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Originally published Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 6:27 PM

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Rebel conservatives flush as GOP establishment struggles

Insurgent conservative groups such as the Tea Party Patriots have formidable amounts of cash to support their grass-roots muscle, a sign the Republican Party’s balance of power could shift further to the right during this year’s election cycle.

The New York Times

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The new Republican strategy : circular firing squad. Works for me. "Groups... MORE


Insurgent conservatives seeking to pull the Republican Party to the right raised more money last year than the groups controlled by the party establishment, whose bulging bank accounts and ties to major donors have been their most potent advantage in the running struggle over the party’s future, according to new campaign filings and interviews with officials.

The shift in fortunes among the largest and most influential outside political groups could have an enormous impact in the 2014 election cycle, as the Republican factions prepare to square off in a series of Senate and House primaries and as Republican leaders seek to rein in activists they believe have fractured and endangered the party with policies that alienate independent-leaning voters.

Groups representing the party establishment, such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, are struggling to bring in the level of cash they raised in 2012, when Crossroads spent more than $300 million in an effort to defeat President Obama and retake the Senate, leaving some donors grumbling that their dollars had been wasted.

Meanwhile, insurgent conservative groups such as the Tea Party Patriots — emboldened by activists’ fury over compromises that Republican leaders have struck with Democrats on federal spending — now have formidable amounts of cash to augment their grass-roots muscle.

The money will allow conservative groups to spend more heavily on television ads, direct mail and on-the-ground organizing in states such as Alaska, Mississippi and South Carolina, where conservative and tea party-affiliated candidates are challenging incumbents or business-backed candidates.

Jenny Beth Martin, president of Tea Party Patriots, said the increase in fundraising would allow her group to expand the number of races it could be active in and finance more sophisticated and data-driven voter outreach.

“Not just the amount of money, but the volume of donations and how many people are so active and engaged in our organization — those two things combined will allow us to get involved in more races,” Martin said.

The battles are being watched closely, especially in Kentucky, where the Senate Conservative Fund and other conservative groups are backing a primary challenge to Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader and one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington.

No such division exists in the Democratic Party, where outside groups are successfully recruiting donors and collaborating on big races. Two super PACs focused on helping Democrats in Congress announced record fundraising Friday, pulling in a total of $16.4 million, twice their total in 2011, the last comparable year.

The drop in establishment Republican fundraising is also empowering other conservative factions, particularly the political and philanthropic network overseen by the libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch. Americans for Prosperity, the free-market advocacy group founded by David Koch, has become by far the biggest single spender on early-campaign issue advertisements against Democratic incumbents. Since October, it has spent more than $23 million.

That spree illustrates the shifting balance of power in the party. During the 2012 campaign, Republican leaders counted on Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, the nonprofit arm of Rove’s group, to soften up Democratic candidates with issue ads in the early campaign season. Now that job is falling largely to Americans for Prosperity, which has been critical of Republican leaders’ strategy on issues like the debt ceiling.

“The model that we have been building for the past eight years — a state-based organization with a supportive home office but a permanent infrastructure on the ground, with real troops, and with real support behind it — is one that our supporters believe in,” said Levi Russell, an Americans for Prosperity spokesman.

Four Republican-leaning groups with close ties to the party’s leadership in Congress — Crossroads, its super PAC affiliate, the Congressional Leadership Fund and Young Guns Action — raised a combined $7.7 million in 2013.

By contrast, four conservative organizations that have battled Republican candidates deemed too moderate or too yielding on spending issues — FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth Action Fund, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Tea Party Patriots — raised a total of $20 million in 2013, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports filed Friday.

“This is by far the biggest nonelection year we’ve ever had,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has feuded with party organizations. “It shows how committed people are to electing true conservatives and to advancing conservative principles.”

The emerging money gap is likely to put enormous pressure on deep-pocketed business groups to ante up, dragging historically cautious Beltway trade associations more fully into treacherous factional battles among their Republican allies.

Because some of the biggest groups are not required to report their fundraising to the FEC and did not volunteer the information, the figures do not include some major spenders on both sides, including Americans for Prosperity and the American Action Network.

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