Republican David Jolly’s victory in a Florida congressional election this month has given outside groups focused on a broader goal a playbook for how to gain the six seats the party needs to take control of the U.S. Senate.
In near-daily conference calls during the campaign in Florida’s 13th district, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Karl Rove-led American Crossroads and the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity -- among others -- fine-tuned their strategy targeting Democratic candidate Alex Sink.
The Republican collaboration included a synchronized television- and web-ad plan, a battery of anti-Sink mailers and a last-minute recorded voter appeal by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky to suffocate support for a third-party candidate who threatened to draw votes from Jolly.
“We’ve worked closely with outside groups in the past, but with Florida-13, we took it to a new level with the depth of our cooperation,” said Carl Forti, political director of American Crossroads, a super-political action committee with ties to Rove, former president George W. Bush’s chief political adviser.
“From strategy to message to timing, everything was integrated and working together,” Forti said. “I would expect to see that again in key races.”
Outside groups, some of which supported Sink and on the Republican side included the American Action Network, combined to pour at least $4 million into the Florida race -- about one-third of all that was spent, a tally by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics shows.
The contest for the House seat began with the Oct. 18 death of Representative Bill Young, a Republican first elected in 1971.
Sink, who narrowly lost the 2010 Florida governor’s election, within weeks announced she would run to succeed Young in a district that President Barack Obama carried in his 2012 re-election. Most polls leading to the March 11 special election showed her with an edge over Jolly, a political newcomer and lobbyist.
As they advocated for Jolly, the Republican groups homed in on anti-Affordable Care Act message that they can transfer to other races this year.
Democrats said the demographics of the district, combined with the party’s traditionally lower voter turnout in non-presidential years, cost them the race.
“That was a district that was very, very white and quite old,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters today “It’s a district that had been Republican for 60 years. So Obamacare, if you do a poll of anyone, that’s dropped way down in significance.”
The first outside group to dive into the election, in the first days of February, was the U.S. Chamber, which would become the top broadcast TV advertiser other than the party committees to support Jolly, a review of data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG shows. The Washington-based trade group also announced its endorsement of Jolly at an event in Clearwater, Florida, that featured local business leaders who drew hometown media coverage.
Working alongside Jolly were the Republican National Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee, which viewed the race as both winnable and an opportunity to test data and voter-contact operations they plan to use later this year.
“It was all hands on deck with everyone working toward the same mission,” said Kirsten Kukowski, an RNC spokeswoman.
Party committees, like the candidate, are prohibited from working with the outside groups, about whom Kukowski said, “From our perspective, the more, the merrier.”
The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United and subsequent court cases and regulatory actions have empowered outside groups that want to help elect candidates and, as a result, influence policy. Super-PACs, such as American Crossroads, can raise and spend unlimited sums, while Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit social-welfare group, can raise funds from secret donors while facing limits in their election-time activities.
In the midterm elections four years ago -- which saw Republicans win the U.S. House of Representatives -- the groups, parties and candidates found ways to maximize the impact of their efforts within the new legal framework. For example, the NRCC in 2010 broke tradition by publicly revealing its ad-buying strategy, which meant the friendly outside groups could fill-in around it or add volume.
Coordination continued in 2012, when Crossroads officials led weekly conferences among the big outside spenders. The special House election in Florida foreshadows the refinement of those earlier efforts. For instance, the sequencing and messaging of the TV ads aimed at helping Jolly was seamless.
The U.S. Chamber’s first ad began airing on Feb. 4 and was a 30-second pro-Jolly spot narrated by the state’s best-known Republican.
“The Chamber focused on going in early, first with a positive ad featuring Governor Jeb Bush to introduce Jolly,” said the group’s national political director, Rob Engstrom.
In its next ad, which began running just a few days later, the chamber added into the rotation one that tethered Sink to Obama’s health-care law. “With Alex Sink, the priority is Obamacare, not us,” a narrator says.
Two other outside groups then picked up the TV ad torch.
“Everywhere Alex Sink goes, a mess follows,” began a commercial by the American Action Network, a Republican-aligned nonprofit founded by former Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota. The image during the commercial: tap water from a kitchen sink filling a metal bucket punctured with holes.
The 30-second spot raised questions about Sink’s resume, including her tenure as the state’s chief financial officer. She approved contracts for her former bank employer even as the state pension fund lost billions, a narrator in the ad said.
A few days later, American Crossroads was up with a commercial that made the same points, this time using “real people” to deliver the information.
“Alex Sink has sure helped herself,” the male half of a older couple said, addressing the camera from over a kitchen sink. “But what about us?” the female chimed in.
Crossroads and American Action Network, which also sent thousands of mailed advertisements to Florida voters, went off the air as the U.S. Chamber returned with its most specific ad in the campaign -- one that would stay on the air through Election Day.
Sink supports Obama’s health-care law, the ad reminded voters, which cuts Medicare Advantage, a popular program among seniors.
“To pay for Obamacare, Washington is forcing seniors to endure deep cuts to Medicare Advantage. Sadly, Alex Sink supports these cuts,” it said.
Taking a lower profile in the swing district was Americans for Prosperity, which is more often aligned with the small-government Tea Party. The year’s most prolific political advertisers so far -- CMAG data show it’s aired 18,000 anti-Obamacare ads, more than three times as many as the next-biggest advertiser -- opted out of backing Jolly on television.
The group was founded by brothers Charles and David Koch, energy executives who are the fifth and sixth richest people in the world, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index. AFP concentrated its work in Florida to voter contact and measuring the impact of its turnout-target lists.
“Florida offered an important opportunity to test nonpartisan, voter-turnout messages and techniques, and we took full advantage of that opportunity,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity.
As Election Day drew near, there was a final worry for Republican groups trying to help Jolly over the finish line: How many voters would libertarian candidate Lucas Overby peel off? Some polls showed the number could be as high as 10 percent -- a potentially debilitating factor for Jolly in a close race.
Crossroads’ strategists had an idea. They persuaded Paul, who inherited a libertarian fan base from his father, former presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas, to record a pro-Jolly message in hopes of tamping down defections to the third-party candidate.
Overby got less than 5 percent of the vote, and Jolly won by less than two-percentage-points.
Jolly was grateful and fully aware of the outside assistance. Soon after the election, he was on a conference call with 200 top U.S. Chamber donors telling them that their ads and engagement made a difference, according to a person who was on the call and asked not to be identified.