TROY, Ohio -- Warren Davidson sold himself as a staunch conservative and political outsider in his bid to win the seat Speaker of the House John Boehner resigned from last year.
But in truth, it took at lot of money straight from Washington to help Davidson win the Republican primary on March 15 for Ohio’s 8th Congressional District.
The Club for Growth – a conservative, special interest group often critical of Boehner’s decision making – spent more than $1.1 million supporting Davidson and opposing others in the race.
“When we get involved in a race we look at two things: We need to see evidence that the candidate holds and has strong conservative principles (and) he or she must also be viable in the race,” said Andy Roth, the vice president of government affairs at Club for Growth. “Warren was the only candidate who had both.”
Smaller races, particularly primaries, have gained a growing interest from national groups who are looking to invest their political dollars where they have the most impact. Without ever setting foot in a community, large political groups can invest enough money in mailers, television and radio advertising to sway voters to their candidate. The impact of this outside money is prompting candidates to shop for endorsements to win cash from special interest groups and their political action committees.
“The saying used to be that all politics is local but over the past five or six years, I feel that has become less true,” said Jared Kamrass, a political consultant at Rivertown Strategies. He has worked for candidates on the winning and losing end of big PAC money.
A Political Trophy Hunt?
This was the first time in 25 years voters in the district didn’t see John Boehner’s name on their ballots.
His stronghold on the region had been a natural fit in one of the state’s most reliably Republican districts, an area many viewed as Ohio’s epicenter for the conservative tea party movement that began in 2009.
While the district is made up of six-and-a-half counties, more than half of the 450,000 voters registered hail from Butler County, home to affluent West Chester Township – and Boehner.
Now a man with no political experience from Troy, a city 30 minutes north of Dayton, will ascend to Boehner’s throne.
That's after Club for Growth poured more money into this race than any other congressional contest in the country so far this year.
Last year Club for Growth announced a plan to identify roughly 15 candidates to back in-House races around the country during the 2016 election cycle. Davidson is the first of them to win.
“Our desire is to go out and find pro-growth candidates,” Roth said. “In the past, we kind of waited for them to come to us.”
The 8th Congressional District, though, held special significance for the club.
“It’s the former speaker’s district: If there’s anything that screams, 'We’re tired of mainstream, establishment Republicanism,' here it is,” said Christopher Kelley, a political science professor at Miami University.
Two of Boehner’s most vocal opponents – Club for Growth and the Freedom Caucus -- teamed up to identify their top candidate: Warren Davidson. The Freedom Caucus represents congress’ most conservative members and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican, leads the bunch. Jordan set up the first introduction between Davidson and the Club for Growth.
Davidson’s win is symbolic for the two conservative organizations, said Gary Cates, a former state senator who supported Ohio Rep. Tim Derickson, a Republican, in the race.
“The Club for Growth and the Freedom Caucus were very antagonistic of John Boehner’s leadership in the House,” Cates said. “Think about it: They were able to get the speaker to leave the office early and, on top of that, they’re able to say they elected one of their followers to the seat. That’s a big political statement.”
But Roth argues the organization’s involvement in the race had little to do with Boehner. In fact, he said the group only got involved because Boehner no longer occupied the seat. Roth said the group found the right candidate in Davidson, a businessman who supports less regulation and government spending, to support in a Republican-leaning district.
“We at Club for Growth, we like open seat races,” Roth said. “This was an open House seat in a very conservative district so it was important to us a conservative represent it. Once we got involved, like we do in all of our races, we wanted to make sure we got involved heavily.”
The primary was so pivotal that Roth said it’s unlikely Club for Growth will get involved in the June 7 special election for the seat’s temporary replacement or the general election in November.
Davidson, who spent roughly $487,000 through a combination of campaign contributions and his own money, agreed he likely has the next two elections wrapped up.
“We’ll do what it takes to win, but we also want to be a good steward with people’s money,” he said. “As long as everyone knows to go out and vote on June 7, this district is a good one run to in as a Republican."
The Key to Win
Club for Growth’s heavy involvement in the race certainly stood out. The group’s PAC paid for television ads in the Dayton and Cincinnati markets, sent voters mailers and blanketed radio shows with spots about Davidson.
Few people knew of Davidson when he jumped in the race in December.
But, by the time many voters took to the polls for the March 15 primary, they had almost certainly heard Davidson’s name on the airwaves. In a campaign with 15 people running, the plethora of ads featuring Davidson was important to secure a victory, said Chip Gerhardt, the president of Government Strategies Group.
“(Davidson) was able to deliver a good message that resonated with the 8th Congressional District; it was heard, seen or ready by a significant percentage of the voter, ” Gerhardt, who supported Derickson, said. “Nobody had universal name recognition throughout the district and it was such a short timeframe that aggressively establishing name recognition was the key thing.”
Other outside political groups invested plenty in the race, spending on ads to keep Davidson out of the seat.
The Right Way Initiative – a political interest group established this year – dropped nearly $703,500 to oppose Davidson and support Derickson for the job. Campaign finance reports show the group has only ever spent money on the Davidson race.
A Republican group called Defending Main Street super PAC also devoted roughly $280,000 to ads, mailers and campaigning against Davidson around the district.
Derickson, who was the front-runner in the race until Davidson came on the scene, said he was borderline shocked by how much outside money was funneled into the race.
Derickson never made contact with either of the national PACs that supported him or lobbied against Davidson. He had no idea ads supporting him would look or sound like before they ran.
“What started as a local race really became much bigger than that with the influence of money,” Derickson said. “As a candidate, I didn’t even know (the PACs) existed … let alone them having made investments either for or against me. Until you get involved in a race like this, you don’t know who else might be interested.”
Still, none of the other groups were able to top Club for Growth’s $1.1 million investment. In a district that covers so many counties and two big television markets, the race came down to how much candidates -- or the organizations backing them – were willing to spend, said Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds. Reynolds abandoned his bid for the congressional seat late last year.
“The only way you were going to get your name and your message out was to spend $1 million in this race,” Reynolds said. “For one group to spend $1 million was surprising. But, they wanted it bad enough to make the investment.“
Will Money Buy Influence in Congress?
Political insiders wonder how much influence – if any – the Club for Growth will have over Davidson once he likely reaches the House floor.
The Club for Growth has already announced they expect Davidson to join the House Freedom Caucus.
Both the Freedom Caucus and Club for Growth prefer a take-no-prisoner style of governing, Kelley said. The Freedom Caucus, for example, spearheaded an effort last year to oppose any spending bills that included funding for Planned Parenthood. Some speculated the opposition at the time might lead to a government shutdown.
“The Club for Growth is very explicit,” Kelley said. “They’re about getting in there and doing every you can to slash regulation, get rid of federal bureaucracy and get the budget. That’s their expectation.”
In an interview with WCPO, Davidson said the group’s campaign fundraising would have little impact on his decision making as a congressman.
"Thanks for the support but I don’t look at that support as people trying to purchase something," Davidson said.
But politicians sometimes have a hard time ignoring their biggest donors once they’re sworn into office. That’s the type of alliance that can turns off voters back home, Gerhardt said.
“It’s like a business: If 80 percent of your revenue comes from one customer, that customer now wields a lot of influence over your business,” Gerhardt said. “(Davidson) will be judged on whether he goes and is an active member, espousing the views of the district.”
The Club for Growth doesn’t spend a lot of time interfering with their supporters, Roth said. Instead, they focus on opponents. He doesn’t expect be in contact with Davidson anytime soon.
“We’re not going to bother him that much because he believes in what we believe,” Roth said. “The people we stay in contact with are the ones who give us heartburn.”