CLF President Dan Conston sat down with National Journal’s Kirk Bado to discuss our midterm strategy and finishing the job we started in 2020 to take back the House.
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Dan Conston’s Numbers Game
Republicans “shocked the world” last cycle. Now their outside groups, including the Congressional Leadership Fund, aim to finish the job.
National Journal | Kirk Bado | November 14, 2021
Having more money does not guarantee victory for congressional campaigns, but not having money almost certainly spells doom.
No one in Republican politics understands that dynamic better than Dan Conston, the president of the Congressional Leadership Fund.
The GOP-leadership-blessed super PAC was established in 2011 in the wake of the Citizens United v. FEC decision that loosened regulations on campaign spending.
Ahead of its first election cycle in 2012, the PAC spent $10 million supporting GOP House candidates. Fast forward to last year when Conston took over, and his self-described “cavalry that ensures Republicans win tough races” spent $142.5 million in more than 60 races across the country, defending every incumbent and coming within five seats of the majority.
“We shocked the world last cycle,” Conston told National Journal in an October interview. “We didn’t just show that we can win everywhere, but we are now firmly in arm’s reach of the majority.”
This cycle, Conston is back to finish the job—and money is no object.
“CLF was the biggest House super PAC in U.S. history last cycle,” he said. “We are in a good position to play a clearly decisive role again in helping Republicans win races and win back the majority.”
Building on success
The cost of congressional campaigns has surged over the last decade. In 2012, the average incoming freshman in the House of Representatives raised $1.9 million. In 2020, that ballooned to $3.4 million. Raising half a million dollars in three months was once considered an enviable quarter for a candidate running a statewide campaign, but that haul now would not even rank in the top 25 for House districts.
Even with the boom in campaign cash flowing to downballot races, Republicans have been forced to play catch-up with their Democratic counterparts in the last decade of campaigning. GOP candidates have struggled to keep pace with Democrats’ online fundraising portal, ActBlue, which launched way back in 2004.
Last year, Democrats pressed their financial advantage and forced Republicans to spend money defending incumbents in districts that wouldn’t normally be competitive, including more than $7 million in upstate New York to prop up Claudia Tenney, a notoriously poor fundraiser. Tenney ultimately defeated Rep. Anthony Brindisi by just 109 votes in a race that wasn’t called until February, returning her to Congress.
No sooner was the ink dry on 2020 ballots than Conston sounded the alarm over this cycle.
But this year, thanks to an embrace of small-dollar campaign fundraising and the maturation of Republicans’ own online fundraising conduit, WinRed, Republican candidates have significantly cut into Democrats’ cash advantage. “Digital fundraising has transformed candidate fundraising,” Conston told National Journal in an interview earlier this year.
Yet even with advances in digital fundraising, vulnerable Democrats are vastly outraising their challengers. The 30 “Frontliner” incumbents that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has identified as its most vulnerable members raised an average of $729,000 and reported an average of $2.6 million in cash on hand, according to October campaign finance reports.
“Republican candidates are making leaps and bounds from where they were, but we’re still going up against a behemoth Democratic member fundraising networks,” Conston cautioned. “We’re clear-eyed about that challenge, and we think that is one of the places CLF can play a key role in leveling the playing field.”
As of its last fundraising report in July, CLF had $11 million on hand. Its sister organization, the issue-advocacy-focused American Action Network, has already started hammering Democrats for the Biden administration’s social-infrastructure agenda.
Democrats hope that President Biden’s legislative agenda will lift them past the historic headwinds they face, but Conston says it will only weigh them down.
“If they pass the Build Back Better agenda, it’s going to be an anchor for them politically,” he said. “They are in a precarious position right now that they have deluded themselves into believing that they need this in order to change the calculus, but politically I don’t believe it will help them at all.”
Best defense is a good offense
With a worsening national environment for Democrats, Conston sees an opportunity to vastly expand the map. He’s directing “the vast majority of resources” to focus on offensive targets because “the wind is at our back.”
“President Biden’s approval rating is the canary in the coal mine for Democrats,” Conston said. “The amount of people that strongly disapprove of Biden are basically the same that strongly disapproved of President Trump four years ago.”
While that’s not exactly the case, things are certainly looking grim for Democrats one year out, especially after recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and around the country showed Republicans outperforming expectations.
In a memo released after the elections, Conston argued that the environment is actually even more favorable for his party because higher turnout did not doom Republicans as many analysts thought it would, and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Trump-centric closing argument was a dud.
“Democrats waged a tired and uncredible campaign nearly entirely focused on President Trump. We faced a similar dynamic last cycle in key suburban races and won by focusing on real issues in voters’ lives, while Democrats tried to convince voters that every Republican was Trump 2.0,” Conston wrote.
But it’s not just Democrats who have to maneuver around Trump. Like other organizations in the GOP campaign infrastructure, Conston and CLF have had to navigate the whims of the former president. Trump has sworn vengeance against the 10 HouseRepublicans who voted to impeach him, and according to a report from The New York Times, other Republican leaders are putting pressure on consultants to pick a side.
Unlike the National Republican Congressional Committee, CLF does pick sides in primaries. Taking its cues from Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who effectively controls the PAC, a person familiar with CLF’s strategy said it would not support Rep. Liz Cheney but would support some of the other House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump.
While not directly addressing Trump, Conston did emphasize that it was important that GOP candidates emphasize turnout in their messaging, tacitly rebuking past comments from the former president warning that his base would stay home in 2022 and 2024 if Republican leaders did not investigate his false claims of election fraud.
“Ultimately we believe the base will turn out because they’re going to want to send a message to stop what’s happening in Washington and that will be the forefront concern in their minds, but I don’t think any candidate or member should take turnout for granted.”