Mighty pricey Main Street you’ve got there

My Irony-O-Meter goes to eleven.

Can I be your sugar daddy?

A Houston-based super PAC is targeting a dozen Democratic and Republican incumbents to reshape the political landscape in five states, including Texas where critics say an election law loophole is being used by a wealthy family to buy a seat in Congress.

The Campaign for Primary Accountability, a conservative political action committee whose largest donor is Houston builder Leo Linbeck III, is working to defeat Rep. Sylvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas.

The PAC is funding challenges to Reyes and Johnson and congressional Democrats in Ohio deemed entrenched and vulnerable to strong challengers.


The Super PAC has raised $1.8 million to aid challengers in contested primaries where incumbents hold an advantage because of seniority and backing from special interests and Washington lobbyists.

Ellis said the PAC is helping strong challengers against incumbents by leveling the playing field and dilute the power of special interests.

“It’s not about party, it’s about process,” Ellis said. “We want the people of Congress to fear Main Street, not K Street.

“The insiders, the lobbyists, give the incumbents the advantage. We want to equalize that,” Ellis said.

And the way they want to do that is by giving challengers their own obscenely wealthy benefactor:

The largest donor to the Campaign for Primary Accountability, Linbeck, gave $775,000. He is a staunch advocate for tax reform and smaller government.

“We are not funding parties and we are not funding incumbents,” Ellis said. “We are using the power of the system the way it has been adjudicated at the Supreme Court level.”

Well, I can’t argue with that, though I do hope that SCOTUS will rethink the wisdom of that decision. I just can’t say I know anyone on my street who can afford to drop $775K on political campaigns. Forget Main Street, my problem is that I don’t live on Linbeck Street. Leo Linbeck III is the son of Leo Linbeck, Jr, who is one of the founders of Texans for Lawsuit Reform and one of the longtime occupiers of a seat in the owners’ box at the Texas Lege. Always nice to see a son follow in his daddy’s footsteps, isn’t it?

The Super PAC supports Dallas lawyer Taj Clayton in a crowded Democratic primary.

They also support Beto O’Rourke in El Paso. Both Clayton and O’Rourke did very well in the last quarter’s fundraising report, and no doubt some Linbeck love helped them considerably. As ludicrous and distasteful as I find this, I don’t consider this to be a disqualifier for either candidate. O’Rourke has some solid progressive credentials; I don’t know much about Clayton but in general I’m supportive of new young faces on the scene. Ideally, if either or both were to win, I’d hope they spend their careers pushing legislation that the Leo Linbecks of the world abhor. But folks usually do dance with them that brung ’em, and I certainly won’t argue against anyone who would oppose them for taking Leo Linbeck’s money. In the meantime, consider this Exhibit 459,831 for Why We Need Real Campaign Finance Reform.

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9 Responses to Mighty pricey Main Street you’ve got there

  1. Jennifer says:

    You do realize there’s a difference between taking Linbeck’s money directly and the Campaign For Primary Accountability running independent expenditure campaigns on behalf of the candidates without their knowledge or consent, right?

  2. Sure, but a lot of people who will see the ads they run won’t know anything about that, and it’s a fine distinction for many people who do understand it. Unless they specifically disavow what the PAC is doing, they are at least tacitly endorsing it. I understand why these candidates would not do anything like that, but that’s how it is.

  3. Charles,

    A buddy forwarded me a link to this piece. Sounds like you’d like to agree with what we’re doing – “Well, I can’t argue with that” and “in general I’m supportive of new young faces on the scene” – but you are skeptical, especially about me. Fair enough.

    I can understand why you’d be skeptical about what we’re doing, and snarky toward me. No worries – it’s a tough world out there, and what we’re doing is really different, a complete rejection of the current paradigm, and I expect far worse before we’re done. The Right vs. Left, Republican vs. Democrat narrative is deeply entrenched, and you apparently buy into it and have decided that I’m on the wrong side. But if you’ve done any research on me individually (vs. pre-judging me as a bad guy because I have money or come from a successful family or have a dad who has supported policies you oppose), you’d see that the reality is, well, more complex. (Google can help in that regard, too ;-).

    Look, we’re both Houstonians; I love this city, as apparently you do too. So we may have more in common than you think. Regardless, since we gotta live here together as neighbors, how about getting together for a neighborly chat? I’d enjoy getting to know you (knowledge is good ;-); if you feel the same way, let’s have a cup of coffee. Or chat on the phone. Or have an email exchange. Or whatever. You have my email from this post, so feel free to drop me a line.

    If you’d rather not, that’s cool too. Just figure I’d reach out and extend the offer. Lemme know.


    PS – for what it’s worth, I’ve never met any of the challengers CPA is supporting. And I don’t want to “own” them. I’ve never asked them for anything. In fact, by law, I can’t communicate with their campaign in any way.

    So what do I want? Real competition in elections – that’s the fundamental basis of any democracy, and how the people maintain control of their elected officials. But in today’s environment – where 85% of incumbents are in districts that are dominated by one party (meaning the decision is made in the primary), 62% of incumbents have no opponent in the primary (meaning voters have no choice), 99% of incumbents win their primary (meaning incumbents are not threatened), and almost all of the money comes from lobbyists, unions, industry associations, and special interests, and goes almost exclusively to incumbents (meaning only one side can get it’s argument out to voters) – it’s clear there is not real competition. And it’s unrealistic to expect incumbents to pass laws making elections more competitive – a moment’s thought will show that to be the case.

    So we’re stuck with the election laws we’ve got, and have to try to find a way to increase competition within those constraints. That’s what we’re trying to do. You may think this is a bad idea; or stupid; or a waste of money; or won’t work. And you might be right. But that’s what it’s about.

  4. Leo,

    Thank you for taking the time to give your feedback. I appreciate it, and I would like to explain a bit more fully why I reacted the way I did to this story.

    I agree that many districts are drawn to prevent competitive elections, that incumbents have a distinct advantage in fundraising which also helps to prevent competitive elections (though I believe you overstate the case on how rare successful primary challenges are), and that it is easy for long-serving incumbents to become out of touch with their constituents. I do not agree that big-donor PACs supporting challengers is a good answer to that, however. I would argue that one reason why incumbents can become out of touch with their constituents is because they don’t need to solicit fundraising support for their campaigns from many of them. Why bother spending hours on the phone dialing for dollars when you can have a couple of people write six and seven figure checks to a Super PAC that supports you? Yes, your PAC may be truly independent, but let’s not kid ourselves. These things don’t spring from a vacuum, and if the left hand doesn’t know exactly what the right hand is doing, it can usually take a pretty good guess. Arguably, the very existence of super PACs like yours could have the effect of removing politics further from the voters since again, candidates will come to rely less on their financial support.

    I am also naturally suspicious of PACs whose criteria for supporting a given candidate is unclear to me, as was the case with this story. Are there any specific policies or issues that would cause CPA to oppose a given incumbent and/or support an opponent to that incumbent, or is it basically “incumbents bad, challengers good”? (Google is indeed my friend, but it was of no help here.) If the former is true for CPA, then what are those policies or issues? If it’s the latter, I’m afraid it’s too random for my taste. Some incumbents remain in place for a long time because they’re very good at what they do, after all. Neither the article nor your website gave me any indication about this.

    You are right that it is very difficult to pass campaign finance reform laws. At the risk of sounding snarky again, you could use the money you are spending on this PAC to support candidates who will promise to support whatever campaign finance changes you think would address the issues your PAC raises. To be sure, that will be a hard fight, but real change always is. Unlike many issues, you would at least start out with public opinion already largely on your side. I for one would be very open to supporting you on this, especially if you aimed towards a system that empowered small donors and discouraged larger ones. That to me is the right answer here, though I’m willing to be persuanded otherwise. I guess what I’m saying here is that I don’t see how your PAC is working towards a solution. Indeed, you may find yourself a few years down the line feeling compelled to oppose incumbents you once supported as challengers, even if they have been true to the promises they made in their successful campaigns. What’s the value in that?

    Finally, you are right that I pre-judged you based on my perceptions of your father and his involvement in politics. For that, I apologize. I should know better, and you deserved better than that.

    I hope I have made my position clearer. I welcome further feedback from you any time. Thanks very much.

  5. Charles,

    Thx for the response. I appreciate your engagement on this stuff. It’s important.

    As far as competitiveness of the US House (which are the only races we’re engaging in), in 2010 there were 396 incumbents who ran for re-election. The total number that lost a primary challenge was 4 (2 Rs and 2 Ds). This was actually higher than average – in the previous 4 cycles, there were 12 incumbents who lost primary challenges, an average of 3 per cycle. Over that same time period, 13 died in office. A system in which God recalls incumbents more frequently than primary voters is, well, broken.

    As far as the criteria for CPA’s involvement, it’s really straightforward:

    1. Safe district. We are not looking to swing districts. Voters there have a choice. And we don’t want to engage in races where the balance of power between the parties is an issue. There are plenty of folks who fight that fight.

    2. Long-term incumbent. Minimum of 8 years, but generally the incumbents we’re targeting have been there much longer.

    3. Credible challenger. Congress is a demanding position. It’s not an entry-level job. The challenger must have some proven leadership capability, either in government, business, or a non-profit.

    4. Bad polling. This is key. If the voters hear both the full spectrum of what the incumbent has done and still show strong support, we will not engage. But if the polling shows that the people in the district want a change, we jump in.

    The electoral system is supposed to be an efficient aggregator of voter preferences. IOW, if the people in the district like what their incumbent is doing, they deserve re-election. It’s not CPA’s job to tell people what to believe from a policy standpoint. I might personally disagree with those policies, but these folks are not vying to be my representative. They’re representing their district.

    But when the system is set up in a way where the incumbent wins reelection DESPITE the fact that the voters in that district want a change, well, that system is broken.

    I understand and appreciate your argument on campaign finance reform – they’re very similar to Larry Lessig’s arguments. And I don’t mind the additional snark ;-). Here are two quick, albeit incomplete, responses:

    1. The campaign finance reforms you want will have no impact on this cycle. None. The law is what the law is. You may or may not agree with the laws, but the rules of the game are set. Given that SuperPACs are legal, why should we only let Republican and Democratic partisans use this tool? Why wait for some future putative legal changes when there is a way forward now?

    2. My issue is not campaign finance reform. Money is spent on Congressional campaigns because the federal government spends $10B every day. It’s like having a safe with $1B of cash in my house (which I don’t have because I’m not “obscenely wealthy” ;-). When that becomes known, lots of folks will pay to hire safecrackers to get at it. If I don’t want them breaking into my house, I shouldn’t keep the money there. Spending money on more security guards is pointless, and ends up making me a prisoner in my own house.

    The problem is centralized control. In 1910, 61% of government spending was local, 9% was state, and 30% was federal. In 2010, the numbers were 60% federal, 15% state, and 25% local. (Note that this says nothing about the amount of government spending, just its distribution by level.)

    The great bipartisan issue of our day, it seems to me, is trust in local government vs. federal and state. 70% of Americans trust local government; Congressional approval is single digits. We have to restore trust and legitimacy to government, and that can’t happen if decisions are made at the center.

    What needs to happen is a restoration of self-governance, which means bringing decision-making closer to the people. It means ending attempts to impose top-down, centrally-planned solutions on a nation of 311 million people. That’s true of health care (whether ACA or the Ryan plan), education (NCLB), or any number of other policy areas.

    Why should every state have the same health care system? If Vermont wants single payer health care, why should Texans have a say in that? 97% of health care is delivered in state to in-state residents.

    Why should the state or federal government impose accountability standards on teachers and principals? Why shouldn’t families be the primary source of educational accountability?

    And so on. The point here is that the federal government (and its enablers on K Street and Wall Street) has too much power. You can see it in the numbers. And I’m not arguing for less government generally – I’m arguing for local control of issues that impact our life. I’d trust Mayor Parker to be responsive to the needs of our city far more than Governor Perry or President Obama.

    But if that is the big issue I’m focused on, the only way to begin to disperse federal power is to break the cycle of incumbency in Congress. And the only way to break the cycle of incumbency in our current system is to engage voters in primary elections where support for the incumbent is weak.

    The entire power system in Washington is built upon the invulnerability of incumbents. My belief is that the quickest way to disarm this power system – which is maintained by both Republicans and Democrats – is to make primary elections competitive.

    This is done by driving up voter turnout, and breaking the messaging monopoly incumbents enjoy by virtue of their name ID and fundraising advantages. More people, better informed, voting when it counts. That’s it.

    Like I said, it’s perfectly reasonable to be skeptical of something as novel as this. But it’s not a whim; it’s the result of a deep, systematic analysis of many, many options conducted over a course of a couple of years by many people with decades of political experience. I’m not really doing it justice in this post, but it is just a blog comment after all ;-).

    Reasonable people can disagree whether what we’re doing is good or bad. But rather than relying on System 1 (to use Kahneman’s terminology), it’s worth turning on System 2 and thinking it through. If you’d like to dive deeper, I’m happy to do that off-line.

    Sorry I ran on so long; hope this makes sense. I gotta run now to prepare for class – Stanford MBAs are not very forgiving of unprepared professors ;-). Regardless, thanks for the back-and-forth, hope we meet at some point, and I wish you all the best.


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