Establishment Republicans are on the verge of winning the biggest ideological proxy war in the House this election cycle.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a close ally of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), is poised to defeat Tea Party candidate and attorney Bryan Smith (R) next Tuesday, following huge investments by both business groups and conservative activists in the race.
Even Smith’s backers privately admit that they’re not hopeful about an upset on Tuesday.
The Club for Growth made Simpson one of their earliest targets, but they’ve pulled out of Idaho in recent weeks after spending nearly a half-million dollars to defeat Simpson, a sign they’re conceding defeat. The group hasn’t run any television ads since late April, shifting focus instead to Nebraska to help Ben Sasse (R) win his Senate primary last Tuesday.
“We’re in a constant state of assessing and re-assessing our races, moving resources in and out – depends on the day or week,” said Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller. “We did move considerable resources into the Nebraska Senate race in the last two weeks.”
If Simpson does survive, it would be the latest victory for the GOP establishment over Tea Party insurgents this election cycle. They’ve already prevailed races in North Carolina and Texas, and are on the verge of victory in a number of other races next Tuesday in Georgia, Kentucky and Oregon.
Simpson’s profile certainly fit that of a prime Tea Party target: he voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, otherwise known as the Wall Street Bailout, had long backed earmarks, and in 2010 two underfunded rivals had held him to 55 percent of the vote in his primary. The Club for Growth even named him as the first target in their “Primary my Congressman” campaign after Smith emerged to challenge him.
But Simpson took the challenge seriously, posting big fundraising quarters for the race and attacking Smith early before his challenger had the money to fight back on air. Simpson outspent Smith by a two-to-one margin in the race and also benefitted from huge sums spent by establishment groups on his behalf.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association, Defending Main Street Super PAC, the National Association of Realtors, the American Dental Association were among those that combined to spend roughly $2.5 million on his behalf, money that goes especially far on southern Idaho’s inexpensive airwaves.
That investment dwarfed the half-million dollars the Club for Growth spent and the tens of thousands spent by the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks and the Madison Project.
“There was a wider path at the beginning of this race if we were living in the 2010 or 2012 world for Bryan to win. But in a new world when D.C. establishment groups can and will spend unlimited amounts of money for a candidate, that's a different calculus,” said a Smith backer.
Simpson also moved early to define Smith, attacking him as an amoral trial lawyer and debt collector. Smith’s campaign, which hadn’t yet pulled in the cash to run a serious response on TV, was caught flat-footed and unable to respond. By the time they’d turned to positive ads, they admit Smith had already been compromised as a messenger.
"We went [on air] early and made sure this was a choice between Mike and Bryan and not a referendum on Mike,” said a Simpson ally.
Simpson was also boosted by the National Rifle Association's endorsement, helping shore up his standing with conservatives. He was also backed by 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who is highly popular in the heavily Mormon district, and cut ads for the Chamber for Simpson.
Smith has been hammering Simpson in the closing days on immigration, accusing him of supporting “amnesty.” But he has a long way to go to close the gap.
“We are seeing real momentum in the close of the campaign. As voters find out about Simpson's support for amnesty they are abandoning him in droves. We look forward to a historic win next week,” Smith campaign manager Carrie Brown said.
Simpson’s campaign remains optimistic they snuffed out the challenge early.
“Our goal is to continue right up until the polls close to aggressively share Mike’s proven conservative record of delivering results for the people of Idaho and contrast that with our opponents empty campaign rhetoric,” said Simpson advisor Todd Cranney.