Mike Conaway helps friends in chase for Ag Chair

By Byron Tau and Bill Tomson | 7/16/14 11:54 PM EDT

Mike Conaway has quietly emerged as a Republican rainmaker, building some major political capital in advance of his likely run for chairman of the House Agriculture Committee in the next Congress.

The Texas Republican has helped bring in more than $800,000 for other House GOP lawmakers in the second quarter of 2014 alone, according to a preview of fundraising numbers shared with POLITICO and confirmed by sources in the Republican fundraising world.

Though grass-roots conservative stalwart Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) also has been mentioned as a potential candidate, Conaway already is thought to be the favorite to take over for Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) when he is term-limited out of the Agriculture Committee chairmanship at the end of this Congress. But Conaway hasn’t likely hurt his chances by holding events that benefit both top party leadership as well as rank-and-file backbenchers and emerging as a major contributor to GOP efforts to expand the party’s majority.

“We help folks in a variety of ways,” said the five-term congressman, who also now has the difficult job of chairing the House Ethics Committee. “I go to their fundraisers. We give them money directly. We give money to the [National Republican Congressional Committee]. Primarily the fundraising and other efforts are aimed at keeping the House under Republican control. If it works to help with the chairmanship, that’s great.”

Conaway’s second-quarter fundraising haul includes almost $230,000 for new members of the House Agriculture Committee at a June event at the Capitol Hill Club. He also organized an event benefiting House Speaker John Boehner back in Texas and appeared with the speaker at another agriculture event that netted $115,000 for the party.

Additionally, Conaway’s helped raise $53,000 for the NRCC’s Young Guns candidate recruitment program, and $21,000 for the committee’s Patriot program — an incumbent protection effort designed to assist vulnerable members.

Other events include an appearance with Rep. Tom Rice in South Carolina that raked in more than $60,000. He’s also kicked in nearly $40,000 from his own campaign and leadership PAC to other Republican causes and candidates in the second quarter.

And his big second quarter of 2014 comes on top of the $1.4 million he raised for other Agriculture Committee members between 2011 and 2013.

Meanwhile, Conaway is making no secret about his interest in the House’s top agriculture post.

“We’ve put in all the work we could possibly figure out to do to make sure that I’m as competitive as I could possibly be,” Conaway said.

He has plenty of supporters.

“I think Mike’s a logical choice,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), a fellow member of the Agriculture Committee supporting Conaway’s bid to become chairman.

“He’s not out there talking about what he can do,” Davis said about Conaway “He just does it, which is sometimes a rare commodity in Washington, D.C.”

Complicating Conaway’s efforts is the fact that membership of the steering committee will likely shift in December, but he said it’s not impossible to calculate who the likely roster will include.

The new prospective Agriculture Committee chairman is working to show he can handle the complex policies that the committee deals with — everything from reauthorizing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to reforming the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Conaway has been vocal about how, if he were to become chairman, he plans to overhaul the food stamp program, a popular GOP target for trimming down.

“We need to lay the groundwork for what’s working with food stamps and what’s not working with food stamps,” he said. “Are there moral hazards that we have created by the programs themselves? Why have we had 48 million people on food stamps? There are a lot of questions that need to get answered, a lot of facts we need to get on the table so that we can then take a look and see where those reforms might or might not be.”

Conaway acknowledges that his fundraising activities have the added benefit of helping him build relationships and curry favors that could help him secure the chairmanship come January, but he stressed that helping keep his party in power in the House is his primary focus.

“We’ve got to keep the majority,” Conaway told POLITICO. “If we don’t have the majority then we don’t have gavels to give out. It’s all about keeping the majority and being competitive for placement as the chair.”

But with his extensive schedule, Conaway has collected political chits from all over the House Republican caucus.

“I do believe he’s one of the superstars of the caucus and he’s one of the superstars of the Congress,” Rice said.

“There is no doubt that Mike’s stature continues to grow and he has positioned himself extremely well to be the House Ag Committee chairman,” added Randy Russell, a top agriculture lobbyist who runs his own firm.

“I don’t think it’s solely based upon fundraising,” Russell said. “There’s show horses and there’s workhorses. He’s a workhorse. He’s substantive, he’s a great listener.”