AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In the months following the 2018 elections, the Republican Party's centrist coalition was quietly imploding. Members of that coalition had some hard questions for an allied outside group. That group raises money based on the perception that it has close ties with centrist Republican lawmakers. And when they started asking their questions, things started to fall apart. None of this has been previously reported.
NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has the exclusive on what happened and what it means for Republicans going into 2020.
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So first, can you just explain who are the key players in this story you have?
DAVIS: It involves two key groups. The first group is a number of House Republicans who formed a coalition in Congress called the Republican Main Street Caucus. It was about 70 lawmakers. It was chaired by Republicans, including Rodney Davis of Illinois, Jeff Denham of California.
The caucus was formed inside the House to sort of counterbalance the weight of the conservative wing of the party. And they named their caucus after the important second group, the Republican Main Street Partnership. It's a group that's been a fixture in Washington since the late '90s. It mainly raises money to help candidates and advocates for fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republicans.
DAVIS: The idea was that these two would work together to build up the infrastructure to support the party's center-right coalition.
CHANG: OK, so the way I understand it, everything starts off with the best of intentions, lawmakers want to work with this Republican Main Street Partnership. The partnership now has an official member caucus on its side. And then Election Day comes around. Democrats take over the house. You report that this is when the relationship started to dissolve. What happened?
DAVIS: There had been a number of concerns about how the partnership was being run under its current president, Sarah Chamberlain. She's a key figure in this story. After the election, everyone was angry, and there was this series of meetings between Republican lawmakers and Chamberlain where they just start demanding answers about how she's running the organization. They want to know how much she pays herself; more importantly, why the group still has more than $700,000 in unspent campaign funds.
DAVIS: This is money that could have gone to try and save more Republicans. They want more details on all of the groups subentities - its superPAC, its advocacy arm; basically, how the whole operation is being run. So in December, the caucus votes unanimously on a resolution to suspend political activity with the partnership, until a full audit of the organization is completed.
So in January, the partnership sends a member of their board, former California congressman named Doug Ose, up to the Hill, and he essentially tells lawmakers, you have no right to this information.
CHANG: So how does the partnership explain why they rejected the audit?
DAVIS: So their argument is that the partnership's a private organization, and lawmakers have no right to the audit requests. And he's totally right. But I talked to Adav Noti at the Campaign Legal Center. It's a government watchdog group that specializes in campaign finance laws. And he also said there's no reason they couldn't comply with an audit, either.
ADAV NOTI: It's a big ask to say to a member of Congress, hey, work with us, and we won't tell you where our money is coming from or where it's going. That raises red flags.
DAVIS: These red flags were so overwhelming to lawmakers that they decided to quietly end the official caucus in February. It no longer exists.
CHANG: OK, so then your reporting revealed that a secret memo outlined a number of serious ethical and legal concerns about Chamberlain and the partnership. Tell us what was in this memo.
DAVIS: Lawmakers had a lot of problems about Chamberlain's political judgment and why she was prioritizing time on projects that didn't benefit them. One example - she's spending a lot of time focused on something called Women2Women. It's an outfit she says is about women empowerment and engaging suburban women. It's being made into a 501(c)(3) organization.
CHANG: Which is very important here.
DAVIS: Very important because that means it's a nonprofit, and it can't, by law, engage in political activity.
DAVIS: So lawmakers are questioning what the point of a project is if it can't engage in political activity...
DAVIS: ...And also whether it's being run within the bounds of campaign finance and tax laws. I want to say, Chamberlain and the partnership rejected all of the allegations against them. They say they comply with all laws and blame this whole fallout, in their words, on disgruntled individuals on Capitol Hill.
CHANG: What does this mean for the Republican Party right now?
DAVIS: If the party doesn't have the fundraising, the infrastructure to recruit and back up these kind of centrist candidates, the chances of putting the House in play in 2020 just get that much harder.
CHANG: NPR's congressional correspondent Sue Davis, thank you.
DAVIS: You're welcome.
CHANG: And there is plenty more reporting in this story, which you can read at npr.org.
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