The Republican Establishment Fights Back

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 2: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (L) listens to Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) speak during a press conference on Capitol Hill November 2, 2007 in Washington, DC. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senator Thad Cochran (R-MS) held the news conference to speak about pending legislation and the pending confirmation of Michael Mukasey for attorney general. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
April 22, 2014, 7:40 a.m.

Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell looks poised to com­fort­ably win re­nom­in­a­tion next month, des­pite a ser­i­ous chal­lenge from tea party op­pon­ent Matt Bev­in. But what’s equally im­port­ant for Mc­Con­nell is that he’s out­lined a strategy to neut­ral­ize the tea party grass­roots — and he’s win­ning.

— Back in March, Mc­Con­nell told the NYT he planned to “crush” con­ser­vat­ive out­side groups, even air­ing an ad at­tack­ing the Bev­in-back­ing Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund in his own race. Since then, out­side es­tab­lish­ment groups like the Cham­ber of Com­merce and Cross­roads have been un­usu­ally act­ive in GOP primar­ies, work­ing to nom­in­ate more-elect­able can­did­ates. It’s look­ing like the es­tab­lish­ment has the mo­mentum in every con­sequen­tial race — even in races where the battle lines are less defined.

— The tac­tics are mul­ti­fa­ceted: In races fea­tur­ing vul­ner­able in­cum­bents, es­tab­lish­ment groups have hit the chal­lengers hard, both on TV and with em­bar­rass­ing op­pos­i­tion re­search. To help Sen. Thad Co­chran (R-MS), the NR­SC cir­cu­lated clips of old ra­dio talk shows where state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) made ra­cially-in­sens­it­ive and sex­ist com­ments. To help Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), the com­mit­tee hit ra­di­olo­gist Milton Wolf (R) for post­ing com­ments about corpses on Face­book. Even the Cham­ber of Com­merce, which rarely goes on the at­tack, has aired ads por­tray­ing GOP chal­lengers in Mis­sis­sippi and Idaho as “tri­al law­yers.” A newly-cre­ated su­per PAC with ties to GOP donors Shel­don Ad­el­son and Paul Sing­er at­tacked Rep. Phil Gin­grey, viewed as the weak­er can­did­ate in the Geor­gia Sen­ate race.

— Es­tab­lish­ment groups have also been will­ing to use lower-pro­file meas­ures to help favored can­did­ates. In North Car­o­lina, Amer­ic­an Cross­roads is pour­ing in over $1 mil­lion in pos­it­ive bio­graph­ic­al spots to help state House Speak­er Thom Tillis avoid a run­off. In Idaho, the Cham­ber cut an ad fea­tur­ing Mitt Rom­ney‘s en­dorse­ment of Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), who is fa­cing Club for Growth-backed op­pon­ent Bry­an Smith. In Geor­gia, the Cham­ber en­dorsed Rep. Jack King­ston (R) in a crowded Sen­ate primary.

If the GOP wins back the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity, the next two months of primar­ies will be seen as a cru­cial peri­od, where out­side es­tab­lish­ment groups ef­fect­ively or­gan­ized to back more-elect­able can­did­ates, out­man­euv­er­ing the grass­roots. Or as anti-es­tab­lish­ment Red­ ed­it­or Er­ick Er­ick­son put it: “The es­tab­lish­ment in­tends to cling to their pre­cious.”

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