Jeb Bush was associated for years with the tip of the spear of the Republican establishment’s campaign for a permissive immigration policy.
For five years the American Action Network (AAN) and the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), well-heeled outside spending groups, have been go-to sources of support for the Republican establishment’s immigration “reform” efforts. For most of that time, Bush sat on the board of the think tank with which both are affiliated, the American Action Forum (AAF) — from shortly after its founding in February 2010 by former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman, and hotelier and Nixon hand Fred Malek, until December 2, 2014.
The most notorious initiative by AAN — the brawn to AAF’s brain — came in early March, a few months after Bush had left the board of its sister organization. As John Boehner pushed a “clean” Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, one that would fund President Obama’s executive amnesty, AAN launched a controversial $400,000 national ad campaign accusing conservative opponents in the House of “putting our security at risk” by resisting Boehner’s bill. In addition to radio advertisements on Rush Limbaugh’s and Sean Hannity’s nationally syndicated talk shows, twelve House members were targeted specifically: Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), Jim Bridenstine (Okla.), and Jim Jordan (Ohio) each saw a 30-second television spot run in their home districts, while nine other members were subject to online ads.
It was not the first time AAN has put big money behind its softer immigration line. In July 2013, AAN purchased $100,000 in prime-time Fox News Channel television ads backing Florida senator Marco Rubio’s ill-fated comprehensive immigration-reform bill. With the support of the Hispanic Leadership Network (an affiliated Republican outreach group aimed at Hispanic voters), AAN spent more than $750,000 on ads pushing Rubio’s bill, one of which highlighted Bush’s support for the legislation.
Despite its latest gambit, all 12 members still voted against Boehner — along with 155 others. Does that vote indicate that AAN is out of step with conservatives? No, says Mike Shields, who took over as AAN’s president in February. A poll commissioned by AAN and conducted by Basswood Research on February 11 and 12 found that approximately two-thirds of Republican primary voters were against shutting down DHS, preferring instead to challenge the president’s executive amnesty — which AAN maintains is unconstitutional — in the courts. “It was not about ideology,” says Shields of the ad campaign. “It was about being effective. The center of gravity in the House Republican Conference right now is the most conservative it has been in the history of the country,” he contends. The question is, “do they want to be effective conservatives or not?”
Shields says the response to the ads has been “mainly positive,” including from House members and Hill staffers “very glad that another point of view was being represented.”
Yet the ad ignited a furor on the right among groups such as the Club for Growth, and even Boehner called the ads “unhelpful.”
AAF, AAN, and CLF have extraordinarily close ties to the Republican leadership. On the board of AAN is Barry Jackson, currently a managing director of the Lindsey Group but previously John Boehner’s chief of staff from 1991 through 2001, and again from 2010 to June 2012; he was also executive director of the House Republican Conference from 1995 to 1999, when Boehner was its chairman. Before leaving to take over AAN and CLF — the primary outside backer for Republican leadership: it spent nearly $13 million over the 2014 cycle — Shields was top aide at the Republican National Committee. The other four members of CLF’s board — Coleman, Malek, former New York congressman Tom Reynolds, and former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber — are also board members of AAN. Coleman and Malek are also on the board of AAF, and Weber, who advised Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, has signed on with Jeb Bush’s campaign-to-be.
Since its founding in February 2010, with the assistance of former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and other Republican bigwigs, AAN has shelled out $44 million over just three election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, making it one of the largest outside spenders in recent years. It has backed prominent conservatives — New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte, for example — but it has also opposed primary challengers to sitting Republicans, such as Richard Mourdock, who defeated longtime senator Richard Lugar in Indiana’s 2012 primary (though he went on to lose the general election), and Dan Liljenquist, who unsuccessfully attempted to unseat Utah senator Orrin Hatch, also in 2012.
There are no indications that the former Florida governor plans to alter his immigration stance, or to distance himself from the establishment wing of the party, both of which will make him a target for his opponents. His ties to AAF and its affiliates are sure to feature in the attacks.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.
[Editor’s Note: This piece incorrectly stated that American Action Network (AAN) “spent $660,000 against Republican Mark Kirk (Ill.) in his (ultimately successful) 2010 bid to turn a Democratic Senate seat red.” That information, obtained from the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), was based on an incorrect Federal Election Commission filing submitted in mid October 2010. That filing was amended in late October 2010, but CRP failed to update its information. The incorrect statement has been removed above.]