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Cantor’s campaign contribution riles some GOP House members

Published: Thursday, April 12, 2012 11:00 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, April 12, 2012 12:59 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO (MCT) — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s decision to weigh in on a contested Illinois primary involving two Republican incumbents is creating tensions in the House GOP caucus in Washington.

Cantor, R-Va., disclosed late last week that he made a $25,000 contribution to a super political action committee, the Campaign for Primary Accountability, to help first-term Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Manteno defeat 20-year GOP incumbent Rep. Donald Manzullo of Leaf River. The two matched up in a primary in the new 16th District because of a Democratic-drawn redistricting map.

It is unusual for party leaders to get involved in a primary battle featuring two sitting lawmakers from the same party. Cantor has said he made the donation at the request of Republican Rep. Aaron Shock of Peoria, who had endorsed Kinzinger. Cantor also has sought to gain favor among the 2010 freshmen GOP class that gave Republicans control of the House.

But the donation has angered some Republican members because the Campaign for Primary Accountability also has run ads targeting GOP House incumbents for defeat in favor of first-time challengers. The group has worked to defeat Democratic incumbents as well.

Members of the Illinois delegation are not happy and are wondering, according to two state Republican congressional aides who asked not to be identified.

Cantor’s involvement in the Illinois race has received national attention — in part filling the vacuum caused by Congress’ two-week Easter recess.

“I think that’s something we’re going to have to talk about further. We haven’t had that opportunity,” said Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren of suburban Winfield, another freshman elected in 2010 who stayed out of the Manzullo-Kinzinger race.

Asked whether House leadership should have gotten involved, Hultgren said Wednesday: “I think that’s a decision we’re going to have to make going forward. I know it’s happened in the past where leaders have gotten involved at different levels. I think it’s something we’re going to have to continue to ask what the role of leadership should be.”

Federal Election Commission reports showed the Campaign for Primary Accountability PAC spent $239,931 in TV and radio ads, mailings and online advertising attacking Manzullo. Moreover, the Young Guns Action Fund, a Super PAC aligned with Cantor, spent another $52,000 on radio ads opposing Manzullo, FEC reports showed.

In Illinois, the Campaign for Primary Accountability also spent $89,321 on behalf of former Rep. Debbie Halvorson’s unsuccessful challenge to incumbent Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in the new South Side and south suburban 2nd Congressional District, FEC records show.

But it is the Super PAC’s actions in taking on longtime House Republicans that has caused consternation in the GOP caucus.

Last month, the group briefly ran an email campaign against veteran GOP Rep. Judy Biggert of Hinsdale until her primary opponent, Kane County Clerk Jack Cunningham, was knocked for the March 20 ballot.

The Super PAC also spent nearly $150,000 against four-term Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, who lost a primary to Iraq war veteran and Army combat surgeon Brad Wenstrup in early March.

In Alabama’s GOP primary a week later, the Super PAC spent more than $206,000 in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and $123,000 in a failed effort to defeat five-term Republican Rep. Jo Bonner.

“That $25,000 (Cantor donation) was so over the top,” said one of Illinois GOP congressional staff members who spoke on the condition of anonymity. It’s one thing to contribute and endorse, but to give to a group that is working against so many of your members?”

Ray Allen, Cantor’s political consultant, said the $25,000 donation from Cantor’s leadership PAC to the Super PAC was made “with the understanding that those funds would be used only in the effort to support Congressman Kinzinger. Leader Cantor does not support the actions of this organization in any other election.”

Curtis Ellis, a spokesman for the Super PAC, said the group dedicates contributions to use in specific races. “In this particular case, we had no idea we were getting a donation from (Cantor’s PAC),” Ellis said. “Nobody told us it was coming. We did not know it did come in until well after the primary was over.”

Ellis said it is “fair to say that money got spent against Manzullo because that’s what we were spending on.”

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