WASHINGTON ― As House Republicans get ready to release the details of their tax reform proposal on Wednesday, rank-and-file GOP members spent Tuesday morning learning what consequences might befall them if they don’t get onboard.
During a closed-door meeting with House GOP members on Tuesday, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) let American Action Network’s executive director, Corry Bliss, present members with three different ads that the tax-exempt, 501(c)4 organization has been running in some districts ― and might run in their districts, with a slightly different tone, depending on how upcoming legislative battles go.
All three ads were supportive of tax reform ― and none of them were explicitly negative against members ― but they showed different endings depending on whose district the ad was running in, according to members in attendance. As one example, an ad made a pitch to overhaul the tax code and then urged viewers to call the office of Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.) to tell him to support the reform.
In the words of one member present, the ad “kind of left a strange taste in my mouth.”
“Like a teacher showing the kids a paddle on the first day of class, the blatant implication was that those who misbehaved would be spanked,” the member said.
Another member raised the point that ads imploring voters to call congressional offices don’t really come off as positive, while another GOP member called the whole presentation “kind of creepy.”
“Since when do you let some outside PAC come in and talk?” the member asked.
“This is nuts. Like, really?” the Republican continued. “That’s what it’s come to? You’ve let the head of an outside PAC come in and talk to the Republican conference? I don’t know. I think it’s goofy.”
Most of the members HuffPost talked to would only speak on background, citing a fear of retaliation from the group and the fact that conference meetings are supposed to be off the record. And many of the most hardline conservatives who might be offended by the presentation were not in attendance, as GOP conference meetings held at the Republican National Committee building are typically consumed with updates on who is paying their dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee, and who is not. (Conservatives generally belong to the latter category.)
But some conservatives ― some of whom weren’t at the meeting ― were willing to speak on the record about the situation and an already tense relationship with American Action Network.
“They’ve already run ads against me,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said, adding that he wasn’t worried about them coming after him. “I become more popular when they advertise [against me] in my district.”
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) said some conservatives were getting ready to warn Ryan that, if AAN ran an against them, then “maybe I’ll come do that in your district. Maybe talk about gun control.”
AAN did run ads against some conservatives in 2015, dinging certain members for voting against a Department of Homeland Security funding bill. At the time, leadership said they had nothing to do with that decision, even though then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had his former chief of staff, Barry Jackson, on the board of AAN. One of Boehner’s spokesmen even cited the fact that, legally, members of Congress are prohibited from coordinating with PACs.
Political parties and candidates aren’t supposed to coordinate campaign strategy with outside groups like AAN. But the actual campaign finance laws are rather loose when it comes to coordination. In this case, the timing and the nature of ads would not be a breach of the coordination rules, according to Stephen Spaulding, a campaign finance lawyer with the nonpartisan group Common Cause.
“If this were closer to an election, there would be an open and shut case that showing screen tests of ads with named candidates would violate the coordination rules,” Spaulding told HuffPost.
As it stands now, however, some members just saw it as a speaker-endorsed threat to not mess up the GOP’s tax reform proposal.
Again, none of the three ads that AAN showed the conference were negative. But some members told HuffPost that the suggestion seemed to be that the tone of the ad could change if members started opposing tax reform. And the three ads did, in fact, have different endings. The one for Bost, according to a member present, just told voters to call his office, with no mention of where he stands. Another ad ― this one for Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) ― implored viewers to “thank Congresswoman Barbara Comstock for fighting to cut taxes for working families.” And a third ad ― this time for Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio ― said “top Democrats agree” with simplifying the tax code.
According to one member present, Bliss said Tuesday that he told the media AAN was putting $250,000 behind the Tim Ryan ad when they only paid $10,000 to air it, collecting free media from outlets covering a centrist Republican PAC seemingly praising a Democrat, even though the ad may be less than effusive for Tim Ryan.
In the words of Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), there was a “sense of irony” to the Tim Ryan ad, with the group throwing the statements of a leading Democrat back in his face.
But other than an ad with a questionable tone for a Democrat, Republicans mostly seemed to interpret the AAN presentation positively. Bliss said the groups was pouring $100 million behind the speaker’s agenda, and many rank-and-file Republicans took that as a good sign.
“There are some members that are overthinking it, because it was pro-conservative Republican policy all the way,” Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) told HuffPost. “And there were no threats involved.”
An AAN spokeswoman said it was normal for the group to brief lawmakers ― something the NRCC said had happened before, though most members said their involvement in conference meetings was highly unusual ― and the AAN spokeswoman said the group had repeatedly stated it would not spend “one dollar attacking Republicans.”
Speaker Ryan’s office directed HuffPost to the speaker’s political operation, which did not return a request for comment, but members did seem to generally think the idea that Ryan was threatening potential troublemakers was laughable.
When Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) overheard HuffPost reporters asking another member whether there was any implied threat to the presentation, she interjected.
“Oh my gosh. What the hell are you thinking?” she asked.