Bachus, Deep South Incumbents Stay Safe in Primaries

Bachus, Deep South Incumbents Stay Safe in Primaries

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - March 14, 2012

Alabama Rep. Spencer Bachus, who has battled ethics violation charges, the narrative of an unpopular Congress, and hundreds of thousands of super PAC dollars spent against him, managed to fend off a primary challenge from the right on Tuesday, virtually ensuring that he will return to Capitol Hill for an 11th term.

The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee was one of several sitting lawmakers in the Deep South to survive primary challenges, splashing cold water -- for now -- on talk of another anti-incumbent election cycle fueled by Ohio Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt's loss last week. Republicans Steven Palazzo and Alan Nunnelee, along with Democrat Bennie Thompson, defeated their rivals in Mississippi, and Republicans Jo Bonner and Mo Brooks won in Alabama.

Heading into Tuesday's primaries, Bachus appeared to be the most vulnerable -- and the highest-profile -- candidate facing a challenge. He was among the lawmakers cited in a "60 Minutes" story about members of Congress possibly engaging in insider trading. The Office of Congressional Ethics is examining whether he and others profited from well-timed stock market trades in the industries they regulate. (The practice is not currently illegal, but uproar over these transactions has led Congress to draft the pending STOCK Act, which would prohibit members from using non-public information for personal benefit.)

Bachus held an overwhelming cash advantage: He's raised $1.7 million this cycle and his campaign spent over $1.5 million as of Feb. 29, according to campaign finance reports. Conversely, his opponent, state Sen. Scott Beason, raised about $54,000 and spent roughly $36,000.

Commercial banks and financial firms made up the bulk of Bachus' fundraising -- not surprisingly, given his committee chairmanship. But while Beason was outspent, he had a well-financed super PAC on his side. The Texas-based Campaign for Primary Accountability, a group going after incumbents in both parties, reportedly spent $200,000 running ads and distributing mail attacking Bachus on the ethics issues and his support for raising the debt ceiling and for the Wall Street bailouts. The same group spent significant amounts of money against Schmidt and Rep. Marcy Kaptur (who defeated Rep. Dennis Kucinich last week) in Ohio.

Beason had been angling to thwart Bachus from garnering more than 50 percent of the vote Tuesday to force a runoff. His campaign was a grass-roots operation, reportedly knocking on 18,000 doors and subsisting on mostly small donations. His campaign doubted he could defeat Bachus outright, but a runoff would have bought more time to attract more support, his campaign manager, Chris Brown, told RCP. Beason, best known as the architect of Alabama's stringent and controversial immigration policy, ran to the right of Bachus, targeting him along the same lines as the super PAC did.

The super PAC money "leveled the playing field," said Brown. "There are distinct differences between Bachus and Beason, and the super PAC did point out a lot of his flaws." Brown said the campaign's early numbers indicated that running the campaign on a positive message would make it a four-point race. But the returns told a different story: Bachus took the lead by at least 30 points and called his win a victory over outside spending.

The Texas super PAC also spent roughly $120,000 attacking Bachus' GOP colleague, Jo Bonner, who, ironically, chairs the House Ethics Committee. Bonner fended off a challenge from self-funded businessman Dean Young. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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