The 2014 primary season has been expensive

So far, the 2014 primary season has been busy and expensive. On Tuesday, there is a big election in Mississippi – a runoff between incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and his Republican challenger, Chris McDaniel. Outside groups have poured millions into the race, just as they have poured money into races across the country. There are Tea Party groups on one side, and on the other side is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber has been around since 1912, and it represents some 3 million businesses.

“This year, we have taken the most aggressive posture that we ever have,” says Rob Engstrom, the group’s national political director. He's the one responsible for ads that the Chamber puts out. “2014 will be the largest political program in the history of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States.”

In 2012, it shelled out more than $34 million, trying to defeat President Obama, and trying to help Republicans regain control of the Senate.

“After having squandered collectively five senate seats over the last two elections, we thought it was important to involve ourselves and engage ourselves using the Chamber’s brand,” says Engstrom.

The Chamber is spending more money, and it started spending it earlier – on candidates in primaries. The decision to do that came out of a meeting Engstrom convened last year, in Phoenix. According to him, it was “a constructive conversation,” and big donors were “candid” and “direct.” The upshot? “We’re ready to turn the page, and get back on offense,” says Engstrom.

So far, the Chamber has had a winning season. It backed Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Id.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in their races against Tea Party challengers.

“I can’t think of an example where they’ve really made a big investment and not had it succeed this year,” says Bob Biersack, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics.

In the run-up to 2012, conservative groups spent around $700 million. There is a lot of outside money this time around, but according to Biersack, it is being spent differently. “It’s being spent more professionally, I guess I would say.”

Engstrom says the group’s members expect that – they are executives and business owners. “You know, our members are bottom-line people.”

And in politics, as in business, they want a good R.O.I., a good return on their investments. It is up to Engstrom and his team to spend donors’ dollars wisely. An investor does due diligence. Engstrom says he meets personally with 150 candidates every cycle. He says he’s looking for people who are pro-business, who have a shot at winning.

“All these guys go home and campaign as conservatives, as fiscal conservatives,” says Russ Walker, the political director of FreedomWorks Action, a national Tea Party group. “But at the end of the day, that’s not always how they govern.”  According to Walker, FreedomWorks Action has spent more than $425,000 on the Republican primary in Mississippi.

Its donors also care about R.O.I., but Walker invests their money differently – less on ads and more on getting FreedomWorks Action’s members knocking on doors.

“They are the best communicator of that political message,” he explains. “They can carry on a conversation; whereas, if we run a 30- or 60-second spot, then really all we get is 30- or 60-seconds.”

This is a strategy many conservative groups seem to favor, at the national and the local level. Case in point: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s defeat last week.

Even if they won’t say so, these groups are fighting over nothing less than the future of the Republican Party.  

“You know, we are going to fight back, and we are going to involve ourselves in an aggressive manner with good manners and high integrity,” says Engstrom. “And then it’s going to be a barroom brawl.”

The Chamber of Commerce and Tea Party groups will try to land a few more punches this weekend, before the runoff Tuesday. Then, their focus shifts to the general election in November. After all, these are long-term investors. 

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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