01/04/2013 02:42 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Primary Challenges Spurred By Independent Political Groups Feared But Rare

WASHINGTON -- As the nation briefly tumbled over the "fiscal cliff" and the White House worked to cut a deal with Senate Republicans, political groups called on Congress to reject the deal and asked supporters to urge their senators and congressmen to vote no.

Many of these groups, mostly on the right, are known for getting involved in primaries to help defeat politicians who stray from their preferred ideas. And yet, the fiscal cliff deal passed with only House Republicans failing to give it majority support in their caucus.

That's because the fear of a primary challenge is more a collective action problem than anything else. Independent political groups only target a handful of incumbent lawmakers in primaries every election; when lawmakers vote en masse they are individually less likely to face a primary challenge than if only a few buck their ideological enforcers.

A review of campaign finance records found that in the past three elections independent groups have spent just $23 million in 52 congressional incumbent primary races, excluding incumbent-on-incumbent elections forced by redistricting. Overall, independent groups spent $78 million in 220 contested primaries from 2008 through 2012 including open seats, open primaries, incumbent challenges and primaries forced by redistricting. Both numbers are just a tiny fraction of the $930 million spent by independent groups on all congressional races over that same time period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Still, the fear of primary challenges was blamed for Republican recalcitrance during the fiscal cliff debacle as independent conservative groups made sure Republicans knew that they were not wallflowers when it came to engaging in primaries.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) told The Hill that the failure of House Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) "Plan B" in December was due to primary fear, "I think that there were members that are so gun-shy about primaries that they weren't willing to take a risk."

This came as major conservative groups including the ultra-conservative Club for Growth sent not-so-subtle signals to Republicans in Congress. "Members of Congress know we're not afraid to get involved in a primary," Barney Keller, a Club for Growth spokesman, previously told The Huffington Post.

Keller further explained to NPR, "One thing we've found is that the only thing that motivates members of Congress is the fear of losing their jobs, and that's the stick we ... use to try and get them to vote for pro-growth policy."

It is true that conservative groups like the Club for Growth routinely involve themselves in primaries. In fact, no other independent group has spent more in congressional primary campaigns than the Club for Growth over the past three elections. One in every $3 spent in contested primaries from 2008 to 2012 was spent by the Club for Growth.

Much of that spending occurred in 2012 when the Club for Growth put most of the $20 million-plus it spent on elections into primary campaigns. The group sank $12.4 million into 15 primary campaigns including helping newly seated Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) win tough primaries in open seat races.

The Club for Growth's biggest success in 2012, however, was the defeat of incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in his bid to win the Republican nomination against Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who ultimately failed to win in the general. While this was a victory for the Club for Growth it also serves as a reminder of the rarity of these incumbent primary challenges. The Club for Growth challenged just four incumbents and spent only $2.5 million in 2012.

Conservative groups are often noted for holding the prospects of a primary challenge over the heads of Republican lawmakers more than progressive groups do to Democratic congressmen. In the 2008 and 2010 elections, however, more money was spent by independent groups in primary challenges to Democratic incumbents than Republicans.

The incumbent primary race featuring the most independent group spending was the Arkansas Senate Democratic primary between Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. Unions and progressive groups backing Halter and business groups backing Lincoln combined to spend $7 million on the race.

The number of incumbent primary challenges and the amount of money spent have increased since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling freed corporations and unions to spend freely in elections and led to a subsequent decision that created super PACs.

Independent spending on incumbent primary challenges increased from $4 million in 2008 to more than $10 million in 2012. The total number of incumbents challenged in primaries, excluding challenges brought about by redistricting, has also shot up from 14 in 2008 to 22 in 2012.

Part of this is due to the free-wheeling nature of the new world created by Citizens United where anyone with enough money can get involved in a campaign.

A prime example of this is the third biggest spender on incumbent challenges in 2012, the Campaign for Primary Accountability. The super PAC, founded and funded by a fiscally conservative Texas construction magnate Leo Linbeck III, spent $1.3 million challenging nine incumbents, two of whom lost. The group spent an additional $561,000 on two incumbent-on-incumbent redistricting races and one open seat race.

Super PACs also popped around individual candidates in 2012 to both protect and defeat incumbents in primaries.

In a losing cause, donors backing Lugar in his primary race created two super PACs to beat back the millions spent by the likes of the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the National Rifle Association.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) received support from a super PAC funded by some of her biggest donors, Friends United, when Texas attorney Taj Clayton challenged her in a primary. In New York, Clyde Williams' unsuccessful challenge to the 40 year incumbent Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) was aided by Campaign for Our Future, a super PAC funded by some of Williams' top donors.

Some lawmakers got an early head start on obtaining a super PAC for primary protection. Supporters of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) launched a super PAC called Bluegrass Votes in 2012 in case conservative groups target him in a primary campaign.



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