In the 2012 cycle, in the primaries, FreedomWorks spent $11.1 million that was classified as “Against Democrat” and about $1.5 million classified as “Against Republican” candidates. The group also spent $7 million classified as “For Republican” and $13,000 “For Democrat.” The group’s $19 million or so spent in 2012 is only a fraction of the sum spent by the biggest-spending Super PACs of 2012 (such as the $175 million spent by American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS or the $66 million spent by Priorities USA Action, the Super PAC headed by former Obama campaign staffers). However, FreedomWorks still ranked as the eleventh-highest-spending independent organization last cycle, slightly ahead of the National Rifle Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and others.
According to data filed with the FEC through December itemizing the group’s spending, FreedomWorks for America spent about $1 million opposing Hatch in Utah’s primary in 2012 and another $46,000 supporting his primary rival, Dan Liljenquist.
In Indiana, the group spent $416,000 opposing Richard Lugar and a separate $331,000 promoting Richard Mourdock in the primary; the group spent an additional $1.38 million supporting Mourdock in the general election and $743,000 opposing Senator Joseph Donnelly in the general election.
In Arizona, redistricting pitted a pair of freshman Republican incumbents against one another. On August 14, FreedomWorks for America spent $17,714 on a “voter ID/survey” in support of Representative David Schweikart, as he faced off against Representative Ben Quayle, the son of former vice president Dan Quayle.
In Wisconsin, FreedomWorks for America spent $6,117 on online ads, yard signs, staff, and overhead in support of Eric Hovde in August, who was then battling Tommy Thompson in the GOP gubernatorial primary.
In Louisiana, FreedomWorks for America spent $670,000 in support of Representative Jeff Landry, who shared a district with Representative Charles Boustany, another Republican, when the state lost a congressional seat after the 2010 Census. The group also spent about $105,000 on online ads and candidate books in opposition to Boustany, who ultimately won in a December runoff.
Armey’s six-day reign at FreedomWorks, during the abortive coup in December, was brief, but it certainly suggested a different direction for the organization. A recording of a staff conference call provided to the Washington Post indicated that Armey wanted FreedomWorks to make a strong effort in behalf of Todd Akin, the Missouri Republican whose Senate campaign had already cratered after he suggested that rape could not result in pregnancy. Armey credited his decision to support Akin to “my friend [Missouri senator] Roy Blunt,” according to a memo from Kibbe. “He says they really need grassroots cover for Todd Akin,” Armey reportedly said.
FreedomWorks had endorsed John Brunner in Missouri’s GOP Senate primary and had declined to endorse Akin even before Akin’s politically radioactive comments on rape. Despite Armey’s call to help Akin, FEC filings do not indicate any activity by the group in Missouri after May. Akin had “allowed Democrats to change the narrative with his offensive comments about ‘legitimate rape’ and simultaneously lost two seats we could have won,” Kibbe wrote in his end-of-the-year letter to FreedomWorks members. “Indiana’s Richard Mourdock would later step on that easy-to-spot landmine and lose a seat he had in the bag.”
While Armey has discussed his departure with Mother Jones, ABC News, the Associated Press, CBS This Morning, the Washington Post, and Media Matters for America, the remaining leadership at FreedomWorks has not responded in detail. After the unexpected internal battle, the organization is forging ahead. One staffer says many in the group feel “let down” by Armey’s criticism, emphasizing that it stings especially because the staffers he is now criticizing once “looked up to him.”
Armey has never specified the “matter of principle” that spurred his departure, but FreedomWorks did redefine its mission in 2012: The organization shifted from what some might consider the easy call of opposing lawmakers who stood out for their disagreement with conservatives — the Arlen Specters and Charlie Crists of the GOP world — to targeting brand-name, well-connected veterans of the party such as Lugar, Hatch, Thompson, and Quayle, the son of a former vice president.
It’s not unreasonable to conclude that in 2012, FreedomWorks focused as much or more on winning intra-party conflicts than on waging the traditional battles against liberal Democrats. But if Armey indeed wanted FreedomWorks to support any Republican who “needed grassroots cover,” he would be departing sharply from the organization’s defined, core mission. Washington already has several well-funded organizations whose sole purpose is to elect Republicans, with few litmus tests for ideology or policy preference: the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The purpose of FreedomWorks, according to Kibbe and the staff members who chose to stay on after Armey’s departure, is not to support any Republican who wins a primary but only those who consistently support FreedomWorks’ limited-government, free-market ideology. And as future GOP primary fights take shape, FreedomWorks is likely to play that role again, thrilling some Republicans and frustrating or enraging others.
Those fights are a bit farther down the road. As 2013 begins, the organization is now focused on several state initiatives, including a measure for paycheck protection in Pennsylvania, efforts to expand school choice, and attempts in ten key states to block the creation of the health-care exchanges intended to facilitate Obamacare. But the group enters the year facing a challenge few would have foreseen, a former chairman infuriated with what it has become, and eager to tell of its flaws and problems to anyone who will listen.