Senate GOP seeks control of primaries
By: Manu Raju and Anna Palmer
November 7, 2013 05:03 AM EST
Senate Republicans are spoiling for a fight this primary season as they try to take back control of the party from conservative activists.
The strategy: prop up the most electable candidates — even if they are more moderate than ones demanded by tea party activists — and punish those who get in their way.
After witnessing the business community help save the candidacy of Bradley Byrne, an establishment-backed candidate in a GOP runoff Tuesday for a House seat in Alabama, Republican senators are calling for the same type of support from well-funded GOP groups in Senate primaries next year.
“If you have an unlevel playing field, then you get predictable results,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who faces a primary challenge next year, said Wednesday. “The people who want to support a more traditional, Ronald Reagan-like Republican also need to get in the game.”
The fight between the establishment and the tea party has been brewing since 2010, but it has taken on new urgency in the aftermath of the Tuesday elections and as the midterm elections draw near. Many congressional Republicans were quick to argue that the 2013 elections bolster the case they’ve been making for the past three years: Candidates matter.
Gov. Chris Christie romped to reelection in New Jersey by positioning himself as a deal-cutting pragmatic Republican who did not adhere to strict conservative orthodoxy. But to his south, Ken Cuccinelli lost his bid for the Virginia governor’s mansion in part because Democrats seized on his hard-line conservative credentials. And even further south in Alabama, Byrne beat back Dean Young, a staunch conservative who likened himself to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Republicans said they must replicate the tactics by choosing the best candidates in 2014 — regardless of the demands of tea party-aligned groups.
“If super PACs are going to get involved in primaries, there has to be some other people involved in primaries who are interested in actually winning the election in November — and not just purifying the party in the primary,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who ran the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the past two cycles and faces reelection next year.
With the blessing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the hardball plan is already beginning to take shape. Senior Republican officials are privately warning GOP consultants and firms who continue to work with one of their main foes — the Senate Conservatives Fund — and another GOP ad firm that they won’t get contracts from the NRSC. They’ll also be frozen out of McConnell’s network if they remain hired by their right-wing rival.
The NRSC is prepared to spend money in primaries after sitting out the intraparty fights in 2012.
The rhetoric has become more pointed, with top Republicans accusing the groups of caring strictly about their own profits rather than the cause of winning a Senate majority. And with the backing of Senate Republicans, Big Business groups — which are allied with McConnell — are taking a more aggressive tack in the 2014 primaries as well.
Some Republicans see the turn of events as eventually hobbling some of the outside groups. Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, chairman of the NRSC, said the conservative organizations could grow weaker if they lose in 2014 and their fundraising begins to dry up.
“Donors are tired of contributing to groups that support candidates with their money that don’t win elections,” Moran said. “If you can only win a Republican primary and can’t win a general election, you serve no purpose in changing the United States Senate to something that’s good for the country.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher: In addition to the fiercely fought race to keep control of the House, Republicans must net six seats to take back the Senate majority next year. If they don’t, the GOP’s map to the majority grows much bleaker in future election cycles.
“Hopefully it means that the tea party people will start to realize that it’s better to work within the Republican Party than to continually make it very difficult to elect Republicans,” said Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, who thwarted a tea party challenge in his primary last year. “I think the tea party could be a great asset to the Republican Party if they would just get behind solid conservatives who are running.”
Whether the more combative approach works in the primary — or spawns a costly intraparty war that could damage the GOP in next year’s general elections — remains to be seen. For instance, the NRSC and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have severed ties with Jamestown Associates, a consulting firm that helped cut ads supporting McConnell’s primary challenger Matt Bevin.
But it’s uncertain whether the severed ties will have much of an impact: The NRSC hasn’t worked with Jamestown since the 2010 cycle when it paid the group nearly $30,000 before ending its association with the firm following a controversial ad in the West Virginia Senate race.
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a conservative who stayed publicly neutral in the southern Alabama House primary, said there are risks for the party establishment if it engages in contested primaries.
“They have to be careful about that,” Sessions said. “People sometimes are offended by that, and sometimes the anti-establishment candidate wins. And they might turn out to be a very fine senator — as opposed to the Democrat.”
Conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund warn that the political landscape hasn’t changed with Republican Party committees reasserting themselves in the primary process.
“The establishment always has the advantage,” said Matt Hoskins, executive director of the group. “They have more money. They have more power and more influence and so if conservatives and the grass roots are going to win elections they have to rise up.”
Tuesday’s elections all had unique factors that influenced the outcomes. Christie remained popular in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year and faced a weak Democratic opponent; Cuccinelli was criticized for running a subpar campaign and was significantly outspent by Terry McAuliffe and his Democratic allies; and Young lacked the support of powerful conservative outside groups and even questioned whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States.
In the aftermath of the elections, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a former House GOP leader who now serves in the Senate GOP leadership, said the party needs to return to the view of pushing forward “the most conservative candidate that can be elected.”
“If you pledge to do all kinds of things that aren’t possible to get done, you’re going to be an effective representative of a point of view, but not of a district,” Blunt said.
The Alabama race was seen as a test case for business interests that have been promising to become more engaged in primaries following frustrations with tea party conservatives for forcing the fight that prompted a 16-day government shutdown last month.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce dumped roughly $200,000 for Byrne, and TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts’s Ending Spending also spent around $75,000 on ads backing him. Business political action committees and GOP leaders like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy also cut checks to Byrne.
National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors President Dirk Van Dongen said he expects business groups will continue to get more involved in primaries.
“The fact of the matter is it makes no sense to us to primary incumbent Republicans who have a very, very solid pro-business, conservative voting records because they aren’t 100 percent pure,” Van Dongen said. “Sending people to Washington who are just grenade-throwers accomplishes absolutely nothing in terms of furthering an agenda embraced by the business community.”
The Alabama race was a limited test of the establishment’s power since major conservative groups, often at odds with the Washington GOP, did not get involved in the race.
Some conservative activists, such as CRC Public Relations’ Greg Mueller, discounted that there are broader take aways from the Byrne victory.
“I think trying to turn Alabama into some big deal is probably stretching it a bit,” Mueller said. “You had somebody who was largely a noncandidate against a well-funded basic Republican. There is really no news to it.”
The battle between the GOP establishment and tea party groups is long in the making. It was the NRSC’s decision to back Charlie Crist — then a moderate Florida GOP governor, who has since become a Democrat — over Marco Rubio in the 2010 Senate primary that prompted a major revolt from the Senate Conservatives Fund and tea party groups. Moreover, McConnell’s decision to back a candidate over Rand Paul in the 2010 elections prompted fury from the right. The GOP leadership eventually endorsed Rubio and Paul.
But in that same election cycle, the Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed candidates who flamed out in winnable seats during the general election — namely Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Ken Buck in Colorado.
Hoping to avoid an intraparty civil war in 2012, the NRSC — then chaired by Cornyn — sat out the primary fights. While some of the NRSC’s preferred candidates lost races in red states like North Dakota and Montana, other conservative candidates backed by right-wing groups in Indiana and Missouri handed winnable races to the Democrats.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said the Alabama race was an “encouraging” development that his party can learn from in 2014.
“There are times when it’s useful to” engage in primaries, Flake said. “Sometimes it backfires, but where we can, I think we ought to.”