The US Chamber of Commerce has for years viewed the GOP as its personal political party. Sure they supported the now-extinct "Blue Dog Democrats" but when most of them disappeared in the maelstrom of 2010 they were left with GOP candidates and communists. Unfortunately for the Chamber, the GOP caucus has been getting progressively more conservative each year. And not merely conservative but populist.
This has caused a tension between the Chamber’s members and conservatives. Many of the Chamber’s larger members and its leadership worship stability as though it were a deity, preferring even double digit deficits reaching as far as the calendar can take us to government shutdowns, and lust after government money like David after Uriah’s wife. As conservatism has changed from the happy loser model of Bob Michel and Bob Dole to a more combative and doctrine driven one a growing number of GOP legislators are not opposed to, to continue the Biblical metaphor, pulling down the temple in order to gain concessions or to make a point.
In 2013, conservative Ken Cuccinelli ran against kleptocrat Terry McAuliffe for governor of Virginia. The Chamber, which had heavily supported the indicted Bob McDonnell, did not devote a penny to helping keep Virginia in GOP control.
By the time the 2014 season rolled around it was clear that Chamber president Tom Donohue had decided that conservatives were the enemy:
Even before Democrat Terry McAuliffe narrowly defeated Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race, lobbyists representing the business community were rethinking their relationship with the GOP and planning to challenge conservative incumbents in next year’s primaries.
Their goal: to replace principled conservatives with candidates who will be more protective of Big Business interests. As U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue put it, his group will get involved in primary races to produce a “more governable Republican party.”
In other words, they wanted people who talked conservative principles but were, in reality, pliable and more than willing to voting your money to subsidize business interests. As this year’s GOP primary campaigns geared up the Chamber made it clear that it didn’t see its role as supporting GOP, or even big-business friendly, candidates in the general election. Rather they took the view that they owned the GOP and they were going to select the candidates who would be on the ballot in November. From an interview with the Chamber’s top political strategist, Scott Reed… who was Bob Dole’s campaign manager:
SCOTT REED: If you look at the tea party and who the members of the tea party are, they believe in the Constitution, they believe in free enterprise, they believe in less regulations, less taxes, infrastructure spending. I mean, you go through that agenda, that kind of sounds like the Chamber of Commerce on Main Street. So we think the tea party is a winning part of our coalition. Now, when the tea party gets hijacked by a handful of consultants, we think that's wrong and we're going to stand up.
ALLEN: As you talk to your Republican friends around town, at this moment, do they expect to take the Senate?
REED: No, I don't think they do. I think they're optimistic.
ALLEN: What could keep that from happening?
REED: Nominating a few goofball candidates in a couple of these Senate races that would cause them to fall apart.
In May, things were actually looking pretty good for the Chamber in a superficial way. . Chris Cillizza writing in the Washington Post (Winners and losers from the May 20 ‘Super Tuesday’ primaries) identifies the Chamber as a big winner:
Chamber of Commerce: The Chamber spent to help McConnell and Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson in their primary fights against tea party challengers, and threw its backing behind Kingston in Georgia. Three for three ain't too bad. The Chamber's willingness to wade into contested races to combat the tea party has been a major success so far this year -- it was also behind Tillis to the tune of $1 million -- and a major part of the reason that more establishment Republicans have been winning primaries.
But all was not happy in paradise. The Chamber was pushing for the comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate, and not just a little
“If the Republicans don’t do it, they shouldn’t bother to run a candidate in 2016,” Donohue joked at an event on infrastructure investment in D.C. “Think about that. Think about who the voters are. I just did that to get everybody’s attention.”
Ironically, none of these candidates supported the bill. In fact, they have all said that secure borders must precede any talking of regularizing the status of illegal aliens:
The Chamber has spent millions supporting the slate of candidates in recent months: Thom Tillis in North Carolina handily won his senate primary a few weeks ago, as did Rep. Tom Cotton in Arkansas on Tuesday. Two House members, Reps. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania — both once thought to be seriously at risk to a primary challenge — also emerged victorious. Rep. Jack Kingston secured a second-place spot in Georgia’s senate primary, sending him to a July runoff. And, of course, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell cruised to victory in Kentucky.
But practically all of the candidates have said that immigration reform can’t happen without border security first, however, and fixing current law needs to be a priority. And many view the Senate bill as “amnesty” for the 11 million undocumented immigrations in the U.S.
Cotton actually took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal last year to say the House of Representatives wouldn’t touch the Senate bill, and argue against going to any kind of conference on the legislation.
“The House of Representatives will reject any proposal with the Senate bill’s irreparably flawed structure, which is best described as: legalization first, enforcement later … maybe,” he wrote.
Simpson of Idaho, a top target for conservative outside groups, said that the support from the Chamber was crucial to his re-election and estimated they spent roughly $1 million on his behalf. Simpson’s said that while he’s for “fixing the immigration system,” he says on his website it should happen by making sure “borders are secure and discourage illegal immigration by fixing our broken immigration law.”
The break point came in Mississippi. As is the case with many bullies, they are overcome with hubris and overreach. When the Chamber of Commerce teamed up with the NRSC and Haley Barbour to make scurrilous attacks on Chris McDaniel and engage in vote buying of the most grotesque sort they raised their profile as an organization fundamentally hostile to conservatives.
In Georgia, Jack Kingston, who was both anti-amnesty and conservative, went down to defeat largely because of his Chamber of Commerce endorsement:
Every night for the last month on my show I’ve gotten the same concern on the phones, in emails, on twitter, on Facebook, etc. Kingston had the Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement. The Chamber of Commerce is bad on immigration. Therefore Kingston would be bad on immigration. In fact, his opponent and now the GOP nominee for the Senate in Georgia made a point to tell people that Kingston was the Chamber endorsed candidate. His closing argument in advertising made Kingston own the endorsement.
I tried pointing out that Kingston had consistently opposed amnesty, but it did not matter. After the Mississippi Senate primary, the conservative voters in Georgia were having none of it.
In Michigan, freshman representative Kerry Bentivolio (MI-11) disavowed the Chamber:
Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.) has a message for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: I don't need your stinkin' award.
Bentivolio, whose primary challenger is backed by the Chamber, issued a hostile statement Thursday announcing that he returned an award the nation's largest business organization gave him.
"The Chamber of Commerce is beholden to special interests and has long since forgotten the main street businesses that struggle everyday to make payroll and keep their company afloat," said Bentivolio. "It is with great pride that I reject their award, and call on them to stand on the side of America, instead of on the side of China and corporate interests seeking to exploit people for profit."
Bentivolio was one of more than 200 House members who received the Spirit of Enterprise award for supporting "pro-growth, pro-jobs policies."
Bentivolio chief of staff Rob Wasinger used even sharper language to criticize the Chamber.
"The US Chamber is in the pocket of Communist China and big companies seeking cheap labor in the United States," he said in a statement.
I've been watching politics for a while and I’d never have dreamed of a GOP representative linking the Chamber to Communist China.
Though Bentivolio seems likely to be defeated by Chamber endorsed David Trott, there is little in Trott’s positions to differentiate him from conservatives. So one wonders what the Chamber is gaining from taking sides in this race. Though Bentivolio carries an 83% score from Heritage Action, he voted with the party leadership on the Farm Bill and other issues which would hold him in good stead with the Chamber. In fact, he voted with the GOP leadership on every issue rated by Heritage Action.
In Michigan’s 3d Congressional District, Justin Amash leads the Chamber’s hand-picked candidate by 23 points.
As my colleague Leon Wolf noted earlier today:
See, conservatives have always stood for level playing field for business and generally a less onerous regulatory environment in which entrepreneurship might grow. Private business is and always has been the engine of the American economy. But somewhere along the line, many businesses – especially the largest ones – came to demand not just a level playing field and fair regulatory environment but rather an active place at the government feeding trough. At that moment, when corporations lined up for money from TARP, then the Obama bailouts, then Stimulus pork, conservatives revolted against these policies and the politicians (including Republicans) who supported them. As offensive and ineffective as the Democrats’ welfare-for-individuals policies were, these welfare-for-enormous companies policies were even worse.
This is the fault-line. While conservatives have not suddenly turned anti-business, or even anti-big business, big business as personified by the Chamber of Commerce has become anti-liberty and a purveyor of corporate welfare and crony capitalism. What the Chamber should be discovering is that even if their preferred candidates win, they can only do so by adopting most conservative positions. Granted, some number of those will just be giving conservatism lip service but a larger number will find it easier to stiff the Chamber than risk a primary challenge.
Perhaps their experience in this election cycle will leave them more chastened and humble about their ability to buy politicians who will stay bought.