How Kevin McCarthy’s political machine worked to sway the GOP field

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has helped raise $165 million this cycle for the House GOP’s largest super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund.

WASHINGTON – Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) made a name for himself as a firebrand social media phenomenon who delighted in trolling the left, famously boasting to colleagues that he had built his House office by focusing on communications not legislation.

But the strategy made him vulnerable to forces within his own party that helped end his time in office. Top allies of Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, worked this spring to deny Cawthorn a second term in office, after the Donald Trump-endorsed lawmaker made controversial comments about cocaine use and sex parties in Washington that led McCarthy to announce he had “lost my trust,” according to multiple Republicans briefed on the effort, which has not been previously reported.

GOP lobbyist Jeff Miller, one of McCarthy’s closest friends and biggest fundraisers, and Brian O. Walsh, a Republican strategist who works for multiple McCarthy-backed groups, were both involved in an independent effort to oppose Cawthorn as part of a broader project to create a more functioning GOP caucus next year, said the Republicans, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Targeting Cawthorn was part of a larger behind-the-scenes effort by top GOP donors and senior strategists to purge the influence of Republican factions that seek disruption and grandstanding, often at the expense of their GOP colleagues. The political machine around McCarthy has spent millions of dollars this year in a sometimes secretive effort to systematically weed out GOP candidates who could either cause McCarthy trouble if he becomes House speaker or jeopardize GOP victories in districts where a more moderate candidate might have a better chance at winning.

The allies close to McCarthy have sometimes taken steps to conceal their efforts, as they did in the Cawthorn case, with money passing from top GOP donors through organizations that do not disclose their donors or have limited public records, federal disclosures show.

In safe Republican districts, controversial Republicans like former New York State party chair Carl Paladino, Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini and Trump-endorsed congressional candidate Joe Kent have been targeted after distancing themselves from McCarthy’s leadership and echoing extreme claims. McCarthy’s team has also gone to work to protect several GOP incumbents from far-right challenges, campaign finance records show.

Miller, Walsh and McCarthy’s office declined requests for comment.

McCarthy’s own approach to enforcing unity within his sometimes fractious Republican caucus has been more aggressive than his two immediate predecessors, Reps. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), whose tenures in leadership were marred by dissent and dysfunction. McCarthy has spoken publicly about the need to not just win a majority in the House, but to make sure his party wins “a governing majority.”

“We’re coming out with solutions. If we’re unified in that, even if we have a small majority, we’d be very strong in being able to pass it,” McCarthy said at a March House Republican retreat. “So we want the idea to be so strong that you overcome all the politics that people bring.”

McCarthy has a reputation for caring about politics over policy, but ultimately his fate may lie in the hands of one person: Trump. If Republicans win a small majority in the House, Trump could likely influence enough votes to determine the speakership, GOP strategists say. It’s a major reason McCarthy allies say he has remained close to Trump even when he has grown frustrated with him.

Several Republican members of the House have applauded the efforts to bring more pragmatists into power who will prioritize passing conservative policies over the more disruptive tactics of the House Freedom Caucus. That group of far-right lawmakers has asked for rule changes in the next Congress that would increase their leverage over the rest of the caucus.

“One subset lives in reality, the other subset does not,” a Republican member of Congress concerned about the Freedom Caucus said.

Behind the scenes, some of the party’s top donors have worked with McCarthy’s allies to further the project, while taking steps to obscure their direct involvement in more controversial races.

“McCarthy is a political animal, and he has a lot of political animals working for him,” said a Republican operative close to several prominent donors who is familiar with the broader effort. “He is not a guy to be trifled with. It’s like they say in the Marine Corps, ‘No better friend, no worse enemy.’ And they mean it, and they act on it.”

McCarthy allies argue that their interventions in GOP primaries have little to do with political ideology, but rather focus on elevating politicians who will work with the rest of the Republican caucus or who have the best chance of winning their district. The Bakersfield, Calif., Republican has recently embraced some of the most far-right members of his caucus, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), whose committee assignments he plans to restore if Republicans win the House.

Much of the spending in Republican primaries by McCarthy’s political operation has been done out in the open by the House GOP’s largest super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, for which McCarthy has helped raise $165 million this cycle.

CLF, which is run by Dan Conston, has spent more than $7 million in Republican primaries this cycle, much of it focused on nominating more moderate, and therefore electable, candidates in swing districts. The group also spent millions in attempts to protect incumbents like Michael Guest (R-Miss.), Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), and Jamie Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), who hail from safer Republican districts, when they faced challenges from more far-right figures.

The group spent nearly $40,000 on turnout calls to help Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) in a safe Republican seat when he was challenged in the primary by online agitator Laura Loomer, who has described herself as being “pro-white nationalism” and a “proud Islamophobe,” campaign finance records show. In an overwhelmingly Republican Texas district north of Houston, CLF and another group founded by McCarthy allies, American Patriots PAC, spent nearly $1 million to help McCarthy favorite Morgan Luttrell beat Christian Collins. Both Collins and Loomer were endorsed by members of the Freedom Caucus, including Greene.

CLF used a different McCarthy-aligned group this summer to intervene on behalf of Herrera Beutler, who earned Trump’s ire by voting for his impeachment in 2021. Kent, her Trump-endorsed challenger, opposed McCarthy as speaker, denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election and denounced the legal treatment of Jan. 6 rioters as “banana republic stuff.”

But in the weeks before the Aug. 2 primary, two groups, WFW Action Fund and previously unknown group called Conservatives For A Stronger America, began attacking Kent as a closeted leftist, with television ads misleadingly suggesting he wanted to “defund the police” or showing old photos of the former Army Special Forces officer sporting long hair alongside false claims that he supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

After Kent defeated Herrera Beutler in the primary, both PACs opposing him publicly report contributions that tied their efforts to McCarthy’s allies. WFW Action Fund received transfers of nearly $1 million from CLF in the months before the ads.

Conservatives For a Stronger America reported after the primary that it received all its money from a group called the Eighteen Fifty-Four Fund, apparently named after the year in which the Republican Party was founded. That group, in turn, which has spent money on an number of races this cycle, has received funding from three sources, according to federal records: WFW Action Fund, American Patriots PAC and a nonprofit called Common Sense Leadership Fund, which is not required by law to report its donors. Federal records do not connect any of the specific donors to the transfers to Conservatives for a Stronger America.

Annie Dickerson, the founder of WFW Action Fund, attended McCarthy’s Jackson Hole donor retreat this summer, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. She was joined there by the personal advisers of financial manager Charles R. Schwab, Elliott Management’s Paul Singer and Citadel’s Kenneth C. Griffin, who are all billionaire donors to CLF, WFW Action Fund and other parts of McCarthy’s political operation. They are also all donors to American Patriots PAC, a group founded in 2018 by Conston, which has paid Walsh for strategy consulting this cycle.

At the same time, the anti-Kent effort reached outside McCarthy’s immediate orbit for support. After the primary, WFW Action Fund disclosed a July 27 donation of $100,000 from Fix Congress Now!, a PAC that has been otherwise dormant this election cycle. Fix Congress Now!, in turn, had received a $102,450 donation from an affiliated group called Unite America PAC on July 2.

Unite America PAC is affiliated with a nonprofit of the same name that seeks changes to the U.S. election system that would give the nation’s political extremes less power, such as through the use of nonpartisan primaries or redistricting. Though it has Republican donors, the group is mostly funded by Riot Games executive Marc Merrill and Cathryn Murdoch, the wife of former Fox News executive James Murdoch, who are both are major donors to the Democratic National Committee.

A spokesman for Unite America said the donation was made to support Herrera Beutler. “We affirmatively supported pro-democracy Republicans this primary cycle,” said Chris Deaton, a spokesman for the group.

Olivia Perez-Cubas, a spokesperson for WFW Action, said the group raised money from CLF and other partners to support Herrera Beutler because the group is “dedicated to building and expanding the ranks of GOP women in Congress.”

The complex shuffling of funds through other groups became a pattern in multiple Republican House primaries, where Freedom Caucus-aligned candidates found themselves targeted. A person involved said some of the efforts were coordinated by McCarthy allies. At other times, as in a recent race in Florida’s 8th District, where $1.6 million was spent against Anna Paulina Luna, individual donors decide to intervene on their own.

A group that only came into existence in August, American Liberty Action PAC, spent more than $2.5 million in recent weeks to defeat candidates who questioned the 2020 election and expressed affinity for the Freedom Caucus in their recent campaigns, including Paladino and Sabatini.

Both candidates set off alarm bells for Republican strategists close to McCarthy. Paladino had recently circulated a conspiratorial Facebook post about the cause of the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde and suggested in 2021 that the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler is “the kind of leader we need today.” Sabatini, a friend of Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), had been an outspoken critic of McCarthy.

“They would have been legislative terrorists whose goal was fame,” said a person familiar with the effort to stop them.

After Paladino and Sabatini both lost their primaries, American Liberty Action disclosed that it was entirely funded by the Eighteen Fifty-Four Fund and a nonprofit, American Prosperity Alliance, which does not disclose its donors.

Paladino blamed McCarthy and his allies for the spending, which he said only arose because his opponent, Nick Langworthy, made it clear he would be more friendly with GOP leadership.

“Nick sold his soul,” Paladino said. “If I was going to go to Washington, I was going to go as an independent Republican. I just didn’t want to be owned by anybody.”

Sabatini also believed during his campaign that he was being attacked by the Washington establishment.

“Everything is happening behind the scenes, but obviously that is what the money shows,” Sabatini said of the involvement of McCarthy allies. “They don’t want a conservative to win. They want a brainless, spineless robot.”

Trump has so far declined to criticize McCarthy for the primary interventions. People close to both men say they continue to have a close working relationship around House races, despite other tensions, as Trump has prioritized growing the size of the House majority.

The former president notably declined to make an endorsement against Rep. David G. Valadao (R-Calif.), even though he was one of the ten Republicans who voted to impeach Trump in 2021. CLF spent about $800,000 in the primary to help Valadao defeat his GOP rival, Chris Mathys, who ran on a platform of supporting Trump more.

“When your own party spends $300,000 a week before the election attacking you, then you really have to wonder which side are they on,” Mathys said after his defeat, noting that he could not get his calls returned by Trump. “We called 50 times but never got a call back from anyone.”

As in the case of Herrera Beutler, the efforts by McCarthy and his partners have not always been successful. CLF was unable to defeat Sandy Smith, a pro-Trump candidate in North Carolina’s 1st District who faced past allegations of domestic violence. In Arizona, CLF and WFW Action spent about $1 million to support Republican Tanya Wheeless, only to watch her lose the primary to Kelly Cooper, who has challenged the legitimacy of the 2020 election and promised to seek the release of those arrested for storming the U.S. Capitol.

The Cawthorn race became a concern for McCarthy earlier this year, when the freshman member told a podcast about seeing cocaine use in Washington and being invited to sex parties. After meeting with McCarthy over the statements, Cawthorn blamed “the left and the media” for trying to use his comments to divide the GOP. His office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

In the weeks before his primary, a group called Results for N.C. spent $1.7 million to defeat him and support his opponent. The National Association of Realtors, which gave $600,000 to CLF, gave $300,000 to the cause. A nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, Americans for a Balanced Budget, gave $830,000.

Most of the rest of the money, $700,000, came from Ryan Salame, an executive at crypto currency exchange FTX U.S., a major donor both to McCarthy’s own operation and to other groups backing McCarthy’s favored candidates. West Realm Shires Services, the corporate name used by FTX U.S., gave $750,000 to CLF in August. Advisers to Salame and FTX declined to comment.

But Mark Wetjen, the head of public policy and regulatory strategy at FTX, was invited with his family to McCarthy’s August donor retreat in Wyoming.