By Annie Linskey, John McCormick and Greg Giroux
Aug. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Mixing celebrity endorsements, tag-team advertising, and a drive to surpass the Tea Party’s turnout, the business community has helped put Republicans in their strongest position yet to retake the U.S. Senate.
The effort, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, gives the party a slate of political veterans to take on Democrats, after defeating challenges from the sort of untested candidates backed by the small-government movement who collapsed in 2010 and 2012. The latest gain came last night in Kansas, where Senator Pat Roberts prevailed in his primary.
The cost was high, with more than $135 million spent nationwide by the two factions and their favored candidates in the intraparty fight, according to a review of Federal Election Commission records. That’s money they’ll have to raise again before facing Democrats this fall.
In addition, the business community failed to achieve a second goal: diminishing the influence inside the U.S. House of the Tea Party-aligned ranks, a group emboldened by the defeat of the former No. 2 House Republican, Eric Cantor of Virginia.
The yearlong fight over the direction of the Republican Party -- stretched over two dozen Senate and House primaries involving more than 50 candidates -- means the tug-of-war will go on, extending into next year’s debate on the debt ceiling and the 2016 presidential and congressional races.
“The Tea Party groups aren’t going away,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, a Woodstock, Georgia-based group that spent more than $10 million on elections and activism this year. “We’ll continue to stand for the issues we care about as citizen-watchdogs.”
The year’s seesawing results were framed in microcosm last night, when the Roberts Senate win over a Tea Party challenger came at the same time that one of House Speaker John Boehner’s most vocal antagonists, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, prevailed in his primary over a chamber-backed attempt to defeat him.
Still, the Senate wins mean Republicans and their business allies can relish the chance to pocket a net six seats and capture the Senate for the first time since 2006, which would give the party a chance to pass legislation that President Barack Obama would be forced to veto. That could include a repeal of the health-care law.
The business coalition plans to turn its tactics now on Democrats by keeping alive the combined efforts that proved mostly successful against the Republican insurgents.
“There was a lot of coordination not only about who would be up when, but the most effective messages to get him across the finish line,” said Carl Forti, the political director of American Crossroads, which spent $1.6 million on behalf of Thom Tillis, the North Carolina state House speaker, in a key Senate race. “It was joint polling, joint communication and a level of coordination we hope to continue into the fall.”
First up for the candidates is restocking their campaign accounts, which can be slow-going given the federal donation limit of $2,600. About $100 million was spent by candidates, while the pro-business and Tea Party groups have sunk $35 million in primary races that pit them against each other.
The totals are estimates and spending was probably even higher. Some outside campaign activity isn’t reported to the FEC, and disclosure reports for candidates are filed on a periodic basis and don’t precisely identify what is spent on primaries compared with general elections.
Even with the family fight, 2014 is a better year for the U.S. Chamber, the nation’s largest business-advocacy group, than 2012, when it went 2-for-15 in U.S. Senate races and 17-for-40 in House contests in which it had favored candidates.
In the last two elections, inexperienced Tea Party candidates won primaries only to lose to Democrats. That included Christine O’Donnell, whose 2010 Delaware Senate bid was marred after she had to deny she was a witch.
The chamber started this election season vowing to not let that happen again.
At the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, the group’s Washington leadership, including senior political strategist Scott Reed and national political director Rob Engstrom, gathered with 60 local chamber chief executive officers, donors and business leaders to plot against the Tea Party.
Two top goals: recruit and protect pro-business Senate candidates and get friendly voters to match the Tea Party’s energy.
A special House election in Florida in March, pitting Republican David Jolly against Democrat Alex Sink, provided an opportunity to test which messages would motivate the Republican voters -- and who would be best to deliver them.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, after saying that Jolly would cut spending and create jobs, looked directly into the camera and said: “I support him and I hope you will, too.” Jolly won, in a district that backed Obama in 2012.
It was the pro-business coalition’s first celebrity ad designed to cut through the commercial clutter. The tactic was later repeated elsewhere, with 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney starring in an Idaho House ad, former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker endorsing a Senate primary candidate, and Mississippi native and former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre offering a pivotal message in the Senate runoff in his home state.
Fine-tuning turnout tactics was a part of the focus in North Carolina, where the business community lined up behind Tillis. The mission: come out of a crowded May 6 primary field with the state-required 40 percent-plus-one votes to avoid a runoff. The winner would take on incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan.
On April 10, employers and trade associations representing about 700,000 private sector workers in North Carolina gathered at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Durham for a training session hosted by the state’s chamber of commerce and the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, a Washington-based advocacy group whose members include a majority of Fortune 100 companies.
The employers weren’t told how to vote. They were taught how to communicate with workers and given such facts as Tillis’s 96 percent favorable rating with the state chamber.
In the month before the primary, there were almost 13,000 page views related to voter registration and early voting on a BIPAC-run website for workers in North Carolina, and more than 400,000 pages of information about the candidates were viewed, said Jason Langsner, a BIPAC spokesman.
Tillis won with 46 percent of the vote, and the Tea Party candidate, Greg Brannon, was sent packing with 27 percent.
In Idaho, the pro-business coalition tested itself as it elevated some groups, slipped others into the background, and called in the professionals.
On May 20, Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho, an ally and friend of Boehner, faced Bryan Smith, who was backed by Tea Party-aligned groups, including the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Madison Project, all based in Washington.
“We knew this was a prize-fight election,” said Reed.
The chamber, the Republican Main Street Partnership and the National Rifle Association met weekly to discuss the race, and at least one of them held almost daily phone calls with local business leaders tracking the race.
They shared polling and hashed out “who was the best face to deliver the message” backing Simpson to voters, including in ads and in face-to-face talks with people, said Steve LaTourette, a former Ohio congressman who leads the Main Street Partnership, a corporate- and union-backed advocacy group.
Given its donor base, the Main Street Partnership wasn’t the best outlet to run TV ads for Simpson, so LaTourette’s organization signed a contract with Las Vegas-based Advanced Micro Targeting Inc., a firm that promised to put four teams into Idaho for three months and knock on 39,000 Republican primary voter doors, each one three times.
The door-to-door work started in March, two months before the primary and consisted of 12 workers who traveled in pairs, a task that cost the Main Street Partnership roughly $500,000, said Sarah Chamberlain, the group’s chief operating officer.
“It gave us, in real time, where the election was, where work needed to be done, what attack messages against Simpson were working and which ones were not,” said LaTourette.
The chamber and NRA became the face of Simpson’s allies in commercials. The NRA Political Victory Fund paid for 639 spots in the two-week period just prior to the primary, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political ads. The chamber ran more than 2,000 ads, according to CMAG data.
Local businesses, some with no history of getting involved in primaries, provided support from the trenches.
“We became sort of their eyes and ears on the ground,” said Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry. “As soon as we saw the Tea Party group media buys dry up about six weeks before the primary, we knew the game was over,” he said.
It was. Simpson beat Smith, 62 percent to 38 percent.
The pro-business forces would need all of those new tools - - and more -- in Mississippi, where Senator Thad Cochran, a six-term incumbent who’d built a career on the old-school metric of maximizing federal money brought home from Washington, was challenged by attorney and Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel in the June 3 Republican primary.
McDaniel fought Cochran to a draw, with the challenger besting the veteran by 1,400 votes on primary day while neither achieved the required 50-percent-plus-one to avoid a June 24 runoff.
A revitalized Tea Party took lessons from the business community and pulled together. Martin, of the Tea Party Patriots, invited representatives from a dozen groups to meet in a fourth floor conference room of the Alexandria, Virginia, offices of CRC Public Relations. Organizations including Club for Growth, Citizens United, the Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks divvied up responsibilities for the coming runoff.
“We wanted to be sure we weren’t pulling our volunteers in two different directions,” Martin said. The groups shared resources, with Tea Party Patriots volunteers sometimes distributing yard signs paid for by FreedomWorks.
Business-aligned groups, led by Chamberlain, Reed and Henry Barbour, the nephew of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, did the same.
The younger Barbour, a leader of a Mississippi super-political action committee, countered TV ad spending by national Tea Party groups for McDaniel.
With the help of former Mississippi Congressman Chip Pickering, the pro-Cochran team tracked Favre down on vacation in Washington State and he agreed to shoot an ad for Cochran, chamber officials said.
Favre’s ad, which praised Cochran as a “strong voice in Washington” and a “proven and respected leader,” aired 780 times on broadcast television during the final six days of the runoff, CMAG data show.
Meanwhile, Chamberlain recalled the door-knockers who had aided Simpson in Idaho. They were assigned two Mississippi counties, Lee and Oktibbeha, that had underperformed in the primary. Chamberlain insisted on the same 12-member crew, spending another $500,000 for two weeks of work.
In a memo written after the runoff, Micro Targeting said its efforts helped boost Cochran’s vote total by 24 percent in Lee County. In Oktibbeha County, the increase was 35 percent.
In the end, turnout exceeded 382,000 for the runoff, up from about 319,000 in the primary. Some of those new voters were black Democrats who were urged to jump into the race by Cochran’s supporters.
In Hinds County, which includes the state capital of Jackson and where the population is more than two-thirds black, turnout rose 46 percent as Cochran’s vote share grew to 72 percent from 66 percent.
Cochran beat McDaniel 51 percent to 49 percent, or by about 7,700 votes, delivering the Tea Party’s biggest loss.
Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican with a 95 percent chamber lifetime rating, said the pro-business spending will “take a little more time to settle in.”
Still, he’s optimistic it will help Boehner’s supporters hold firm.
“To be able to have a group that says, ‘Look we have big things we really have to tackle in this country and we’re going to have your back’ -- whether that’s fully settled into folks’ psyche or not yet I’m not sure,” Kinzinger said. “But in the next cycle I think it will.”