Chamber's ads back GOP establishment in Senate races, while casting them as conservative

Republican senatorial candidate Thom Tillis responds during a televised debate at WRAL television studios in Raleigh, N.C., on April 23, 2014.
Associated Press + More

By DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is pumping money into ads for establishment Republican favorites in North Carolina, Georgia and Alaska, while pointedly calling them conservatives and highlighting their opposition to Washington bureaucrats.

The commercials, which begin airing on Wednesday, represent the powerful business organization's determination to tip the balance in crowded, Republican primaries and help the GOP nominate viable general election candidates in Senate races.

The ads' description of establishment candidates such as Georgia's Jack Kingston and North Carolina's Thom Tillis as "consistent conservative" and "bold conservative" is designed to neutralize criticism and attract the support of far-right GOP voters who have a major say in primaries.

The Chamber is also launching ads for Republican Senate candidates in Michigan and Montana, and is looking to lift a House candidate in North Carolina.

The GOP needs to gain six seats to seize the majority in the Senate, and emboldened Republicans, pointing to President Barack Obama's unpopularity, are bullish about their chances. Establishment Republicans blame some tea party candidates for costing them the majority in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

"We will aggressively support those candidates who plan to campaign on a free enterprise and growth agenda, have the courage to govern and the ability to win," said Rob Engstrom, national political director for the Chamber.

The North Carolina primary is next Tuesday, Georgia two weeks later.

"Thom Tillis, a bold conservative who balanced our budgets and reduced regulations," intones an announcer in the North Carolina commercial that criticizes first-term Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. "Conservative Thom Tillis. He'll fight Washington instead of joining them."

Tillis is trying to avoid a costly runoff by securing 40 percent of the vote in the May 6 primary against two chief rivals, tea party favorite Greg Brannon and minister Mark Harris. That would give him more time to focus on Hagan, one of the more vulnerable Democratic incumbents.

The ad makes no mention of Tillis' GOP rivals.

"We believe he is the only candidate who can beat Kay Hagan," Engstrom said of Tillis, who also secured the endorsement of North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory on Tuesday.

The total Chamber spending was not immediately available, but Engstrom described it as one of the organization's largest financial commitments. The Chamber has spent tens of millions of dollars in previous elections for Senate and House candidates.

Kingston hopes to finish in the top two in the contentious Georgia primary. With a 50 percent vote threshold, a July 22 runoff is all but certain. Republicans fear they could lose the seat held by retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss if they fail to nominate a mainstream Republican against Michelle Nunn, the moderate Democrat and daughter of former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn.

The 30-second ad focuses solely on Kingston, calling him a "conservative fighter" and a "consistent conservative getting big government out of the way of Georgia job creation."

This election cycle the Chamber has repeatedly taken sides in the internal fight pitting the GOP establishment against conservative activists, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in his Kentucky primary against Matt Bevin and for eight-term Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho in his race against tea party-favorite Bryan Smith.

An ad out earlier this month for Simpson features 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney describing Simpson as "the conservative choice for Congress."