Primary post-mortem: Intraparty squabbles still a conservative game

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Formal portrait of President Ronald Reagan in dark suit, white shirt, dark red tie, with a U.S. flag in the background
What would the Gipper think of this year’s primary season? (Photo credit: The White House via Wikipedia)

So much for the late President Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment: Conservative groups combined to spend more than $20 million attacking Republican candidates in the 2014 primary cycle, a Sunlight analysis of independent expenditure data finds. Friendly fire on the Democratic side doesn’t even come close.

As we wrap up this year’s primary season (Tuesday’s contests in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Delaware were the last of 2014), it’s clear that the GOP’s intraparty battle rages on, four years since the since the anti-establishment Tea Party burst onto the scene, shaking up the electoral landscape and unseating Republican incumbents more accustomed to primary cakewalks.

Taking a look at spending for this cycle’s early contests — including special elections — we found that Club for Growth Action spent more attacking Republican candidates than any other conservative group, at nearly $4.7 million. That’s in large part thanks to the prolonged race between Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and insurgent candidate Chris McDaniel in the Magnolia State. Club for Growth poured more than $3.1 million into an ultimately unsuccessful effort to unseat Cochran, one of more than 10 races on which the group has spent so far this cycle.

Top outside spenders in GOP primaries

(MORE: See a roster of top outside spenders in the 2014 primaries)

The Mississippi race, which extended through the primary into a runoff, illustrated another striking phenomenon of this year’s primary cycle: The establishment striking back, upping the outside spending ante with big-money campaigns aimed at stopping the nomination of quirky insurgents who were blamed for costing the GOP a chance at control of the Senate in 2010.

A new crop of single-candidate focused super PACs also sprang up in 2014. Mississippi Conservatives (Thad Cochran) and Texans for a Conservative Majority (John Cornyn) defended incumbents against primary challenges (mostly by attacking their opponents) while established Republican heavy hitters like the Karl Rove-affiliated American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce took the shotgun approach to primary season.

The continuing proliferation of outside campaign groups post-Citizens United, combined with Republicans’ internal turmoil, has led to massive spending. To date, more than $220 million has been spent on independent expenditures aimed at primary and general elections. By and large, all this outside money means more negative ads infiltrating television sets and computers across the country: Nearly $145 million — or 67 percent of all outside spending — went to ads opposing candidates on both sides of the aisle.

On the right, marquee Senate matchups in states like Kentucky and Mississippi drew millions of outside dollars from super PACs and others working to unseat — or protect — some of the party’s oldest hands in the upper chamber, among them Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Ad blitzes from groups like Club for Growth Action and Senate Conservatives Fund painting Mcconnell and Cochran as out of touch and ideologically unsound were unsuccessful, in part perhaps because conservative donors backing incumbents were spurred to shell out millions to protect their preferred candidates.

Democrat on Democrat attacks have a decidedly different nature.

Negative outside spending in Democratic races has largely been driven by the personal agendas of two billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. Both men targeted individual candidates that don’t mesh with their respective pet issues.

Independence USA PAC, named for the independent political affiliation of its founder, the former New York City mayor Bloomberg, spent $1.4 million attacking Debbie Halvorson, a Democrat, in the special primary in Illinois’ Second District held after former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr, D, was sentenced to prison for ethics violations.

Halvorson, who ultimately lost to Robin Kelly, came under fire from Independence USA for her “A” rating from the NRA — Bloomberg’s chief adversary in his post-mayoral quest for tightened gun control laws.

Similarly, CE Action Committee, which pulls most of its funds from Steyer, a hedge fund manager-turned-environmentalist, went after Democrat Stephen Lynch in a special Massachusetts Senate primary that was called after John Kerry became Secretary of State. Lynch supported construction of the hot-button Keystone XL pipeline, which Steyer has vigorously opposed through his other super PAC, NextGen Climate Action.

Lynch lost that primary to his former House colleague, Ed Markey. Markey went on to win the general election.

The liberal-on-liberal negative primary spending is a drop in the bucket compared to the conservative side, at $2.5 million and $21 million respectively. But with primary season now officially in the rear view mirror, voters can expect outside groups on both sides to channel their vitriol at the opposite party.