How Republican groups found their mojo in Florida’s special election

Republican David Jolly won Florida's hotly contested special election for U.S. House Tuesday. But Jolly's win belongs more to the outside groups that rallied to his side than it does to him.

 

GOP groups flooded the race with about $5 million, compensating for Jolly's weak fundraising and lackluster campaign. Buoyed by a political environment favoring Republicans, the outside organizations worked in harmony, complementing one another's tactics in a successful outing that followed a quiet 2013 and a disappointing 2012.

"The Florida CD-13 special was an important test market and there was unprecedented cooperation among outside groups," said Steven Law, CEO of American Crossroads, a conservative group that spent about $500,000 to help Jolly. "We intend to keep refining these lessons as we prepare for the fall elections."

Crossroads embarked on a coordinated effort in January with American Action Network and YG Network. The three groups combined to spend more than $1 million on the race. But they weren't even the heaviest hitters. The National Republican Congressional Committee spent more than $2 million and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce chipped in more than a $1 million of its own money. Taken together, GOP groups outspent Democratic groups by about $1.25 million.

Most of the Republican money went toward television advertising. Yet total Democratic ad spending still outpaced total GOP ad spending thanks to Democrat Alex Sink's huge cash advantage over Jolly. But the Republican groups spent money smartly, hitting the airwaves with complementary messages and avoiding stepping on each other's toes or doubling up unnecessarily.

The Republican organizations "actually talked to one another and spaced out their buys so there was coverage the whole campaign. Not everyone was up at the same time. "It's a page from our playbook," said one Democrat with an eye on the race, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide a candid assessment.

In early February, the Chamber went up with a positive ad for Jolly featuring former governor Jeb Bush (R) as well as a negative spot hitting Sink on Obamacare. Meanwhile, American Action Network aired an ad hitting Sink on pensions and jobs. In short, the groups spread out their attack pattern. The Bush commercial was especially notable since outside groups generally stick to attack ads, leaving positive ones to the candidates. But Jolly lacked the funds to have a big air presence after the primary. The Chamber helped fill the void.

As we wrote earlier this week, neither Jolly nor Sink ran great campaigns. Jolly's lobbyist past made him ripe for attacks. He wasn't the first choice of GOP leaders looking for a strong recruit last fall. The Republican needed help to win. He got it.

Of course, without a political environment favoring Republicans, it's safe to say the return on investment would have been different. The unpopularity of President Obama's signature heath-care law and the Democratic brand boosted the GOP effort in Florida. It's possible the disappointment and uncertainty surrounding some of the organizations could return in the fall midterms if the mood of the electorate shifts.

In the 2012 election, Crossroads received only a 1.29 percent return on investment on the the whopping $100 million-plus it spent, according to the Sunlight Foundation. The Chamber's return was 6.9 percent. American Action Network fared much better at 60.33 percent but spent much less. Last year, the Crossroads groups and American Action Network's sister super PAC lagged behind leading Democratic groups in fundraising.

It's also difficult to replicate the smooth coordination in Florida across the broad landscape of dozens of campaigns, especially with tea party groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club For Growth, which are not shy about opposing business groups like the Chamber.

All that said, when voters went to the polls in the first big 2014 test, Republican groups were in the winner's circle. That's a great place to be eight months before the midterms.

Must-reads:

  "CIA feud with Senate panel puts lack of post-9/11 accountability in spotlight" -- Scott Wilson, Washington Post

"David Jolly victory spells trouble for Democrats" -- Adam C. Smith, Tampa Bay Times

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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