Remember when the Republican establishment declared war on the tea party?
One year ago, the Crossroads super PAC founded by Karl Rove launched a new group to defend incumbents from volatile, too-conservative challengers who might scuttle the party's takeover of the Senate in 2014. The empire-strikes-back counteroffensive gained allies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and gridlock-weary Republicans in Congress after tea-party members shut down the government in October.
But so far, what was billed as an ugly and expensive all-out civil war within the GOP looks more like a few scattered skirmishes unlikely to declare a clear victor.
"There's no question it was overstated," said Rob Engstrom, national political director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "How can you have a civil war when there's only five or six primaries that could become competitive?"
While there's still time for more challengers to gain traction, the Republican establishment is mostly holding its fire, a dramatic comedown from the brash, anti-tea-party rhetoric of last year.
The Crossroads offshoot, the Conservative Victory Project, hasn't spent a nickel on a Republican primary in 2014. Neither has the Republican Main Street Partnership, the moderate GOP group led by former Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio. The chamber of commerce has intervened so far only in Republican primaries in Alabama, Idaho, and Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces a bigger threat from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes than from Republican Matt Bevin.
Indeed, even as spring and summer primaries loom, most of the Republican and conservative spending targets Democrats on the ballot in November. At the forefront of the general-election assault is Americans for Prosperity, the group bankrolled by the Koch industrialist family. Most of its $30 million in spending has attacked Democrats over Obamacare, an issue that has proved far more unifying for the Republican Party than any of the issues that divide it.
"The narrative of a Republican civil war is always enticing for the media and as a fundraising angle for groups, but if you look at the number of contested, hot primaries this year, it doesn't seem atypical," said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity.
Despite the commotion raised over seven of 12 Republican senators drawing opposition from the tea-party movement, most of those incumbents look secure. One challenger, Liz Cheney, already dropped her bid against Sen. Michael Enzi of Wyoming.
And a leading instigator of interparty battles, the Club for Growth, has failed to draft serious Republican rivals to 10 members tagged by its "primary my congressman" initiative. A little-known tea-party candidate who took on West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito — another member bashed by the Club for Growth — recently dropped a Senate bid. So did Rep. Steve King of Iowa, singled out by Crossroads as a potential primary target after making controversial statements about illegal immigrants. That left a muddled Republican primary in that state, as well as in Georgia and Alaska, making it difficult for outside groups to pick winners. "We will involve ourselves in primaries only where we think we can make a difference," Engstrom said.
Crossroads, in particular, has reason to be cautious. The super PAC and its associated nonprofit spent more than $300 million in 2012 but was unsuccessful in defeating President Obama or helping the GOP take control of the Senate. Two of its multimillion-dollar donors, Bob Perry and Harold Simmons, died last year, while another powerhouse fundraiser, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, ended his involvement with Crossroads after the 2012 election.
In contrast to the more than $1 million spent against Democrats by this point in the 2012 election cycle, Crossroads has aired less than $200,000 worth of television ads this year. So far, the Big Daddy of super PACs been vastly overshadowed by Americans for Prosperity's early and massive onslaught.
"Crossroads usually plays this far out but ratchets up in the second quarter," said Rick Wiley, former political director at the Republican National Committee. "I think it's great that AFP has stepped in because it gives Crossroads some time to raise money."
But the rise of state-based and candidate-oriented groups is diminishing the need for national groups like Crossroads to step into primaries. In one of the more competitive Republican races, home-state supporters of Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi launched their own group to beat back state Sen. Chris McDaniel. Even Virginia Senate candidate Ed Gillespie, a former Republican Party chairman who helped launch Crossroads with Rove, is getting his own super PAC.
"I think Crossroads will have a significant role going forward, but you do have a lot of state operatives who will occasionally do their own thing," said Mississippi Republican committeeman Henry Barbour, who is helping raise money for the pro-Cochran group. "I think it's healthy to have groups that are state based. We're lean and mean."
Crossroads raised expectations about intervening in primaries with a much ballyhooed announcement about the Conservative Victory Project one year ago on the front page of The New York Times. At the time, Crossroads officials said they were chastened by candidates in 2010 and 2012 like Christine O'Donnell, Todd Akin, and Richard Mourdock, who fumbled in the general election and prevented the party from picking up Senate seats considered in reach.
But Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio said this week that 2014 crop of Senate candidates is the strongest in a decade, from Tom Cotton in Arkansas to Thom Tillis in North Carolina to Steve Daines in Montana. The Conservative Victory Project hasn't spent any money to thwart weak primary candidates, Collegio said, because it doesn't see the need.
"Candidate vetting isn't necessarily a high-cost initiative," he said. "Just starting the conversation about candidate quality has paid enormous dividends."
Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller disputed the idea that its screening process had changed. "We hope the Republican establishment is with us on all of our races," he quipped.
Crossroads and its nonprofit arm raised only $6 million in 2013, raising questions about whether its slower fundraising pace, not candidate quality, is the driving force behind its lower profile. Still, Collegio said the Crossroads groups are on track to raise the $70 to $100 million it has spent on congressional races in the past two elections. "We'll be engaged as we have been in previous cycles," he said.
Defending Main Street and two related groups raised $1.7 million last year and plans to meet its fundraising goal of $8 million, said chief operating officer Sarah Chamberlain. She's keeping an eye on Republican House members targeted by the Club for Growth like Mike Simpson of Idaho, Greg Walden of Oregon and Renee Elmers of North Carolina. Trashing Simpson as a RINO (Republican In Name Only). the Club for Growth is backing Republican challenger Bryan Smith.
"Nothing would make us happier than not to have to deal with this," Chamberlain said. "The Club was much more boisterous and more threatening a few months ago than they are today. We're kind of sitting and watching and hoping they won't come into these races, but prepared if they do."