By ALEXANDER BURNS, POLITICO
For the Republican Party’s leadership, taking control of the U.S. Senate might not even be the sweetest part of a victory in 2014.
With growing confidence as Election Day approaches, Republican leaders are preparing to argue that broad GOP gains in the House and Senate would represent a top-to-bottom validation of their party’s mainline wing. Having taken a newly heavy-handed approach to the primary season this year, the top strategists of the Republican coalition say capturing the majority would set a powerful precedent for similar actions in the future — not just in Senate and congressional races, but in the presidential primary season as well.
National Republicans managed this year to snuff out every bomb-throwing insurgent who tried to wrest a Senate nod away from one of their favored candidates. They spent millions against baggage-laden activists such as Matt Bevin, the Louisville investor who mounted a ham-fisted challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the conservative upstart who imperiled a safe seat by nearly ousting longtime Sen. Thad Cochran.
The confrontational approach — by both party committees and outside super PACs — represented a sharp departure from the GOP’s cautious strategy in the 2010 and 2012 cycles, when cartoonishly inept nominees aligned with the tea party lost the party as many as five Senate seats.
If this fresh tack leads to victory, Republicans expect that aggressive posture will carry over into 2016. They learned the hard way, party insiders say, how direly even the establishment-minded Mitt Romney undermined himself by wooing the right during primary season.
Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn, the Texan who twice chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the party had experienced a “very, very important evolution” this year — one from which it would not turn back.
“Where we ran into problems was where that small sliver of the party insisted on nominating people who could win the primary but couldn’t win the general,” Cornyn said of the past two election cycles. Of the party’s successful 2014 course-correction, Cornyn said: “I promise you it’s a lesson we will not forget.”
Steven Law, the president of American Crossroads, said the group already felt vindicated for its intervention in the Alaska and North Carolina Senate primaries, spending generously to avert the nomination of manifestly unprepared underdog candidates. Law called 2014 a “tipping point” for groups like his and predicted that Republican donors would step up in 2016 to ensure a repeat.
“I think simply stating as a matter of policy that candidate quality should matter seemed to have an impact on the overall Republican culture this cycle,” Law said. “What I saw this cycle is a greater seriousness and a greater attention to the quality and viability of candidates and not simply looking for one who fits an ideological mold.”
A Republican gain of six or more seats this year would be only the party’s second such victory in a decade. And unlike the 2010 election, when fiery outsiders such as Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson propelled the party’s gains, this year the likeliest GOP winners are cut from a decidedly more conventional mold. They are incumbent lawmakers with leadership’s seal of approval: members of Congress like Colorado’s Cory Gardner, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy and West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito.
The distinctly different flavor of the 2014 Republican class is partly a product of calmer national atmospherics. A few years removed from the post-2008 economic panic and the red-hot tea party anger over the passage of the Affordable Care Act, there’s been more maneuvering room in 2014 for candidates with calmer dispositions and more traditional political résumés.
But in a string of important races, forces from the GOP’s business wing have also directly interceded to avert the nomination of rogue hard-liners. By the end of June — through most of the year’s important primaries — groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads had spent about $23 million on Republican nomination fights. That number rose further over the course of the summer, thanks to efforts to shepherd Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts and Alaska Senate nominee Dan Sullivan through contested primaries.
What’s more, the party took additional steps to lean on the primary process and shape it in its favor: In Colorado, Republicans coaxed prosecutor Ken Buck out of his second campaign for the U.S. Senate and into a congressional race, making way for Gardner’s statewide campaign. In Kentucky, after Bevin announced his primary run against McConnell, the Senate leader sent a message across his party’s hired-gun community by banishing Bevin’s consultants from the NRSC.
Indeed, no Republican embodies the campaign to lock down the primary process better than McConnell, the hard-nosed fundraising whiz who told The New York Times in March that he would “crush” the conservative outside groups lined up against him and his colleagues. “I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country,” he said.
McConnell made good on the pledge, though Republicans caution that the sheer cost of the primary season is a reminder that the party’s most conservative elements remain powerfully influential in picking candidates. Even some egregiously flawed challengers fared surprisingly well: Kansas radiologist Milton Wolf, for instance, mustered 41 percent of the vote against Roberts despite the revelation that he posted X-ray images of gunshot victims on Facebook, along with mocking commentary.
For all their successes this year, GOP leaders are by no means confident that they have muffled the intraparty rebellion for good — or that they’ve created adequate maneuvering room in a presidential race for a candidate like Chris Christie, the party’s most prominent blue-state governor, or Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who’s gotten crosswise with the base on immigration reform and Common Core education standards. (One well-connected Republican strategist warned: “If we get a nominee like Ted Cruz, we’ll have a Todd Akin-level disaster on an even bigger stage.”)
Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, the former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, insisted that Republicans have “learned a lot of hard lessons” since taking control of the House in 2010. He pointed to both the failed Senate campaigns of 2010 and 2012, and the extravagantly self-destructive government shutdown of 2013, as touch-the-hot-stove moments for the GOP.
As a result, Cole said, there’s a fairly wide recognition in the party — not just among donors and interest groups in Washington — that electoral competitiveness demands a more discerning approach to primaries. He cited Gardner’s Senate campaign and the elevation of Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst, an anointed favorite of longtime Gov. Terry Branstad, as illustrative examples.
“That’s not just orchestrated from Washington, D.C. A lot of Republicans at the local level are also making smart decisions and saying, ‘It’s not enough to win the primary,’” Cole said. “I see the same thing in the House candidates I’ve interacted with over the last year.”
Whether or not the party’s more tactically prudent approach this year carries over into the mood of the Republican base in a presidential cycle, party leaders are confident the 2014 results will bolster electability-minded arguments heading into the next campaign.
“While many point to the president’s abysmal approval ratings or the GOP tilt to the playing field as the primary reasons we may win the U.S. Senate, the real key to victory on Election Day may be the quality of candidates on our side,” said Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster who works with many House and Senate campaigns.
Invoking two of the party’s most famously disastrous recent nominees, Blizzard added: “There really are no [Richard] Mourdocks or [Christine] O’Donnells in this class of GOP candidates. That’s because our best general election candidates won their primaries this time around.”