D.C.-based GOP groups branch out to influence state legislatures

The State Freedom Caucus Network and Republican Main Street Partnership have separate efforts beyond the beltway.
Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., and other members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus call for the removal of President Joe Biden over the close of war in Afghanistan, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Organizations aligned with sometimes sparring factions of congressional Republicans are pushing beyond the beltway to build closer relationships in state legislatures.

The Republican Main Street Partnership wants to help state legislators it refers to as the most interested in governing to create their own groups and to collaborate on legislative priorities.

Aligned with the U.S. House Freedom Caucus, the State Freedom Caucus Network is helping to establish constellations of similar groups to aid the fight for conservative policies in lower-profile arenas that it sees as being just as impactful on Americans’ lives.

Both efforts also include helping to establish farm teams of legislators to one day run for Congress.

“All of the big fights that are happening in our country right now are at the state level,” said Andrew Roth, president of the State Freedom Caucus Network.

The network celebrated its launch in Atlanta in December 2021 with a gala featuring former President Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who said the U.S. House Freedom Caucus model could be successfully replicated in state legislatures.

Roth previously worked at the Club for Growth and Club for Growth Foundation for a combined 18 years. The network’s leadership also includes Justin Ouimette, the vice president for government affairs, who was previously executive director of the U.S. House Freedom Caucus.

The U.S. House Freedom Caucus is a group of about three dozen conservative members that band together to use hardline tactics to push policy to the right. A faction of the group used the fact that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) needed all but five of the GOP Conference’s votes to be elected speaker to force a series of concessions.

“It shows people that you can fight your own leadership and get conservative concessions if you use your leverage and you stick together,” Roth said.

Roth said he was prompted to organize conservative state lawmakers because he believed that most Republicans are insufficiently conservative or pander to left-leaning interests and voters, particularly in red states, to get elected.

He also said he believes that states are the arena where issues that matter to conservatives are being decided, including critical race theory, school vouchers, election integrity and abortion.

There are now freedom caucuses in 10 legislatures: in Illinois, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Arizona. Roth said he hopes to launch in another 10 to 15 states by the end of the year.

That is further along than a similar endeavor by the Republican Main Street Partnership, whose membership includes about 80 U.S. House and Senate Republicans. The group eschews the descriptor of moderate and distinguishes itself from other conservatives by emphasizing that its members want to govern.

“They’re probably the most conservative group that Main Street has ever had, to be honest with you, and that’s where the country’s going and that’s great,” said Sarah Chamberlain, the group’s president.

Chamberlain said state lawmakers who have reached out to the group want to establish similar partnerships within their legislatures or work closely together. She sees the effort as a way to groom candidates for federal office as Main Street Republicans seek other offices or retire.

“We’re pretty excited about that because we need to build a conservative farm team, which Main Street has never done before,” Chamberlain said. “So this is really our first endeavor into this area.”

When asked about the freedom caucus project, Chamberlain said it was a good idea, which is why they are working on their own project.

She downplayed the risk of any tension with the U.S. Freedom Caucus and said that most members of the two groups work together and agree more than they disagree. But she stressed that the Main Street Republicans outnumber the U.S. Freedom Caucus Republicans.

She said their goal is to elect more Main Street Republicans in Congress to reduce gridlock.

“It’d be nice to have more people who want to get to ‘yes’ elected,” Chamberlain said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do in identifying the candidates.”

”Congress has to work, and I think the American people want Congress to work,” Chamberlain said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The State Freedom Caucus Network sees part of the state caucuses’ role as shining a light on what’s happening in statehouses.

“How many people know what’s going on in their state capital at any given moment?” Roth said. “These lawmakers operate largely in the dark, and dozens and dozens, if not hundreds and hundreds, of bills passed with zero attention on them. And yet, they all affect either your pocketbook or your freedoms to some extent.”

It also wants to establish relationships between the U.S. Freedom Caucus and the state caucuses, providing state partners for federal lawmakers and building a bench of legislators who could run for Congress and seamlessly join the caucus in Washington.

“There’s all sorts of synergy there,” Roth said.

The group says it also helps fill a staffing void for state lawmakers who often also work full-time jobs and tend to have few, if any, staff. It hires state directors “to help the freedom caucus read bills, make vote recommendations [and] build coalitions that help execute a legislative strategy,” Roth said. But he said individual caucuses are independent of the group and make their own decisions.

Asked about its donors, Roth said the group’s funding comes from the same ones that contribute to the U.S. House Freedom Caucus and its members. The group raises funds through an affiliated tax-exempt politically active entity under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code. These organizations can raise and spend unlimited money, but they must disclose their finances to the IRS.

Other state conservatives have taken the initiative to start freedom caucuses on their own, independent of the umbrella organization.

In Michigan, Rep. Steve Carra (R) is helping lead a group of lawmakers that he said would hold other GOP members accountable for their votes in the Democratic-majority chamber.

“I think the message of freedom is the message that will make the Republican Party viable moving forward, not picking winners and losers from corporate welfare, and privileged handouts just because you have access and landscape in Washington,” Carra said.