By MAGGIE HABERMAN, POLITICO
After the 2012 election, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s top political adviser, Scott Reed, surveyed the damage – tens of millions of dollars spent only to lose the White House and a slew of winnable Senate races — and vowed that 2014 would be different.
Some $70 million and a Republican wave later, the business lobby, one of the biggest spenders in the midterm elections, is feeling very good about its return on investment. Its conclusion after 2012 — that they had to take on tea party challengers in primaries and create a more business-friendly slate of general election candidates who could compete with Democrats — has been validated by Tuesday night’s results, Chamber brass say.
“We went into this realizing that candidates matter,” Reed said in an interview shortly before the election.
The Chamber’s first big test of the election cycle was a Nov. 2013 special congressional election in Alabama. It was a classic establishment-tea party matchup. Bradley Byrne checked all the Chamber’s boxes: longtime business attorney, active in Mobile business circles, state senator, ex-chancellor of the state school system.
His opponent, Dean Young, was precisely the kind of candidate the Republican establishment was determined to root out. A real estate investor with a penchant for fire-breathing rhetoric, he had said that he was “against homosexuals pretending like they’re married” and remarked that he believed President Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
The Chamber spent about $200,000 to boost Byrne, an appreciable sum for a single House race. But a Republican poll just before the election showed Young narrowly ahead.
Byrne eked out a 5-point win.
“Alabama was kind of critical,” Reed said. The Chamber saw a potentially winning combination: a strong candidate in Byrne, along with a local Chamber of Commerce that could help the national group navigate the race.
“These local Chambers give us eyes and ears that no other local organization has,” Reed said. Chamber officials also told other outside groups like Crossroards, the Karl Rove-affiliated network, to keep out, believing they themselves were better messengers.
The victory gave the group a road map for the remainder of the cycle. Officials saw a way to not only bolster establishment candidates in primaries, but realized their efforts could make it harder for tea party-aligned groups to recruit formidable candidates.
Next came Florida and a special House election to succeed the late Republican Rep. Bill Young in a St. Petersburg-area swing district that Obama carried twice. The March race was a chance for each party to set the narrative for the fall midterms. Democrats were high on Alex Sink, who was well known after narrowly losing a 2010 bid for Florida governor. Republicans fielded David Jolly, a longtime Young aide-turned-lobbyist.
The Chamber aired the first of what would become a succession of ads throughout the primary season featuring big-name endorsers. This one featured former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
The ad, according to Reed and the Chamber’s political director Rob Engstrom, stayed on air for six weeks because it tested so well.
It was followed by a spot slamming Sink for backing Obamacare, a message the Chamber plastered throughout the district.
“With Alex Sink, the priority is Obamacare, not us,” a narrator intoned.
The idea was to combine a surgical message with a messenger trusted by local residents. In the district, some 70 percent of people voted early or by absentee ballot. Heading into Election Day, some Republicans were adamant that the race was lost, and questioned the focus on Obamacare.
But Jolly prevailed, and a new template was set. The Chamber would get involved early and actively, in primaries and special elections.
“We learned that there’s no such thing as Election Day anymore,” Engstrom said. “It’s more like election year.”
“The goal was increasing a pro-business majority in the House,” Engstrom added. “The thing that we learned in Alabama, as well as through the primaries, is the composition of those majorities matter as much as the majorities themselves.”
The group went on to win 14 out of 15 primaries in which it backed a candidate. But nowhere did the Chamber play a more crucial role than in Mississippi. It spent $1.2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, to shore up Sen. Thad Cochran, who faced a strong challenge from tea party favorite Chris McDaniel.
Looking for creative ways to reach voters, the group aired an ad featuring a bearded Brett Favre endorsing Cochran.
It was alternately billed as a “Hail Mary” and a “fourth-quarter” ad. Either way, it broke through.
The Chamber ran about 80 ads in about 45 House and Senate districts throughout the election cycle. The group’s stable of ad-makers includes Mike Murphy, a longtime Jeb Bush adviser, and Matt Leonardo.
The group also made some unconventional moves, including enlisting politicians not naturally associated with the Chamber. The most prominent example was Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to help appeal to libertarian voters in several states.
The Chamber, traditionally aligned with Republicans, also endorsed a half-dozen Democrats in House races. One was San Diego-area Rep. Scott Peters, who was declared the winner Friday night in a hard-fought race against Republican Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego city