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Inside the Freedom Caucus' growth plans

Five months after it helped lead the charge to oust Speaker John Boehner, the House Freedom Caucus is looking to cement its influence by expanding its ranks in November.

The alliance of roughly three-dozen hard-line conservatives is drawing up a list of GOP-leaning open seats it could target this year and is quietly meeting with prospective candidates for the seats of Freedom Caucus members who are either retiring or running for Senate. The caucus’ political arm is raising money for members facing tough challenges. And it is even spending money on outside television ads in a House primary, a rare and expensive move for a PAC controlled by members of Congress.

The group’s strategy echoes that of former GOP Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund, which helped populate the Senate with anti-establishment conservatives in the tea party’s early years, though with one important difference: The Freedom Caucus is eyeing only open seats. Unlike conservative groups like the Club for Growth, it refuses to go after sitting Republican members.

“The goal is to grow it by, and I think it’s realistic, to grow it by 20 to 30 members,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), one of the Freedom Caucus’ founding members. “All new members.”

An expanded Freedom Caucus could make life even more difficult for House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has inherited Boehner’s headaches in keeping a lid on the restive caucus and dealing with its members’ hard-line stances on issues like the budget and repealing Obamacare. Some Republicans worry about losing opportunities for legislative compromise if new Freedom Caucus members win more House seats in deep-red districts as mainstream conservatives gradually retire.

Departing members like Reps. Candice Miller of Michigan and Stephen Fincher of Tennessee aren’t exactly moderates, but they do have “pragmatic streaks,” said Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, the co-chairman of the Tuesday Group of moderate House Republicans. “We all are concerned that they not be replaced by absolutists,” Dent said. “That makes governing so much harder.”

But the Freedom Caucus has already notched its first victory of 2016: Warren Davidson, the group’s chosen candidate, beat out more than a dozen other Republicans in the March 15 primary for Boehner’s old House seat in Ohio, a win laden with symbolism.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the Freedom Caucus’ chairman, says the group doesn’t have a formal growth target, but it’s casting a wide net after Davidson’s victory.

“I don’t have a specific number,” Jordan said. “What I know right now is we’re one for one.”

The first priority for Jordan is defending the three Freedom Caucus members facing serious challenges, one in a primary and two in the general election. The second is identifying potential new members to replace the ones running for Senate — Reps. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Marlin Stutzman of Indiana and John Fleming of Louisiana — as well as Reps. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming and Salmon, who are retiring.

But the caucus is also hunting for candidates to support in many of the nearly two dozen other Republican-held open seats.

The Freedom Caucus doesn’t officially endorse candidates, Jordan said. Instead, members of the group meet with new candidates when they come to Washington to chat with the National Republican Congressional Committee and other conservative groups — about 20 so far, according to Salmon.

One candidate the caucus is backing is Jim Banks, who on Thursday became the first beneficiary of TV ads run by the House Freedom Fund, which is both Jordan’s leadership PAC and the Freedom Caucus’ unofficial political committee. Super PACs and nonprofits, not leadership PACs, typically dominate the realm of outside TV advertising. But Banks is running in a crowded open primary to replace Stutzman, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, and it’s another early chance for the group to set the tone for 2016.

“To be honest, it’s driven by the calendar,” Jordan said. “The first ones coming up are the ones we’re looking at.”

Members of the caucus have also met with candidates in Georgia’s 3rd District, which has a May 24 primary to replace retiring GOP Rep. Lynn Westmoreland. And Salmon has endorsed state Senate President Andy Biggs to fill his seat in Arizona’s 5th District months ahead of the Aug. 8 primary.

The Freedom Caucus is focusing on seats in states where local members can help identify candidates who might be a good fit for the group. In Georgia, for instance, Jordan has consulted with Reps. Jody Hice and Barry Loudermilk, the two caucus members who hail from the state.

“Typically, the template is more conservative districts,” Jordan said. “But not always.” Jordan has also had conversations in recent weeks about competing in swing seats in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

But only a limited number of Republican-held seats are open this cycle, and several of them seem more likely to swing Democratic than to elect someone who will join the Freedom Caucus. Voters in GOP Rep. John Kline‘s suburban Minneapolis seat, for instance, twice backed President Barack Obama.

The caucus seems aware of its limits. “We’re not going to be able to engage in every seat,” Jordan said. “We’re looking to focus on seats where we have a good candidate.”

The Freedom Caucus could face Republican opposition in those races. Right Way Initiative, a new nonprofit formed to support “constructive conservatives,” backed a rival candidate in the race to fill Boehner’s seat, and it has indicated it will get involved up to a dozen House primaries this cycle. Business groups that have often opposed the caucus’ goals, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, could also work against it.

The Freedom Caucus also appears likely to lose at least one of its two members facing competitive races in November.

Rep. Rod Blum of Iowa has acknowledged that he’s one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the House, and his membership in the Freedom Caucus may hurt his chances. “It doesn’t make his reelection any easier,” said Rep. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin, a former Freedom Caucus member who quit the group in October shortly after it helped drive out Boehner.

Ribble, who remains on good terms with the group’s members, is retiring this year, and he said he would help the group pick a candidate to support in his district. He’s predicting the caucus will pick up three to five new members.

“I think a number that size would be healthy for the Freedom Caucus,” Ribble said. Any more could make it tough for the group — which requires 80 percent of its members to agree on many decisions — to function.

In a sign of the group’s influence, some Republican candidates are touting their intentions to join the Freedom Caucus if elected, even if they haven’t met with the group yet. It’s become a touchstone for hard-line GOP primary candidates, much like voting against Boehner for speaker used to be.

“I will join the Freedom Caucus, because that’s the caucus that stands up for the Constitution and that’s the group of members that holds the leadership’s feet to the fire,” Mike Pape, one of three well-known Republicans running to fill GOP Rep. Ed Whitfield‘s seat in Kentucky, said at the Casey County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner in February, according to a video obtained by POLITICO. Jason Batts, another candidate in the race, has also said he’ll apply to join the Freedom Caucus.

Yet the group hasn’t been universally embraced in Republican primaries so far, even in deeply conservative districts.

Jamie Comer, the leading Republican in that Kentucky race, said he might vote in line with Freedom Caucus members at times. But Comer isn’t looking to join the group.

“I’m going to be a leader,” he said, “and I don’t need a group of politicians to tell me how to vote for the people of the 1st Congressional District.”

Lauren French contributed to this report.

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