over him and Congress. Under proposed changes to House rules, scheduled for a vote on Monday, any one of the Republican radicals who took McCarthy hostage last week will be able to threaten him again by calling, at any moment, for a vote to oust him. The Freedom Caucus will get more seats—some reports say one-third of the seats—on the Rules Committee, thereby influencing which bills get to the floor. McCarthy has also reportedly agreed not to raise the national debt ceiling unless it’s accompanied by spending cuts.

But the extremists didn’t just get more power for the next two years, or however long McCarthy’s tenure lasts. They also got a concession that will allow them to multiply. In the next Congress, there will probably be more of them—possibly a lot more of them—thanks to a deal that limits the role of McCarthy’s allies in Republican congressional primaries.

Last Tuesday, the Congressional Leadership Fund, which calls itself “the independent super PAC endorsed by Kevin McCarthy”—that’s lawyer-speak for McCarthy’s super PAC—cut a deal to get right-wing support for his speakership bid. Under the deal, CLF agreed that it will no longer “spend in any open-seat primaries in safe Republican districts.” Nor will it “grant resources to other super PACs to do so.”

That’s a big deal. CLF spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars in the 2022 elections. It can still support Republican incumbents against right-wing challengers, and in swing districts, it can oppose troublemakers in Republican primaries. But in safe red districts where a Republican incumbent isn’t running, CLF will yield to extremist candidates and their funders.

It’s bad enough that Congress already has 20 Republican lawmakers who were willing to shut down the House. And it’s alarming to imagine what those 20 will do when the House has to raise the debt ceiling. But the caucus of extremists would be even larger today if McCarthy and his allies hadn’t torpedoed many of them in last year’s primaries.

According to an analysis by the American Accountability Foundation—a conservative watchdog group that boasts of having been “attacked” by The Bulwark—entities affiliated with the House GOP leadership spent tens of millions of dollars last year on independent expenditures in Republican primaries. The group’s analysis backs up what news organizations have reported: McCarthy and his allies used dark money to knock off Republican candidates who might have lost winnable seats to Democrats or—if those Republican candidates had made it to Congress—might have threatened McCarthy’s shot at the speakership.

What would Congress look like today if McCarthy-affiliated entities hadn’t kneecapped those candidates? And what will it look like two years from how if CLF and like-minded organizations stay on the sidelines? Remember, we’re talking about safe Republican districts, where candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene can easily get elected once they make it through the primary.

Let’s look are some of the candidates who got buried last year by CLF and similar groups, specifically in the category of races from which CLF will now abstain: open-seat primaries in safe districts.

Texas’s 8th Congressional District. CLF spent more than $700,000 to help Republican candidate Morgan Luttrell narrowly avoid a runoff against Christian Collins. Collins, a promoter of conspiracy theories, pledged to “side with the Madison Cawthorns [and] Marjorie Taylor Greenes” against McCarthy’s “establishment.” In February, Collins demanded “a nationwide audit of the 2020 election” and said “Dr. Fauci should be in jail.”

Florida’s 7th Congressional District. American Liberty Action PAC, another player in the network of super PACs connected to McCarthy, spent nearly $1.5 million to knock off Anthony Sabatini, a friend of chaos-caucus ringleader Matt Gaetz. In July, at a conference run by nationalists who used to work with Nick Fuentes—yes, that Nick Fuentes—Sabatini called for the repeal of Juneteenth as a holiday and said every Republican who voted for aid to Ukraine should be purged from Congress.

Sabatini also said the 47 House Republicans who voted to codify same-sex marriage should “be primaried and removed.” And in August, after the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago, he called on the Florida legislature to “sever all ties with DOJ.” He added: “Any FBI agent conducting law enforcement functions outside the purview of our State should be arrested upon sight.”

New York’s 23rd Congressional District. American Liberty Action PAC also spent more than $1 million to help Nick Langworthy narrowly defeat Carl Paladino in the Republican primary. Among other things, Paladino had called Hitler “the kind of leader we need today”—not the mass murder, you understand; just the rhetorical gifts—and said Michelle Obama should “return to being a male” and live with a gorilla in Africa. Paladino later said—just jokingly, of course—that Attorney General Merrick Garland “probably should be executed” for the Mar-a-Lago search.

Missouri’s 4th Congressional District. The American Dream Federal Action PAC, another group indirectly linked to McCarthy, spent more than $500,000 to help Mark Alford beat State Sen. Rick Brattin, an “election integrity” enthusiast and cultural extremist. Brattin sponsored a bill to allow lawsuits against anyone who helped women cross state lines to get abortions. He also advocated legislation that would make it a federal crime to provide abortions to any woman from another state.

Florida’s 4th Congressional District. American Dream Federal Action PAC spent more than $450,000 to help Aaron Bean defeat Erick Aguilar, a con man who fooled people into donating to him when they thought they were donating to other Republicans. Aguilar said the uproar against him was part of a smear by the “establishment.” “All of your MAGA candidates are under attack,” he said. “They’re trying to take MTG out, they tried to take our Boebert. They don’t want candidates like me, MAGA candidates.”

McCarthy-affiliated PACs also squelched candidates in other places. In Alabama’s 5th district, American Dream Federal Action PAC spent nearly $400,000 to help Dale Strong beat Casey Wardynski, who complained about “Russiagate hoaxers.” In Texas’s 38th district, CLF helped Wesley Hunt avoid a runoff with Mark Ramsey, an oil-industry diehard who rebuked Hunt for talking about fighting climate change.

All of these primaries were close enough, at some point, that the big-money people decided to spend heavily on them. Some, even after the deluge of money, remained tight at the end. They probably didn’t affect the partisan balance of Congress, since they were in solid-red districts. But they could have fortified the bloc of extremists in the House GOP.

That’s why CLF confined its deal to safe districts. Under the agreement, CLF can still support “challengers in districts that affect the Majority,” since those districts could add to the Republican conference. But in districts where a Republican victory is all but guaranteed, the radicals can now have their way. McCarthy’s allies—and presumably McCarthy himself, though for legal reasons, he can’t officially be involved in such decisions—are willing to saddle America with more extremists, as long as they’re Republicans.

Fortunately, there are two reason for hope. First, McCarthy is a lifelong weasel. And second, the deal leaves plenty of loopholes. If McCarthy, after securing the speakership, decides to double-cross the chaos caucus, he has lots of options. He can direct his donors—sorry, I should have said, people close to McCarthy can direct his donors—to funnel their money through any of the other independent-expenditure groups that are informally connected to him. As long as that money doesn’t go through CLF, it can technically be used, under the terms of the deal, to carpet-bomb extremists in Republican primaries.

God help me, I’m rooting for him.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.