WASHINGTON — One candidate to take the US House Armed Services Committee (HASC) gavel next year has donated vastly more to GOP political candidates than his rivals, and sources say that gives him a major edge.
Yet one of his likely competitors has posted impressive donation figures for the 2014 midterm election. Sources say that makes the HASC chairmanship race a lot more intriguing.
House Armed Services Committee Vice Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, has over the past six years donated $1.36 million to Republican candidates — $1.03 million more than Reps. Randy Forbes, R-Va., and Mike Turner, R-Ohio, who are eyeing the HASC chairmanship.
The data, compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, shows Forbes has donated $331,870 over the same span, while Turner has given GOP candidates $264,150.
Thornberry outpaced his two rivals during the 2012 election cycle, donating $385,500. That cycle saw Forbes give Republican candidates $85,000 and Turner donate $40,000. So far for the 2014 cycle, the vice chairman has donated nearly $10,000 more than Forbes and $80,000 more than Turner.
Republican sources say helping other members of the party finance their campaigns is a big part of the metric the House GOP Steering Committee uses when selecting committee chairmen.
“I don’t think in the course of that conversation with the Steering Committee, that is specifically going to come up. It never does,” said Alex Vogel, a partner at the Washington consulting firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti. “But as a practical matter, that does weigh in people’s minds. It sure is nice to have that million-dollar differential. It’s nice to be able to say, I stuck my neck out.
“And that conversation happens at a member-to-member level. So those things matter,” said Vogel, a former senior aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and former senior official at the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Members don’t just raise money for each other and the [party] campaign committees just because they’re benevolent.”
Viveca Novak of the Center for Responsive Politics said that “chairmanships aren’t awarded solely based on a lawmaker’s contributions to his or her colleagues.” But “the fact that Thornberry has been so generous over the years will work in his favor.”
A defense industry lobbyist with House Republican caucus ties said “the Steering Committee members look first at seniority. But they also look at things the candidates do for the party. They’ll skip seniority sometimes if a guy hasn’t done everything for the party.”
When Thornberry lost his first race to lead the HASC six years ago to Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., “fundraising played a big role,” one GOP source said. “That was one area where Buck had a clear advantage. How much you are willing to get out there and help other members, help new candidates, it’s a really big deal.”
The lobbyist said Thornberry “has really improved on that over the last six years.
“I think that’s the main reason he didn’t win six years ago,” the lobbyist said. “Now he understands what needs to be done. He works very hard for the party, and for other members — more than really anyone else in the [HASC] race.”
While most HASC race handicappers give Thornberry a big early edge, Vogel said the campaign donation data suggest Forbes has a card to play in private discussions with Steering Committee members. That’s because his $76,670 in donations this cycle is not that far behind Thornberry’s $85,650. Turner has donated just $5,550 to other GOP hopefuls this cycle.
“Members have notoriously short memories when it comes to this stuff. I’m sure Thornberry will make the case that he has a $1 million edge over the six years,” Vogel said. “But it’s really more important oftentimes to look at the last two years. If they’re virtually dead even over the short term, Randy can make that case to dull Thornberry’s argument.”
The jockeying was set off Jan. 16 when McKeon announced he will not seek a 12th term. Even before the California Republican addressed reporters that morning, the handicapping of the field to secure the biggest chair on the HASC dais was underway.
Spokespersons for Thornberry, Turner and Forbes have signaled each is planning, or at least seriously mulling, a run.
The Center for Responsive Politics data show the 2012 cycle was Thornberry’s strongest for campaign donations, followed by the $330,075 he handed out during the 2008 cycle. Forbes’ strongest cycle was 2010, when he doled out $117,000, followed by the $85,500 in 2012. Turner gave out $143,900 in 2010, and about $41,000 in 2006 and 2012, according to the center.
“This really is Thornberry’s to lose. He’s the guy,” the defense industry lobbyist said. “There’s no reason to skip him — and there’s got to be a reason. ... Even if Turner has checked all of those boxes, there’s just no reason to skip Thornberry.”
Sources said the figures suggest Turner will need to step up his fundraising game if he hopes to eventually succeed Thornberry as chairman.
Several sources said Turner’s strategy should be to set himself up as the odds-on favorite to take over the panel when Thornberry’s possible run ends due to term limits.
Some in Washington see Turner as a rising star inside the House GOP caucus, with several current and former aides saying he has become one of the party’s most articulate and forceful critics of the Obama administration.
The next chairman will inherit several major policy and budget matters that likely will remain unresolved when McKeon hangs up his member pin and voting card.
Those include what to do about the remaining seven years of sequestration cuts, a slew of troubled and expensive new-start weapon programs that will need close oversight, a potential US force of thousands in Afghanistan, an ever-changing al-Qaida threat and an emerging China. And the list does not stop there, also covering terrorist suspect detainee policy, the future of the armed drone program and more.