National Republican leaders are toasting primary season as a smashing success over activist conservatives that has put the hard right on the ropes and given the Washington GOP the slate of candidates it wanted for 2014.
Those victories, however, have come at a staggering cost — and Republicans are painfully aware of the price of putting down an intraparty insurrection.
Establishment-aligned groups have already spent some $23 million on independent expenditures propping up favored House and Senate candidates in contentious primaries, according to a POLITICO review of Federal Election Commission records. By comparison, Republican nominees raised and spent that amount in the 2012 North Dakota, Indiana and Nevada Senate races combined — three of the most competitive campaigns fought that year.
The scope of the effort to suppress activist-backed candidates has been broader and costlier than is widely understood, covering at least 20 House and Senate primaries from North Carolina to California, and from coastal Mississippi to the outer tip of Long Island. The loose coalition of establishment forces encompasses two dozen advocacy groups, industry associations and super PACs that have raised and spent millions on behalf of Washington’s chosen candidates.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan said the “quote ‘establishment’” had successfully divided up the primary map this year to avoid duplicating one another’s efforts. Eventually, Duncan said, outside groups on the right may realize that they’re better off working with the national party than raging against it. Indeed, in many cases this year, national party favorites have tacked well to the right to win their primaries.
“I think we have to keep on winning. I think we have to show up and make sure that our candidates are not going to be complacent and that they start early,” Duncan said. “That wake-up call certainly seems to have gotten through.”
Nearly a third of the establishment money has come from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The business lobby’s spending in this year’s toughest primaries has about equaled the $7 million that the conservative Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund have spent together on the most fractious elections — excluding races, like the Senate campaigns in Arkansas and Alaska, where there’s been no meaningful clash between establishment-sanctioned outside groups and the activist right.
And the $23 million figure isn’t even close to a full accounting of what D.C.-backed candidates spent to win their nomination fights. Candidates themselves, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas, have collectively spent tens of millions more from their campaign accounts.
Top Republican strategists and party officials say they have no regrets about going all-in against flawed primary candidates. In a perfect world, they say, the whole expensive ordeal would be unnecessary. With conservative outside groups routinely bumping off incumbent lawmakers and prized recruits, it’s simply the cost of doing business — now and perhaps for the foreseeable future.
Former George W. Bush White House political adviser Scott Jennings, who is steering a pro-McConnell super PAC this year, likened the heavy investment to a sports team that fields its strongest players possible midway through a playoff series.
“There may not be a game seven if you don’t have a game six, so you have to spend to win,” Jennings said. “In a world that you could script without the realities of the world we live in, you’d never spend a dollar until you get to the end of your general election. But that’s not the world we live in, and it’s OK.”
After the Chamber of Commerce, the most prolific spenders have been American Crossroads, which spent $2.4 million boosting Senate candidate Thom Tillis in North Carolina and tearing down three-time New York congressional candidate Matt Doheny; and the National Association of Realtors, which put nearly $2 million into protecting a half-dozen GOP incumbents. National advocacy groups such as the National Rifle Association and the American Action Network have gone to bat, with the NRA rushing to Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran’s aid and AAN helping nominate state Sen. Lee Zeldin in a New York congressional primary this week. The moderate Republican Main Street Partnership played heavily both in Mississippi and in a different New York congressional race upstate.