The Establishment Holds Fire in the GOP Civil War

Despite the hype, there aren’t many tea-party challengers posing a serious threat to GOP incumbents.

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 15: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (C) (R-KY) answers questions while walking through the halls of the U.S. Capitol November 15, 2010 in Washington, DC. McConnell met earlier in the day with newly elected Republican Senators in his office. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Feb. 18, 2014, midnight

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.”

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