It was 2004 when state Rep. David Miner, running for re-election, felt an avalanche of campaign mailers and ads from an outside advocacy group criticizing him for backing a state budget that extended temporary tax increases.
“You’ve got to make those tough decisions when you’re in charge,” Miner said in an interview recalling his time as a finance committee chairman.
Miner was one of several House GOP leaders targeted then during a nasty intraparty feud pitting Republicans who entered a power-sharing arrangement with Democrats and those who believed doing so betrayed party principles.
Miner’s primary opponent, Nelson Dollar, defeated Miner that year.
Eleven years later it’s Dollar – senior chairman of the House Appropriations Committee – and other Republicans getting rapped by similar conservative advocacy groups.
“Nelson Dollar Sold Out Taxpayers,” read an online ad released by the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity the week that the House’s spending plan that Dollar helped produce was approved. A similar message targeted finance chairman Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln. And Civitas Action said a “yes” vote on the House budget would be scored negatively in its lawmaker rankings because of the budget’s “crony carve-outs and pork spending.”
The criticism of Dollar and other Republicans reflects discontent some fiscal conservatives outside the legislature are feeling even with the GOP firmly in control of state government.
“They ran as conservative and we are just reporting what they’re doing on policy,” said Civitas Action President Francis De Luca.
Today’s discontent doesn’t reach the acrimony from last decade, when a dozen House Republican incumbents were ultimately defeated or retired before the primary campaign battles ended in 2006, helping Democrats control the House.
Dollar, of Cary, dismisses today’s criticisms as misguided. Republicans don’t have a budget shortfall and in 2013 they passed a tax overhaul that is cascading into more tax cuts annually through 2017. The House budget passed with strong conservative support, he said.
The issues in Dollar’s 2004 campaign “were quite different from the issues that we’re discussing today,” he said. “Any fair reading of my record clearly demonstrates my conservative credentials.”
Neither De Luca nor Americans for Prosperity state director Donald Bryson have ruled out singling out Republicans in 2016 who keep voting counter to what they consider conservative and free-market principles. Bryson’s group educated voters about Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan on what it considered her bad policies during her unsuccessful 2014 re-election bid. A final state budget vote will come this summer.
“We’re willing to do the same thing with lawmakers who want to overspend the taxpayers’ money, whether Republican or Democrat,” Bryson said.
Americans for Prosperity also was involved in the 2004 GOP primaries. AFP and Civitas Action are linked to Raleigh businessman Art Pope, a former legislator and recent state budget director. His family’s foundation or company has given routinely for years to Americans for Prosperity nationally and Civitas’ parent, the Civitas Institute.
Today independent expenditure groups, which can raise unlimited amounts of money from donors, can now have more direct involvement seeking the victory or defeat of a candidate following federal court rulings.
Republican consultant Paul Shumaker said it’s good for a political party to have a dynamic debate on issues from many voices. But he cautioned that groups could go too far and upset a strong GOP government.
“How would they feel with a Democratic governor and a non-veto-proof legislature?” Shumaker asked.
House Majority Leader Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, spoke at an Americans for Prosperity news conference last week. In an interview, Hager said he would steer any conservative group away from seeking to unseat a faithful House Republican in a primary. Differing views help make the House GOP caucus stronger, he said.
“That’s what I’ve told AFP: Individually you might not like the way we vote, but look at … the end result,” Hager said.
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