Chamber of Commerce to spend at least $50 million next year to promote centrist Republicans

Meant to flag this yesterday but got sidetracked with other stuff. A simple question to warm you during New Year’s, my friends: Will 2014 be the year of the RINO?

GOP House leaders are taking steps to impose discipline on wavering committee chairmen and tea-party factions. Meanwhile, major donors and advocacy groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads, are preparing an aggressive effort to groom and support more centrist Republican candidates for Congress in 2014’s midterm elections…

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce early next year plans to roll out an aggressive effort—expected to cost at least $50 million—to support establishment, business-friendly candidates in primaries and the general election, with an aim of trying to win a Republican Senate majority.

“Our No. 1 focus is to make sure, when it comes to the Senate, that we have no loser candidates,” said the business group’s top political strategist, Scott Reed. “That will be our mantra: No fools on our ticket.”

Actually, is this news? It made the rounds on blogs yesterday but the only detail that’s new, I think, is the dollar amount. Some suspect the big-picture goal is to pave the way for more amnesty-minded Republicans before the new immigration-reform push next year. The Chamber is indeed pro-amnesty, but they claim their focus is on taking back the Senate, which already passed the Gang of Eight bill overwhelmingly. If they want to move immigration through, they should focus on the House, but it’s harder to dislodge a conservative incumbent in a red-district primary than it is to help a centrist defeat a tea partier in a statewide race like Senate. Besides, the votes are already there in the House for passing immigration reform; all Boehner needs is a few dozen Republicans to work up the nerve to vote with Democrats in passing it. If the Chamber wants amnesty that badly, they’re better off saving their money and offering it to Boehner as part of his new lobbyist payday if he agrees to violate the Hastert Rule to pass immigration reform, which would likely send him packing into retirement and onto K Street.

This is mainly about the shutdown, of course. The Chamber’s been kvetching loudly about tea partiers ever since the Cruz/Lee “defund” effort in October momentarily turned off the tap from Uncle Sam and screwed with their bottom line. There was a slew of articles in the aftermath about them vowing to make the tea party pay — WaPo, Politico, the Financial Times. McCain claimed around the same time that business groups had already approached him about running for reelection in 2016, for good reason: A state like Arizona could very well replace him with a conservative who’d ally himself with Cruz on a new shutdown effort in the future. As much as business interests might usually (but not always) prefer Republicans to Democrats in the general election, they’re more interested right now in making sure that the next crop of senators will blanch at the thought of a new shutdown or, worse, a new debt-ceiling crisis. There’s already a nucleus of dealmaking GOPers — McCain, Collins, Kirk, Murkowski, frequently Jeff Flake, a few others — that’s big enough to break filibusters so long as Reid has 55 Democrats in his pocket. But he won’t have that many come January 2015. The Chamber needs to add as many anti-shutdown Republicans to the chamber as it can to make beating back Cruz easier the next time righties try a little fiscal brinksmanship.

Why have the Chamber take the lead on this, though? Why not let Karl Rove’s outfit, American Crossroads and its anti-tea-party offshoot Conservative Victory Project, lead the campaign against tea partiers? Well, it seems the Rove brand has been … somewhat tarnished:

At least a dozen “super PACs” are setting up to back individual Republican candidates for the United States Senate, challenging the strategic and financial dominance that Karl Rove and the group he co-founded, American Crossroads, have enjoyed ever since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 cleared the way for unlimited independent spending…

Crossroads appears to be testing a new approach. The group has so far stayed out of Kentucky, for example, where Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, is facing both a Tea Party challenger in the primary and a strong Democratic opponent. Instead, Mr. McConnell is backed by a new group called Kentuckians for Strong Leadership. Although it is legally separate from Crossroads, most of its cash came from Crossroads donors, Mr. Law sits on its board, and the two organizations share a treasurer.

Crossroads has lobbied to help set up similar groups in races where its brand may be less appealing to voters or donors, according to two Republicans with knowledge of the conversations. But Mr. Rove has grown so controversial among some conservatives, the Republicans said, that candidates worry that donors will not contribute to a super PAC if it is connected to Crossroads.

When Conservative Victory Project was first revealed back in February, Erick Erickson wrote, “I dare say any candidate who gets this group’s support should be targeted for destruction by the conservative movement.” That’s the problem Crossroads is having right now in a nutshell — for various reasons, Rove is so closely identified with Beltway Republican elements who disdain the base that the Crossroads endorsement might operate like a RINO seal of approval, triggering a fierce tea party backlash in the primary. If you want to get centrist Republicans elected and are worried about conservatives turning out en masse to vote for their opponents, having the Chamber wade in is less likely to aggravate the grassroots than having Rove’s group would. But maybe, purely for reasons of ego, that’s unsustainable: No one expects Crossroads to cede the field to lower-profile groups and risk having them take all the credit next year if the GOP romps and takes back the Senate. They’d bleed donors and influence, and might never recover. So Rove and Crossroads will be part of this too, which will have unpredictable effects on primaries in the spring. Will the sheer volume of ad spending swamp righty candidates, or will the backlash be so ferocious among activists that Rove ends up fumbling away a seat or two that establishment types had coveted? Stay tuned.

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