Belmont Club

Challenge to the Incumbents

When 15-term Dan Burton announced his intention not to run for another term, he described it with all the easy assurance of a movie superstar who had finally tired of the game. It was an impression only slightly marred by the fact that everyone around him had expected him to run.

“It has been an incredible honor to serve Hoosiers, first as a state representative and state senator at the Indiana State House and then to serve my constituents as a member of Congress,” he said in a statement. “I want to thank all of those who have given me the great honor to serve in the legislative branch of government for all of these years.”

The announcement caught many by surprise.

Joshua Gillespie, a spokesman at Burton’s Indianapolis office, said the congressman made the announcement on “his own accord” without informing his staff. He said to call it a surprise would be an “understatement.”

“None of us in the office were expecting this,” he said.

The Chillico Gazette, however, tells a darker tale. According to Deidre Sheshgreen, their Washington Bureau correspondent, Burton was forced out by the machinations “a shadowy group called the Campaign for Primary Accountability, which bills itself as a ‘non-partisan’ group dedicated to ‘leveling the playing field in primary elections’.”

This shadowy group hovers over the political scene like a vulture picking off vulnerable incumbents. Deidre describes the outrage of Congresswoman Jean Schmidt, who fears she might be the next to follow burton into the pasture of retirement:

“Poll Spells Trouble for Congresswoman Jean Schmidt,” blared the headline on a news release from the Campaign for Primary Accountability …

“Where polling shows that a long-term congressional incumbent like Jean Schmidt does not have strong support from voters in her district, the Campaign for Primary Accountability will be there to level the playing field for primary challengers,” Leo Linbeck III, national co-chairman of CPA stated in a press release on the Ohio poll.

The poll found that 54 percent of the 300 surveyed GOP voters initially said they would support Schmidt for re-election. But after the pollster offered up some negative information about Schmidt, including her vote in support of the Wall Street bailout and this summer’s debt ceiling agreement, her support dropped to 38 percent.

The evil genius behind the Campaign for Primary Accountability is said to be Leo Linbeck III, “a wealthy Texan, who serves as president and CEO of a Houston-based construction and real estate company called Aquinas Corp. He is a major funder of CPA along with Eric O’Keefe, an investor who lives in Wisconsin and has also been involved in other conservative political causes.”

Spokesmen for the CPA argued that it was not partisan, at least not in the sense that it supported one party over the other. “A CPA spokesman, Curtis Ellis, said the group has ‘a lot of funders,’ but “the primary backers are Leo Linbeck and Eric O’Keefe.”

Asked how CPA could describe itself as independent when its two principal funders are conservatives, Ellis said, “CPA does not fit the traditional Democrat versus Republican, liberal versus conservative paradigm. It is a trans-partisan organization that encourages greater participation in primaries by voters in both parties in order to break the partisan gridlock that has paralyzed Washington.”

The fall of Burton suggests that the strategy of challenging incumbents in primaries is no longer a Quixotic pipe-dream. Open Secrets, which lists the amounts PACs have raised shows that CPA has raised half the money of the AFL-CIO Worker’s Voices PAC and much more than many other more famous committees.

Mark Meckler, the co-founder of the Tea Party takes a more positive view of the CPA’s Equalizer Campaign. “Not looking good for the Ruling Elite in 2012 … The Campaign for Primary Accountability (“CPA”) aims to expose long time incumbents who are part of the problem on either side of the aisle. It looks like they have worked some magic in Indiana … The Ruling Elite of both parties have been winning for a long time. It’s time to create some accountability and put the People back in charge. This approach seems like a good idea to me.”

Not everyone may agree with the CPA strategy of forcing incumbents to become accountable to the mass base they claim to represent; some may even view it as a ‘shadowy’ threat to incumbents. But it seems fair at least to observe, as Mark Meckler did, that there is a great store of resentment for the Washington elite. Inevitably that resentment will find its way into political action. Maybe the question is not why groups like the CPA exist, but why it took so long for them to emerge.


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