Campaign intelligence: Anti-establishment groups’ final push

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, speaks before the Senate in 2012

Sen. Lamar Alexander faces a conservative challenger in Tuesday’s primary; Image credit: John D. Rockefeller IV, Flickr

Another day, another round in the establishment v. Tea Party saga that has dominated Republican primaries.

In June Sunlight profiled how much money “anti-establishment” conservative groups were spending to unseat incumbent Republicans — and how few upsets their spending had got them. Now, as primary season draws to a close, outside conservative groups are still pouring money into TV ads and mailers, trying to score a few upsets against longtime incumbents.

Republican incumbents must be looking forward to the end of primary season. A review of independent expenditure data shows — unsurprisingly — that the vast majority of negative ad spending has been aimed at Republican candidates.

On Tuesday a handful of competitive primaries will be decided in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Washington.

Odd duck Tennessee holds its primary elections Thursday while in Hawaii a Senate showdown between the state’s appointed Senator and a Democratic newcomer will come to a finale on Saturday.

Here’s a rundown of some of the the moneyed influencers spending on this week’s elections.


In Kansas, incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, a 47 year Capitol Hill veteran, looks to have a healthy lead over Dr. Milton Wolf. Wolf, a radiologist, is running on promises of term limits, fighting waste and repealing Obamacare. But he has had to rely on outside groups to get his message out. Like many challengers, Wolf has not been able to compete with his opponent’s well-oiled fundraising operation.

Pre-election campaign reports show Wolf’s campaign had just $95,000 on hand as of July 16, compared to $1.4 million for Roberts. But Wolf has had the support of the heavyweight super PAC Senate Conservatives Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund, its associated dark money outfit.

The dual-headed organization has been a thorn in the side of mainstream Republicans all primary season, spending a combined $5 million backing outsiders who want to shake up the party. But the Senate Conservatives combine has had mixed results betting on untested newcomers. And while they have helped to keep Wolf viable through aggressive television advertising, on primary eve Roberts remains the odds-on favorite.

Meanwhile, in southern Kansas’ sprawling Fourth District, genetically modified organisms have become the issue du jour in a Republican primary in the nation’s agricultural heartland. Former Rep. Mike Tiahrt is angling for an upset over sitting congressman Mike Pompeo, attacking the incumbent for selling out to major agribusiness interests and Washington lobbyists.

At issue is Pompeo’s sponsorship of HR 4432, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. The bill would prevent states from implementing their own food-labeling laws for GMO’s, instead placing authority in the FDA.

Pompeo has had plenty of financial support from political action committees. His campaign has pulled $980,000 in PAC contributions alone, including donations from packaging company Meadwestvaco ($5,000), General Mills ($4,500) and agricultural behemoths Conagra and Monsanto ($1,000 each).

And while Tiahrt’s campaign has had difficulty keeping pace with Pompeo’s prodigious fundraising, he’s gotten a boost from an oil millionaire in the state. Willis Hartman of Hartman Oil has bankrolled Kansans for Responsible Government, a super PAC which spent $230,000 attacking Pompeo.


In Michigan, an old-fashioned establishment versus tea party showdown is brewing, with a twist. Republican Justin Amash, has the support of outside groups FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth. Nothing unusual about that–it’s the eighth race in which these two groups have spent money supporting the same candidate.

What makes the race unusual is that Amash, a libertarian-leaning conservative, is the incumbent. And he’s drawing fire from the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which is backing the challenger Brian Ellis.

In this “establishment strikes back” contest, Ellis has managed to stay competitive in the money race with Amash, in part because he lent his own campaign $200,000. As of the most recent FEC report on July 16, his committee had $450,000 on hand compared to $770,000 for Amash.

Ellis isn’t the only Michigander leaning on his personal wealth to help boost him to a seat in congress. In the state’s Fourth District, Paul Mitchel III — a former executive of a medical education company — has poured $3.16 million dollars of his own money into the race against state sen. John Moolenaar.


An upset is unlikely in the Show Me State as eight members of Congress all look ready coast to victory in their respective elections.

The Rothenberg Political Report doesn’t see much potential for district flipping — none of the districts are considered “leaners” or “toss-ups” — and apparently neither do outside groups. The grand total of all reported outside spending in Missouri this cycle? Just under $30,000.

While a quick search of ad documents in Missouri using Political Ad Sleuth turns up records of television advertising from political heavyweights Senate Conservatives Action and Senate Majority PAC, the groups are buying TV ad time in media markets that straddle competitive states (Kansas and Iowa).


The surprise retirement announcement from 73-year-old Rep. Doc Hastings threw the state’s Fourth District into contention. Five candidates have raised over $50,000 in the race to succeed the longtime Republican lawmaker. The state’s open primary system means that the top candidates, regardless of party, will advance to the general election in November. It’s unlikely to fall into Democrats’ hands.

FreedomWorks is the only outside group to have ventured to the fray, spending $40,000 to boost conservative and former NFL tight end Clint Didier with online ads and voter calls. Didier already has some D.C. experience–he was a tight end for the Washington Redskins in the 1980s.


Like his colleague in Kansas, Sen. Lamar Alexander will face a challenge from the Tea Party wing on Thursday. Alexander, who sits on the Appropriations, Energy and Health committees, had raised $6.3 million as of July 18, outpacing his Republican challengers Dr. George Flinn and state representative Joe Carr by more than 3-to-1.

Though Alexander remains the double digit favorite, Carr has seen some uptick in recent polls. Carr’s campaign has painted the Senator as an anti-Tea Partier who supports bank bailouts and amnesty for illegal aliens.

The high stakes Senate battle has brought a diverse set of actors our of the woodwork.

Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a conservative clean energy group, has spent $280,000 supporting Alexander, praising his work “making American less reliant on foreign energy” in the midst of a crisis on the border and international strife.

On the opposite side of the fence, a group called “Citizens 4 Ethics in Government” paid the same amount to two media firms, Jamestown Associates in New Jersey and Gill Media of Brentwood, Tenn., for ads trashing Alexander. Citizens 4 Ethics is funded almost exclusively by Healthmark Ventures CEO Andrew Miller of Nashville and his wife Trace, FEC filings show.

The Tennessee-focused super PAC has been the only outside spender to support former physician and current Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., who is feeling the repercussions after 2012 revelations of his improper relationships with patients and his encouragement of his mistress and wife to seek abortions. DesJarlais ran as a pro-life candidate.

DesJarlais has not been able to out raise his opponents for the Fourth District nomination, but a poll from Citizens 4 Ethics purported to show the incumbent with a double digit lead.


Hawaii Democrats are still grappling to find an heir to former Sen. Daniel Inouye, who passed away at 88 in the midst of his ninth term in the upper chamber.

His replacement, Brian Schatz, was lieutenant governor when he was appointed by Governor Neil Abercrombie to serve the duration of Inouye’s Senate term. Schatz is hoping for election to a full term, running against Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in the Democratic primary.

The race has already cost nearly $7.8 million with little play from outside groups. Schatz has maintained an edge over the congresswoman on the fundraising trail but remains neck and neck where it matters.

You can keep following the money trail in the rest of the season’s hot primaries with Real-Time FEC’s competitive primaries list.