If establishment candidates are seeing their odds improve this cycle, it’s not just because of dumb luck.
In competitive GOP primaries nationwide, establishment groups have ramped up their spending this year to ensure they nominate the most electable candidate with a perfect record so far.
That’s a big contrast to 2010, when establishment groups largely sat out of some of the cycle’s biggest primaries and ultimately let the Tea Party have the last laugh, which produced some flawed nominee that ultimately cost Republicans winnable races.
A review by The Hill of Federal Election Commission filings shows an increase in engagement from business-friendly and centrist GOP actors in 2014 compared to four years ago.
The Chamber of Commerce is this cycle’s second-biggest spender, and has already spent at least $1 million opposing conservative candidates, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The pro-business group has also spent nearly $10 million boosting their preferred candidates, like Rep. Jack Kingston in Georgia, who made it to the primary runoff with help of $920,000 from the Chamber.
In contrast, no conservative groups spent against Kingston. And only one outside group, backing the other establishment pick in the race, businessman David Perdue, aired ads against Kingston.
The nearly $10 million spent by the Chamber this cycle on its preferred candidates in House and Senate races is more than three times what the Senate Conservatives Fund has spent on its picks this cycle, and their only engagement in a competitive Senate primary so far came up short.
In Kentucky, groups backing Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R) unsuccessful primary challenger, Matt Bevin, spent $664,000 in independent expenditures boosting him and another $800,000 attacking McConnell, led by SCF.
Groups supporting McConnell spent at least $1.4 million, according to a review of Federal Election Commission filings by The Hill. McConnell spent another $9 million of his own warchest to keep his seat.
That’s a big change from the 2010 Kentucky Senate race, when Tea Party insurgent Rand Paul orchestrated an upset over establishment favorite Trey Grayson. The primary saw very little outside spending, and what little was spent didn’t go to help Grayson, the secretary of state. Just under $5,000 went to boosting Paul, and only a little over $240,000 was spent attacking the conservative favorite.
Less than half a million in a competitive primary seems inconsequential when compared to today’s races. After losing winnable races in 2010 and 2012 due to weak party nominees, the GOP establishment pledged this cycle to invest considerable resources to preventing an outcome similar to that in the Missouri Senate race, where former Rep. Todd Akin won the GOP nod but crippled his shot at the seat after making off-color comments on rape and pregnancy.
Though no Tea Party groups spent supporting Akin, the establishment also did nothing to stymie him in the primary. The Chamber spent under $50,000 backing businessman John Brunner, and spent $300,000 on advertising against former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman — but Akin slipped through the middle.
Rob Engstrom, the Chamber of Commerce’s political director, said the group decided a year ago not to let history repeat itself.
“A year ago, the Chamber announced a strategy focused on electing candidates with the ability to win and the courage to govern. We are following through on that commitment,” he said in an email.
“We will remain focused on that goal through the primaries and leading to the November elections to ensure that the free enterprise system leads the American recovery,” Engstrom added.
The increased spending from groups like the Chamber and other business-friendly PACs is far different from their involvement or lacktherof in 2010’s top GOP primaries. That cycle developed in a time when super PACs and outside spending were still largely new and conservative groups were best equipped to seize on the advantages of new campaign finance wilderness.
In Alaska, no groups spent to support Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) in her primary, while conservative groups spent about $65,000 to boost her primary opponent, Joe Miller, and attack her. That was enough to help deliver him a stunning upset in the primary, though Murkowski eventually won re-election as a write-in candidate.
In Delaware, establishment groups were silent about Christine O’Donnell despite having a top-tier pick in former GOP Rep. Mike Castle. Conservative groups spent over $140,000 in support of O’Donnell and another $112,000 against Castle, boosting her to the nomination but eventually losing a winnable seat.
The same story played out in Colorado, where establishment pick Jane Norton was defeated by gaffe-prone Ken Buck after conservative groups led by SCF spent $612,000 for Buck. Another outside group that’s backed both Democrats and Republicans, Americans for Job Security, spent $1.1 million on ads boosting Buck. Buck won the primary but went on to lose to Sen. Michael Bennet (D) in the general.
But this cycle’s biggest story line is that the establishment is fighting back, and winning.
Their biggiest victory may have come two weeks ago when establishment pick Thom Tillis made it through a competitive Republican primary and avoided a runoff for Senate in North Carolina, buoyed by $2.4 million in spending by outside groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads. Only about $13,000 was spent against him, and less than $160,000 was spent boosting his two main conservative opponents, pastor Mark Harris and physician Greg Brannon.
Paul Lindsay, communications director for American Crossroads, said the group’s engagement in the Tar Heel State, and establishment engagement in races more broadly, was informed by the mistakes of the past.
“In 2010 and 2012 we squandered a number of opportunities because we did not have candidates in place in the general election who could put together a winning coalition,” said Lindsay. “In looking back at those opportunities, we realized had there been an increased and more noticeable effort to support candidates that could establish that coalition, we may have had a different outcome.”