Lunch Anyone? How DC Works... At Least On The Right-Wing Fringe
Over the weekend, the L.A. Times reported on a Park City, Utah GOP big donor retreat hosted by Mitt Romney. The big donors are frustrated that their party has veered off the track-- keeping wealthy people's taxes low and undermining business regulations-- so gigantically into social issues. It's the old GOP tension between the Greed and Selfishness wing of the party and the Hatred and Bigotry wing of the party.
[N]o group is more frustrated by the party's slow march forward than the high-powered donors and business, technology and industry leaders who met for a three-day retreat here hosted by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.I suspect that not many of the folks at Romney's Park City gabfest are regular participants at the regular Wednesday lunch where the Republican Party's actual walking orders are written and implemented every week-- the Weyrich Lunch. In his new book, The Machine, Lee Fang, exposed the history and operations of the Wednesday Weyrich Lunch and how it took over from the more-Big Money-oriented Grover Norquist breakfasts as the Bush Administration faded. The Lunch was founded in 1983 to connect Republican politicians and their staffers to "key movers and shakers of the right."
Looking ahead to the 2014 congressional races and the 2016 presidential contest, many Romney donors said they were concerned about the ease with which sharply conservative Republican candidates-- such as Todd Akin of Missouri, who churned up a firestorm with his controversial comments on rape-- had tainted the party's image.
A number of donors also said damage persisted from Romney's shift to the right on issues such as illegal immigration and his emphasis on his opposition to gay marriage.
"We have to open the tent to a broader constituency," said Anthony Scaramucci, a national finance co-chairman who helped lead Romney's fundraising operations in New York.
"The party needs to tie itself to social inclusion and fiscal responsibility. That means any race, any creed, any sexual orientation, any issue related to the reproductive power of women-- any of those groups need to feel at home in the Republican Party," Scaramucci said.
Susan Crown, a 2008 supporter of President Obama who became a key fundraiser for Romney, said that "the extremists-- the 2% on either end-- were the squeaky wheels that dictated the conversation."
The party, she said, "really has to reconcile its fundamental principle, of government staying out of the people's lives, with its recent history."
The views expressed by many donors in interviews this week about the direction the party should take stood in stark contrast to the current concerns of the 168 members of the Republican National Committee, who determine the party platform and its rules.
At an RNC gathering this spring in Hollywood, committee Chairman Reince Priebus had hoped to keep the focus on the party's rebuilding efforts after being vastly outmanned by Obama's campaign operation, including the Democrats' sophisticated voter identification systems and the strength of their ground organization in the key swing states.
Instead, many RNC members wanted to talk about how the party should not stray from its core principles on social issues, which remain singularly important to many party activists. During the meeting, RNC members unanimously pushed through a resolution affirming that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
If party leaders are skittish about having a messaging fight right now, that is not the case for many former Romney donors, who seemed eager to discuss how the party should alter its message attract more women and Latinos.
Romney famously advanced the idea of "self-deportation" in the primary, to his detriment among Latinos. But many of his donors said they were encouraged by movement on an immigration bill in the Senate.
The conversations last year about deporting more than 11 million illegal immigrants were harmful to Republican efforts, said Andrew Puzder, the California-based chief executive of CKE Restaurants Inc. He noted that mass deportation would require an enormous expansion of government, which to him seemed antithetical to Republican views.
"We're losing for a policy that we couldn't even implement," Puzder said in an interview in Park City. "We have to be more careful with our selection of candidates."
(Even as the donors talked up the bipartisan bill last week, House GOP members sent a difference message, voting to de-fund Obama's effort to give legal status to immigrants brought to the country as children.)
As for the 2016 messaging, potential contenders who came to woo Romney donors in Park City all emphasized the need for the party to become more inclusive.
[U]nlike Norquist’s breakfast meeting, the Weyrich Lunch is dominated by social conservatives and firebreathing reactionaries who place ideological purity over making the conservative “team bigger,” as Norquist would say. The lunch mirrors the sensibilities of its namesake, who was known as “the Robespierre of the right” for his eager purges of moderate Republicans. Sponsors of the lunch include the rabidly conservative 60 Plus Association, a front group posturing as a right-wing alternative to the AARP; Let Freedom Ring, a group funded partially by John Templeton Jr., a billionaire heir and promoter of evangelical causes; the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, an extremist Catholic organization; Judicial Watch, the Right to Work Committee, the powerful evangelical lobby; the Family Research Council, James Dobson’s political organization; and several other groups forming the traditional right-wing coalition. Republican lawmakers giving speeches at the Lunch have been dressed down and forced to explain any bipartisan votes or other moves perceived as violating right-wing values. A 2004 National Review article about the general atmosphere of the lunch described it as “more inquisitorial that at Norquist’s meeting”:Although there are billionaires who dictate policy within the Democratic Party-- particularly Wall Street billionaires-- there is no mechanism within the Democratic grassroots that has anything like the power of the Weyrich Lunch to keep corrupt Beltway Establishment groups-- in their case, say the RNC and the NRCC, the Democrats' the DNC and the DCCC-- in check. Watch how that plays out during the midterms next year, when the DCCC goes down in flames again.
A congressman is hauled over the coals for pondering a run for the Senate and thereby losing a place on a key committee. Bullied about an upcoming vote on school vouchers in the District of Columbia, a senator promises to provide the names of his colleagues who might be “a little wobbly.”. . . Every piece of paper at the Weyrich meeting is also a call to arms. Two-thirds of all partial-birth abortions are committed in New Jersey! Half of all marriages end in divorce! Girls Gone Wild videos are for sale in supermarkets!The lunch may seem like a throwback to the culture wars of the nineties, or for that matter, the sixties, but post-Bush, it has reemerged as the main get-together for crafting the conservative agenda.
After Weyrich’s death on December 18, 2008, the Leadership Institute’s Morton Blackwell and Let Freedom Ring leader Colin Hanna took over as the chairmen of the lunch. Before, Norquist commanded power because of his close relationship with Karl Rove and other key Bush administration political figures. During that period, operatives would focus on attending the Norquist breakfast and only later that day attend the Weyrich Lunch if they needed to work on an issue related to conservative social values, like marriage or abortion. However, more and more conservatives now flock every Wednesday to a small D.C. Christian coffeehouse called Ebeneezer’s, the venue for the Weyrich Lunch, as the prime destination for organizing opposition to Obama.
The growing prominence of the Weyrich Lunch has affected crucial political developments in the Obama era. Several groups closely associated with the lunch, including the 60 Plus Association, the Family Research Council, and the Susan B. Anthony List, ran millions of dollars’ worth of ads during the health reform fight-- using donor money that might have otherwise gone to Norquist-related organizations in the Bush era.
Republican elected leaders have also gravitated more and more to the lunch. During the first two years of the Obama administration, Representative Mike Pence (R-IN), then the third most powerful Republican in the House, promised to attend every single meeting of the lunch to update the members about the activity in the GOP caucus, legislative fights, and what to expect that week. If he could not attend, he also pledged that he would send either Representative John Boehner (R-OH), then the minority leader, or Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA), the Republican whip, as his replacement. Indeed, after Republicans seized the House in 2010, GOP leadership sent a representative-- often a freshman lawmaker-- to the meeting every week.
...The influence of the Lunch has played out behind the scenes in Republican primary battles. When Congressman Pete Sessions, chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), came to the Weyrich Lunch, Politico reported that he was angrily confronted by attendees for supporting Dede Scozzafava, a moderate Republican running in a special election in upstate New York. Sessions’s NRCC had donated well over $1 million to Scozzafava, a popular upstate New York assemblywoman. “There were some raised voices,” observed an anonymous source at the lunch. But unlike any ordinary band of hard right activists upset with the Republican establishment, the Weyrich Lunch members were prepared to back up their words with action. Groups associated with the lunch threatened to withhold money from the NRCC, and several of the regular lunch attendees launched a smear campaign attacking Scozzafava with an avalanche of ads and robo-calls in the district. The Susan B. Anthony List, for example, sent staffers into the district and attacked Scozzafava as an “abortion radical” and claimed her candidacy jeopardized the “lives of women and their unborn babies.” Scozzafava eventually suspended her campaign the weekend before the election and endorsed her opponent, Democrat Bill Owens. On election day, the longtime Republican district fell to Owens over the Weyrich Lunch and Tea Party favorite in the race, New York Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman.
Nonetheless, Weyrich Lunch attendees celebrated the electoral defeat as a success. Scozzafava favored some abortion rights and was less antiunion than most Republicans. The election of a Democrat over such a moderate Republican kept the party, and the movement, more ideologically pure. A Washington Post account of the Conservative Action Project and the Weyrich Lunch noted that at the Redstate morning briefing, blogger Erick Erickson’s widely distributed daily e-mail newsletter of talking points helped ensure that the wider right-wing movement stuck to the argument that Scozzafava’s loss was actually a good thing for conservatives.
Before the Scozzafava campaign fiasco, Republican Party planners had pinned their 2010 midterm election prospects on a cadre of moderate, even liberal, Republicans who could appeal to independent voters and disaffected Democrats. Republican strategists for the Senate organized endorsements and support for Republican Governor Charlie Crist of Florida, the only Republican governor to openly embrace President Obama’s stimulus, for his bid to the Senate. Similarly, the same establishment party strategists were openly building the campaign infrastructure for former Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton, another moderate, to run for Senate. The planners, more focused on electoral victory than conservative purity, ignored non-mainstream candidates like Tea Party–backed Republican Marco Rubio, who vied for the Republican nomination in Florida, and Ken Buck, another far-right primary candidate in Colorado. But the Scozzafava effect sent shock waves through the GOP, and shortly after November 2009, Republican Party candidate committees pledged to stay neutral.
Rubio gained steam by directly addressing many of the Weyrich Lunch sponsors at a Council for National Policy summit in Naples, Florida, in March 2010. Maggie Gallagher, an audience member for Rubio’s speech and former president of the antigay National Organization for Marriage, gushed “when Rubio speaks, he is not spinning—he is weaving together from his life story, in his person as well as his words, the frayed threads of the old Reagan coalition.” Gallagher had been active in purging Scozzafava, and called for conservatives to rebuke the moderate Crist. Norton and dozens of other moderate GOP nominees for Congress would later go down in crushing primary election defeats to far more radical Republican candidates. Crist avoided the embarrassment of a loss to Rubio by bolting the party altogether and running as an independent. In the end, Rubio easily won his election. While many forces-- especially the influence of talk radio and Fox News-- affected the outcome of Republican primaries, the Weyrich Lunch–drawn line in the sand against moderate Republicans reverberated in campaigns across the country.
The most prominent, and underreported, example of Weyrich Lunch influence was its role in elevating radical right Senate candidates in Delaware and Alaska. Early in 2010, a parade of far-right challengers hoping to upset Republican establishment-ordained candidates for Senate visited D.C.-- and specifically the Weyrich Lunch-- to find support. In Delaware, the Republican establishment sought Representative Mike Castle (R-DE), one of the most moderate members of the entire Republican caucus, to run for Senate. Every poll showed him beating any leading Democrat in the state, including New Castle County Executive Chris Coons and Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, the son of the vice president. However, a local antiabortion activist named Christine O’Donnell-- known primarily for her status as a perennial fringe candidate-- went to the Weyrich Lunch for support.
O’Donnell had known the Weyrich Lunch leaders through her work leading the abstinence group The Savior’s Alliance for Lifting the Truth, and the Weyrich Lunch supporters admired her staunch right-wing positions, particularly in contrast to Castle. Quietly, before any other national groups entered the race, the Family Research Council sent organizers into Delaware to reach out to local Tea Party groups and to build O’Donnell’s candidacy. In August of 2010, the bombastic Tea Party organizing group Tea Party Express endorsed O’Donnell and led a highly publicized primary effort to help her win the nomination. Similarly, attorney Joe Miller, a friend of Sarah Palin, visited the Weyrich Lunch early in 2010 to lock up support in his primary campaign against incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Ak). Again, after a friendly reception at the Weyrich Lunch, the Family Research Council dispatched organizers and resources to help Miller win his race. Family Research Council operatives worked with local evangelical groups to tie supporters of a ballot initiative requiring parent notification of teenage abortions to the candidate. Both O’Donnell and Miller won stunning upsets against their more moderate Republican primary opponents.
In both cases, the Tea Party Express claimed credit for the primary victories of newcomers like O’Donnell and Miller. But the true initial support came from the Weyrich Lunch. When Weyrich Lunch chairman Colin Hanna explained his strategy in September of 2010, he believed that both O’Donnell and Miller could win their general elections. He had personally recorded a radio ad mocking Murkowski as a “Queen” for not bowing out of the race after her primary loss (she continued to run as a write-in candidate). However, in the end both Miller and O’Donnell went down in spectacularly crushing defeats-- Murkowski won a historic write-in campaign, and Democrat Chris Coons sailed to victory in Delaware. The Weyrich Lunch could flex its muscle, but its strength also undermined Republican efforts to regain control of the Senate in 2010.
Extremely conservative Republican politicians, like Senator Jim Inhofe, Congressman Louie Gohmert, and Virginia attorney general ken Cuccinelli, are reportedly close to the Weyrich Lunch and the Conservative Action Project. Inhofe, on several occasions, has addressed the Weyrich meeting to explain issues ranging from judicial appointments to environmental issues. Inhofe takes a particularly hard-line conservative position on both subject areas. He announced that he would oppose Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan before hearings were even scheduled, and has earned a reputation for fighting tooth and nail against every attempt to address climate change. Several years before Obama’s presidency, Inhofe was alone in the Senate in asserting that climate change is a complete “hoax.” However, Inhofe’s views had become the conservative status quo by the end of 2009. A study compiled by climate activist and blogger Brad Johnson found that over half of the Republican class of 2010 did not believe in climate science.
The Weyrich Lunch and its affiliated meetings and groups provided a nexus for right-wing front groups organizing the Tea Parties to collaborate with other conservative groups and corporate fronts. FreedomWorks, one of the premier groups organizing Tea Parties, sent its vice president Matt Kibbe, campaign director Brendan Steinhauser, and New Media Director Tabitha Hale to different Weyrich Lunch meetings. Americans for Prosperity, the other major group dedicated to mobilizing Tea Party protests, had its director Tim Phillips attend many Conservative Action Project strategy breakfasts. Several other Tea Party groups, like Liberty Central, the “grassroots” conservative group founded by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife Ginni Thomas, were regular participants in the Weyrich-related sessions. Essentially every new conservative advocacy group relied on the Weyrich Lunch membership to branch out and coordinate its efforts.