Tea Party splits GOP, kindling party's civil war
U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly hosted rallies for a conservative Tea Party group at his Butler car dealership before his 2010 election to Congress, when he and dozens of candidates had ties to the anti-tax movement.
Since then, Kelly has become active with the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate pro-business group whose political fundraising arm has collected more than 90 percent of its money from labor groups.
“I never close my door to anybody. It's all about building relationships,” Kelly said.
But the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party are in a heated civil war heading into the spring primary.
Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative advocacy group in Washington, has targeted several races featuring Main Street Republicans it considers too liberal. Club spokesman Barney Keller said Kelly is not one of those being targeted, but he noted that he votes with the group's outlook 56 percent of the time.
“Democrats are driving the car off the financial cliff at 85 mph, but many Republicans are doing it at 65 mph and think they should get your vote. We need more fiscal conservatives like Sen. (Pat) Toomey to hold the president accountable,” Keller said.
Toomey, a former Club for Growth president from the Lehigh County village of Zionsville, was elected to the Senate in 2010 with more than $2 million in financial support from the group. He votes in accordance with its views 95 percent of the time.
Sarah Chamberlain, Main Street Partnership's chief operating officer, said the group and its super-political action committee, Defending Main Street, are raising $8 million to help incumbents ward off primary challenges from Club for Growth-endorsed candidates, many of whom are associated with the Tea Party.
“In 2010, the Tea Party was focused almost exclusively on beating Democrats and taking control of Congress. Today that has shifted to a lot of places where it's more interested in running against Republicans,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist in Harrisburg.
Main Street supports GOP Reps. Mike Simpson of Idaho and David Joyce of Ohio, and expects to get in more races, Chamberlain said.
“I think it's unfortunate and unhealthy for the Republican Party that we are forced to spend money in places we don't or shouldn't have to,” she said.
A University of Virginia analysis found that only 2 percent of U.S. House incumbents have lost in contested primary races since 1946.
Defending Main Street raised $845,000 through Jan. 31, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Super-PACs cannot contribute directly to campaigns or parties, but they can spend an unlimited amount of money to influence races through advertisements and other means. Individuals, corporations, unions and other groups can donate to super-PACs without limits.
Records show about 90 percent of the money to Defending Main Street came from labor groups, including the International Union of Operating Engineers ($250,000), Working for Working Americans ($250,000), Laborers' International Union of North America ($150,000), Laborers' Political League Education Fund ($100,000) and the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association's Political Action Fund ($15,000).
Rich Greer, a Laborers' union spokesman, said its support would benefit candidates “more likely to reject Tea Party extremism in favor of passing policies that can help more working families earn their way into the middle class, one of the most powerful drivers for America's economic growth.”
Also contributing were David Bonderman, founder of TPG Capital, a private equity firm in Fort Worth ($30,000), and the Chickasaw Nation, a Native American tribe in Oklahoma ($50,000).
Lara Brown, who directs the graduate program in political management at George Washington University, said Main Street's lopsided labor contributions might reflect shifts in the major parties, including from some “rank-and-file union members who voted for Hillary (Clinton) in '08 but feel as if Democrats have abandoned them as they pursued their new creative coalition of educated elites and urban minorities.”
“I think labor unions realize that not all of their members are lockstep Democrats,” Brown said.
Registered Republicans compose about 22 percent of the AFL-CIO's membership in Pennsylvania, according to union data.
Political observers are not surprised by the intraparty squabbles.
“Those factional squabbles are just more evident when political parties are out of the White House and the factions are trying to get control,” Brown said.
Tom Fontaine is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.