WASHINGTON (AP) - The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is launching ads this week in North Carolina and Georgia in a crunch-time effort to help establishment-backed Republicans in crowded Senate primaries. It is also pumping money into commercials praising GOP hopefuls in Michigan, Montana and Alaska.
The powerful business organization's ad buy is a clear attempt to tip the balance in Republican contests and help the GOP nominate viable general election candidates. In 2010 and 2012, tea party and far-right conservatives cost the GOP seats in Nevada, Delaware, Colorado, Indiana and Missouri and shots at Senate control, a fate Republicans are determined to avoid this November.
"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 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.
The North Carolina primary is next Tuesday, Georgia two weeks later. The Chamber will begin airing ads Wednesday for North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston.
"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.
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.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory endorsed Tillis 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.
The latest ad for Simpson features 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney describing Simpson as "the conservative choice for Congress."
The Chamber also will air an ad beginning Wednesday in North Carolina's 7th Congressional District, where nine-term moderate Democrat Mike McIntyre has announced he won't seek re-election. His decision gives the GOP a clear pickup opportunity in a reconfigured district that Romney won handily in 2012.
The primary pits state Sen. David Rouzer, who lost by fewer than 660 votes to McIntyre in 2012, against attorney Woody White. Rouzer, who worked as an aide to former Sens. Jesse Helms and Elizabeth Dole, has the backing of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. White picked up an endorsement from former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
The ad opens with an image of 2008 Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, a lawyer whose reputation was marred by his efforts to hide his pregnant mistress, and then focuses on White's legal work.
"The last thing Congress needs is another trial lawyer like Woody White," the ad says.
The Alaska primary isn't until Aug. 19, but the Chamber is promoting the candidacy of former attorney general Dan Sullivan over Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, whose campaign has struggled, and conservative Joe Miller. In 2010, Miller, with the backing of former Gov. Sarah Palin, shocked incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary.
Miller's general election missteps combined with a formidable write-in campaign by Murkowski helped her win another term.
The GOP nominee will face incumbent Sen. Mark Begich, another vulnerable Democrat.
The new ad says Begich sides with Washington and put bureaucrats in control of health care and environmental regulations, while "Dan Sullivan is always fighting for Alaska."
The Chamber also is running ads praising Republican Terri Lynn Land in Michigan and Rep. Steve Daines in Montana. Land is seeking an open Senate seat; Daines likely will face Democratic Sen. John Walsh, who was appointed to fill out Max Baucus' term after he became U.S. ambassador to China.