How ‘Establishment’ Republicans Got the House Candidates They Wanted
Earlier this year, House Republicans had 12 potential problems that stood in the way of extending their majority.
A dozen primaries could ruin the House GOP’s prospects by selecting unpalatable nominees in otherwise competitive races.
But when primary season concluded Tuesday, House Republicans had essentially run the table with their party’s picks, nominating the strongest general-election candidate in nearly every hot race in 2014. Republican and Democratic operatives credit the success to a handful of factors, including intervention from outside groups, self-funding candidates and — in some cases — luck.
For the National Republican Congressional Committee, this started by sticking with its long-standing policy of publicly staying out of primaries. That policy contrasts with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which took sides in primaries this cycle, publicly declaring its preferred recruits and even strong-arming some candidates out of races.
“For Republicans, that’s about the last thing on earth they want to do in a primary,” said Chris LaCivita, a GOP operative. “Sometimes it can cause more problems than it’s worth.”
This way, the NRCC avoided stoking the tea party’s ire in most races. The committee continued to back its incumbents — three of whom lost this cycle, including former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. But none of these losses spoiled the House GOP’s chances of keeping those seats.
With the NRCC not publicly meddling in races, the party’s pro-business interests picked up the slack, swooping in to boost candidates whom GOP strategists viewed as the more electable in general election match-ups.
For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $150,000 in the final days of the primary for Arizona’s 1st District to help lift state Speaker Andy Tobin to 500-vote victory. If Tobin lost, Republicans would have been saddled with one of two ticking-time bomb candidates to face Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat representing one of the GOP’s best pick-up opportunities on the map.
“Last cycle we learned that candidates matter,” U.S. Chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes wrote in an email. “Our strategy has been to engage earlier than ever to help elect candidates who understand the free enterprise system and also have the courage to govern when they come to Washington.”
American Crossroads also joined in on the effort, catapulting former White House aide Elise Stefanik over attorney Matt Doheny, a Republican who was seeking this competitive upstate New York seat for a third time. Crossroads spent more than $770,000 attacking Doheny, ultimately tanking his primary bid.
It was the first time Crossroads had spent heavily in a contested House primary.
GOP operatives said many of their top candidates proved to be skilled fundraisers or self-funders who could finance their campaigns. Cash gave them the advantage over tea party candidates, many of whom have proved adept at turning out their motivated grass-roots base but were lackluster rainmakers.
One of those candidates was former Randolph Mayor Tom MacArthur in New Jersey’s open 3rd District. MacArthur spent more than $2 million to defeat Steve Lonegan, a perennial GOP candidate who Republicans feared could lose this competitive seat in the southern tip of the Garden State.
Former Rep. Doug Ose, R-Calif., also spent $600,000 of his personal fortune to defeat a tea-party-backed opponent in California’s 7th District. Republicans say Ose is the kind of moderate candidate who could oust freshman Democratic Rep. Ami Bera in this Sacramento-based district.
Other times, where strategy failed or lacked, Republicans simply got lucky getting their favored candidates through.
This was the case in Iowa’s open 3rd District, where a rare nominating convention took down state Sen. Brad Zaun. He was one candidate Republicans privately thought could tank this open-seat race for them in November, due to a past personal scandal involving an ex-girlfriend.
Zaun led a crowded primary field but failed to get enough support to avoid a nominating convention. After leading multiple rounds of the GOP nominating convention in June, voters selected former Capitol Hill aide David Young as the nominee. Republicans were more than relieved.
Republicans also navigated primaries in Florida’s 26th District, Georgia’s 12th District, Illinois’ 13th District, Michigan’s 8th and 11th Districts, New York’s 1st District and Texas’ 23rd District.
Republicans were not initially optimistic about their nominee in West Virginia’s 2nd District, former Maryland GOP Chairman Alex Mooney. But state and national operatives now concede he is outperforming their initial expectations.
In New Hampshire, Republicans have mixed reviews for their newly minted nominee in the 2nd District, state Rep. Marilinda Garcia. But the seat is a long shot for the GOP anyway, given the district’s liberal leanings. Republicans also nominated former Rep. Frank Guinta Tuesday for a third match-up with Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter in the Granite State’s much more competitive 1st District.
Both challengers will be hampered by their own bank accounts in the short, post-primary sprint to November. They’re not the only ones.
While Republicans nominated a strong crop of House candidates, these congressional hopefuls might not have the cash to get them across the finish line, thanks to these grueling primaries.
In many cases, Republican nominees entered the general election campaigns broke. At the same time, House Democratic incumbents and challengers banked million dollar war chests to unleash on the television airwaves.
The disadvantage is exacerbated by the NRCC’s $8.7 million cash-on-hand disadvantage to the DCCC, according to the most recent fundraising reports. There’s also concern that outside groups will devote all of their fall resources to the Senate, which is up for grabs.
Democrats admit they’re disappointed but argue the GOP’s primary problems go beyond money.
“In a couple of instances, our hopes were dashed,” a Democratic House operative said. ”There’s a couple where we were definitely disappointed or we felt like a clear opening was there if we had a weaker opponent.”
“But by and large, our narrative, even when the stronger candidates come through . . . and even if they’re perceived as moderate, our narrative will be that they’re enablers to a dysfunctional conference,” the Democrat added.