In recent election cycles, the US Chamber of Commerce has backed Republicans almost exclusively. In 2012, that proved to be a disastrous strategy as 13 of the 15 Republican Senate candidates they supported lost, and they won only 4 of 22 House races.
Now, according to Joe Nocera of the New York Times, the Chamber’s National Political Director Rob Engstrom has suggested that the organization support incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu in her race against GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy.
For the Chamber, finding pro-business Democrats to back is a tough job. But Landrieu has a better pro-business voting record than Senator Ted Cruz, according to the Wall Street Journal. And Nocera points out that as the GOP becomes more populist, it’s support for government programs like the Export-Import bank and immigration reform has died off.
What brings this to mind is the continuing fight over the Export-Import Bank. It is the classic kind of issue that used to unite the Republican Party and the Chamber of Commerce, pre-Tea Party: backing a government agency that supports trade by helping to finance deals that involve American exports. That is also the kind of issue that is anathema to Tea Party ideologues, who view it as corporate welfare. The chamber has vowed a “full-court press” to save the Ex-Im Bank, but so far at least, the House is indifferent to its entreaties.
And it’s not just the Ex-Im Bank. As Edward Luce noted this week in The Financial Times, this Congress won’t countenance any of the things that business — and the chamber — care about. Immigration reform is dead. Congress won’t raise the gas tax to fund the Highway Trust Fund. Revamping the corporate tax rate can’t even get a hearing. And on, and on.
It is possible that the chamber didn’t quite realize what it was getting when it helped elect those Tea Party freshmen in 2010 — few people did until they began to flex their muscles. But it is equally possible that it didn’t care. (“The chamber is not an arm of either party and is not ‘aligned’ with either party,” a spokesman told me in an email.)
In the 16 years he has run the Chamber of Commerce, Donohue has turned it into a potent force, in no small part by making it more partisan. But by being so blindly pro-Republican, the chamber “unleashed a Frankenstein that has spun out of control,” said Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, which monitors the Chamber of Commerce. That became most clear during the debt ceiling and deficit fights of the last few years — when the Tea Party Republicans seemed so determined to shrink government that they were even willing to default on the government’s debt. The chamber reacted in horror.
A Chamber spokesman denies that any decision has been made on who to support for the Senate in Louisiana. But the organization’s determination to support Republicans in primaries who reflect the Chamber’s point of view and oppose Tea Party candidates is a clear signal that they are more open to backing candidates who share their philosophy regardless of party affiliation.
In the old days when there were actually a lot of Democrats who had strong, pro-business credentials, the Chamber routinely supported both sides, although their preference was always for moderate Republicans. If the Chamber is not only going to back more moderate Republicans, but return to supporting pro-business Democrats, it would be a troubling development for the Republican party. This is especially true in Louisiana where defeating Landreiu is of paramount importance if Republicans want to win back the Senate.
Money spent backing Democrats also means less money for the GOP. That’s the last thing that Republicans need during these last crucial weeks before the election.
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