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Donohue: Chamber will oppose some tea party candidates

Thomas "Tom" Donohue, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, speaks in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will  play a significant role in the 2014 elections and intends to work hard to elect "pro-business" candidates in the House and the Senate, the head of the powerful lobby group said Wednesday.

In his annual State of American Business speech, Thomas J. Donohue, the Chamber's president and chief executive, set out an ambitious agenda, and warned that the group would use this year's elections as "a motivator for change." The approach, he said, was based on a simple theory: "If you can't make them see the light, then at least make them feel some heat."

Donohue took pains to avoid a broad swipe at the tea party. But in his speech, and at a news conference that followed, he made clear that the Chamber would target some members of the movement.

"In primaries and in the general election, we will support candidates who want to work within the legislative process to solve the nation's problems -- and who understand that business is not the problem, business is a big part of the solution," he said.

He called the Chamber's efforts this fall in Alabama's 1st congressional district -- where the group backed an establishment candidate in a primary race against a Christian conservative aligned with the tea party-- a preview of the "aggressive efforts the Chamber has planned for the midterm elections."

"You know we won in Alabama – thank God," Donohue said. "But there’s a lot more to come." The Chamber spent  at least $199,000 on mailers, phone calls and digital media to help its candidate, Bradley Byrne, win the race, campaign finance records show.

Donohue drew a distinction between the tea party movement as it first emerged and the more disruptive force it has become. In the beginning, he said, "They talked about things that the Chamber very much supports” – including "sensible tax policy," "reasonable control of federal costs," trade and jobs. "All of that stuff was pretty good.”

But then, those with “more radical approaches,” Donohue said, "tried to hitch their wagon to the tea party engine."

"I think they’re well-intentioned people, except when they get to Washington they’re not going to do what we believe we need to do, so why should we help them get here," Donohue said. "But don’t line me up as attacking the tea party, because I’m not."

"This is a place I have to be very careful," Donohue said, adding that there are "a lot of tea party folks" that he would be happy to support.

"The question is , who are we talking about … and what do they want to do?"

"People who announce, 'I’m going to run for the House or the Senate and – I’m hyperbolizing --  my idea is to burn down the town,' we’re not interested," he said. "People that believe in the enterprise system…will be very likely to get our support."

Donohue declined to discuss what races the Chamber plans to get involved in, but said the group is looking at about a half dozen primaries and open seats, and wants to shape races "right from the beginning."

And though he declined to put a dollar figure on the group's coming campaign effort, he sounded confident that the group's members will fund its efforts.

"The business community understands what's at stake. They respect our political team, support our strategy, and understand the powerful impact our brand can have in pivotal elections," Donohue said. "This means we will have all the resources we need to run the most effective political program of 2014."

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