Tea Party standout joins leadership of disruptive super PAC


Tea Party activist Mark Meckler has joined the leadership of the Campaign for Primary Accountability (CPA), a disruptive super PAC aimed at ousting long-term incumbents from Congress. He has become part of a four-person, conservative leadership team of a group that says its aims are nonpartisan.

Meckler officially joined the $2.5 million super PAC, one of the outside groups spending the most in congressional primaries, as a senior advisor earlier this week but said he has been friends with its founders for quite some time and got to know them through the Tea Party movement. He resigned from the board of Tea Party Patriots, which he co-founded, in February after losing an internal leadership battle over the grassroots group’s vision. But Meckler, who was arrested in December after he tried to check a gun onto a flight at a New York airport, said he'll continue to maintain his role as a Tea Party advocate, speaking around the country.

The news of his move to CPA came during a Cato Institute panel discussion Friday. Billed as a session on returning America to self-governance, with Meckler and CPA co-founder Eric O’Keefe as panelists, it turned into more of a discussion about the Houston-based super PAC, which has played a role in nine primaries so far this year.

At the event, the two men revealed new information about how the operations of the super PAC, which has stirred dissension in the House Republican caucus for its targeting of GOP incumbents. CPA landed in the headlines when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., used it as a conduit to funnel $25,000 to pick favorites in an Illinois redistricting matchup that pitted two Republicans against each other. 

In the case of Burton, CPA published polling showing that the longtime Indiana Republican was vulnerable, then took those numbers to big donors in his district, Meckler said. A week later, before CPA aired any ads, the longtime congressman announced his retirement.

CPA's current target is Blue Dog Democrat Tim Holden, D-Pa., who is being challenged by Matt Cartwright in Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary, The PAC has spent about $200,000 to oust Holden from Pennsylvania's 17th congressional district, mostly on negative TV and radio ads. So far. CPA is claiming three victories: the retirement of 15-term Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., and the primary defeats of Reps. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, and Don Manzullo, R-Ill.

Later in the day, CPA's latest campaign financial disclosure landed at the Federal Election Commission, showing that the group had $437,807 in the bank at the end of March. Since the year began, CPA has collected more than $2.3 million in donations. Along with two already-reported contributions of $25,000 each from Republican Reps. Cantor and Aaron Schock, R-Ill., the report revealed that Linbeck pumped another $350,000 into the group's coffers in March. Another big donor: Jonathan Farber, who wrote a $100,000 check.  Farber is the managing director of the Lime Rock Partners, an energy investment company. His political tastes are eclectic: Data extracted from Sunlight's Influence Explorer shows that in 2008, Farber gave to three presidential candidates: Republican Rudy Giuliani and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Speaking on a day that the group’s latest fundraising numbers were due at the Federal Election Commission, the CPA leaders declined to release them. O'Keefe told Sunlight he didn’t to overshadow the Cato event. Meckler denied that they were covering up any fundraising problems. “We’re not having problems raising money right now,” he said.

For Meckler, the controversy surrounding CPA is a signal of success, he told the Cato crowd. He said it was “great press” that the National Republican Congressional Committee has decided to blacklist ad makers who contract with the super PAC.

Meckler contended that CPA has Democrats worried too. He said Democratic operatives who have  have been offered jobs with the Obama campaign re-election committee as an effort to buy them off. Party leaders have delivered an ultimatum, Meckler said. “They can either take these lofty positions or they can be assured they probably won’t work again for the Democratic Party,” he said.  Mecker said he does not know who made the offers.

The Tea Party leader is joining a CPA leadership team that includes the libertarian O’Keefe, the “conservative communitarian” Leo Linbeck, and conservative Texas oilman Tim Dunn. The latter three are responsible for most of the group’s donations. The men discussed that it’s often hard for them that their work goes against their partisan views. The Manzullo race was “a little difficult” for Meckler, he said, because the Tea Party favored Manzullo. O’Keefe said that race was hard for him too but luckily Manzullo's opponent Rep. Adam Kinzinger is also a Republican.

Meckler will be left out of the final decisions on which candidates the super PAC targets. O'Keefe said he wants to keep his new colleague out of the most controversial part of the decision-making process but he was vague about why. Meckler is also on the board of nonprofit called the Alliance for Self-Governance, also founded by O’Keefe and Linbeck. That group, a social welfare organization that does not have to disclose its donors, spends money on voter mobilization on the same primary races that the super PAC targets.

What does the group hope to accomplish?

“The intent is to send a message to the incumbents, to the power structure, to the ruling elite, that it’s important to pay attention to your constituents," Meckler said.

Meckler acknowledged there is no guarantee that any new lawmakers will be better than the old ones—just a belief. “We believe they’ll be more connected to their constituents.” He said their actions will serve as a warning to the new lawmakers that their predecessors were removed because they were unresponsive to constituents.

Most of the group’s resources are spent on TV and radio ads attacking candidates. Asked about the possibility that CPA, which as a super PAC can collect and spend in unlimited amounts, could pour so much money into a race that a candidate could not compete, Meckler said “you’ll never see that happen.” He insisted the group doesn't have that much money, and is focused more on levelling the playing field for challengers who are facing deep-pocketed incumbents. 

“We’re not simply trying to influence the race by pouring money into it,” Meckler said.

After Pennsylvania, the group will turn its attention to taking down Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., on May 8. Then, it is targeting four Texas lawmakers in late May: Democrats Silvestre Reyes and Eddie Bernice Johnson, and Republicans Ralph Hall and Joe Barton. In Virginia's June primary, CPA is aiming to unseat Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va. Through the June primary, CPA has about two dozen other lawmakers it is watching who could turn into targets, including Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., spokesman Curtis Ellis said.