The Congressional Leadership Fund is a super PAC closely aligned with the current Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy. Founded in 2011, the CLF is affiliated with the American Action Network, a nonprofit advocacy organization that formed to oppose President Obama’s legislative agenda. Together both groups have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain a Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
CLF was the second highest spender during the 2022 midterm election, according to OpenSecrets, and was instrumental in Republicans retaking the House of Representatives that year.
During the bitter contest for House Speakership in January 2023, the CLF cut a deal with the Club for Growth, another right-wing group, to shore up support for Kevin McCarthy. The agreement forced the CLF to abstain from political spending in open Republican primaries, allowing far-right groups, like the Club for Growth, to have greater control over the composition of the Republican caucus.
Dan Conston has served as the president of both the Congressional Leadership Fund and American Action Network since 2019. CLF claims that under Conston’s leadership, it became the largest House super PAC in history in 2020, spending $165 million across 54 congressional districts that year.
In early 2023, The New York Times reported that Conston knew that the now-disgraced Republican Congressman George Santos had fabricated significant parts of his biography, including his education, his professional experiences, and his ethnicity. According to the Times, Conston confided in GOP leaders, Republican donors, and other allies that he believed Santos’s lies would eventually come to light during the 2022 midterm election. Despite Conston’s concerns, Republicans said nothing publicly to disparage Santos, allowing the serial fabricator to win his race.
Prior to joining the CLF, Conston ran the strategy and media production firm Conston Communications. By his own telling, Conston’s firm managed over $40 million in political spending during the 2016 election and won all 15 congressional and statewide campaigns that he participated in. His clients included the Congressional Leadership Fund, the Senate Leadership Fund, and the New York Wins PAC, a committee backed by the right-wing megadonor Robert Mercer.
Earlier in his career, Conston held “senior roles” managing communications and political spending at the Congressional Leadership Fund. He has also run press for Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Jerry Moran, and Rep. Peter Roskam and assisted media relations for the McCain-Palin campaign.
The Congressional Leadership Fund was created by House Republican leaders in late 2011 and is loosely connected to the nonprofit advocacy organization American Action Network. Conceived as a conservative counterpart to the progressive Center for American Progress, AAN largely grew out of Republicans’ dissatisfaction with President Obama’s presidency and the rising tea party movement in 2010. Although originally perceived as less ideological than other right-wing advocacy groups, AAN has embraced the fringes of the political right over the years, including the far-right House Freedom Caucus and President Trump.
CLF was originally associated with former Republican Speakers of the House John Boehner and Paul Ryan, but is currently affiliated with GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). American Action Network President Dan Conston is also the president of CLF and has served in those positions since 2019.
Since its founding in 2011, CLF has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in independent expenditures in congressional races. A breakdown of the fund’s year-end total contributions and expenditures is provided in the table below.
|Total Intake of Contributions
CLF is one of the dominant super PACs in the American political landscape. It was the second highest outside spender in the 2022 election cycle, the third highest in the 2020 election cycle, and the second highest in the 2018 election cycle according to watchdog OpenSecrets.
Given its ties to House Republican leadership, the CLF has at times been at odds with various outside groups aligned with other GOP factions. One of these fights came to a head in early 2023 during Kevin McCarthy’s unprecedented bid for the House Speakership. On January 2, the Uihlein-backed nonprofit group the Club for Growth announced that it would oppose McCarthy’s candidacy for Speaker of the House unless he agreed to a set of demands. The group specifically called on the new Congress to adopt rules that would empower right-wing members of the Republican caucus to have greater control over the legislative process. The group also demanded that the Congressional Leadership Fund abstain from spending money in open Republican primaries or against GOP incumbents, thus ensuring that the Club for Growth would have greater say in the composition of the Republican caucus.
After McCarthy lost multiple votes for the Speakership, the CLF cut a deal with the Club for Growth on January 5, agreeing to the group’s demands. Both groups denied that McCarthy and his allies on Capitol Hill played a role in negotiating the terms of the agreement.
The American Action Network and the American Action Forum are related groups that were founded to advance the fundraising and grassroots organizing for conservatives ahead of the 2010 U.S. midterm elections. The New York Times called them part of the “shadow” Republican party in 2011.
The groups, usually referred to together as the American Action Network, were created by high-profile Republicans to counterbalance left-leaning organizations like the Center for American Progress, which they felt had helped elevate Barack Obama to the presidency. The American Action Network is a 501(c)(4), which engages in public-facing media campaigns, while the American Action Forum is a 501(c)(3) think tank led by former Congressional Budget Officer Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served from 2003 to 2005.
Their creation was also part of a larger project to rebrand the “tarnished” reputation of the Republican Party after the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis. The American Action Network’s early organizers specifically cited the possibilities created by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allowed for unlimited corporate and individual donations as a motivating factor in their creation. Despite being founded in 2009, AAN was not rolled out formally until a month after the Citizens United decision.
Since its inception, AAN has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to secure Republican victories:
Fred Malek, who passed in 2019, was a long-time Republican operative, multimillionaire, and founder of the American Action Network. Malek was a member of Richard Nixon’s and George H.W. Bush’s administrations. He also played a role in the campaigns of every Republican presidential nominee from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. Malek ran the 1988 Republican National Convention and was the finance chair for the Republican Governors Association starting in 2012. He was the finance chairman and advisor to Sarah Palin during John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and once co-owned the Texas Rangers with George W. Bush.
Malek once helped Richard Nixon investigate whether the Bureau of Labor Statistics was under the control of a “Jewish Cabal” by attempting to count all of the Jewish employees in the department. While Malek publicly denied his involvement, a leaked memo proved him to be lying. He was known as “the hatchet” during the Nixon administration for firing the president’s enemies. He also ordered investigations of anti-Nixon journalists and played a key role in Nixons’ “Responsiveness Program,” which aimed to direct federal resources to his re-election campaign.
In 2004, Malek’s investment firm, Thayer Capital Partners, was forced to pay a $250,000 SEC fine for failing to disclose donations to a state senator who performed “no meaningful work” for the firm. Malek’s role in Nixon’s “Jewish Cabal” investigation and his SEC fine proved controversial during the rise of American Action Network.