The Washington Post

The biggest winner in primaries: U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Tuesday’s primary elections served up more victories for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has emerged as a big winner this year in its aggressive efforts to weaken the tea party’s hold on the Republican Party.

The country’s largest business lobby broke with tradition over the past year by taking sides in Republican primary election contests, spending millions to back establishment candidates against tea party challengers.

The Chamber has spent more than $12 million in races around the country and came through Tuesday night’s primaries with an undefeated record, including victories by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Rep. Mike Simpson in Idaho and defeats for the organization’s least favorite candidates in Georgia.

The Chamber had already seen its endorsements succeed in primaries in North Carolina, where it spent over $1 million backing Senate candidate Thom Tillis and congressional candidate David Rouzer.

“The Chamber should be very pleased with its expenditures,” said Elaine Kamarck,  who is at the Brookings Institution leading a study in to the dynamics of primary elections this year.

The Chamber is looking for further success in Mississippi in June where a tea party-backed candidate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, is challenging six term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran, who is backed enthusiastically by the Chamber, which is likely spend upwards of $500,000 on the race.

All told, the Chamber is likely to double its campaign spending this year from the 2010 mid-term elections outlay of  $34 million, according to people with knowledge of business community spending plans. Tea party groups, on the  other hand, have not been spending as much or as effectively as the Chamber, as The Post's Matea Gold reported recently.

By investing so aggressively during the primary season, the Chamber appears to be trying to remake the Republican Party, whose most conservative members have balked at business community priorities, such as overhauling the immigration system and raising the government’s borrowing limit.

“The big takeaway from the last election was that candidates matter -- and that meant getting involved in candidate selection, including the primaries,” said Scott Reed., the Republican political strategist who guides the Chamber’s political effort as a senior adviser.

Republicans in and outside the Chamber have pointed over the last two election cycles to the primary victories of Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Todd Akin in Missouri, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Alaska as examples of conservative candidates winning a primary, but losing general elections.

Reed helped lead the Chamber foray in to an Alabama special House election late last year when a tea party candidate, Dean Youg, said he would  come to Washington and "shut the place down,” Reed recalled in a recent interview.

The Chamber had developed a  wariness of talk about shutdowns during the 2013 partial government shutdown led by tea party Republicans, and the related reluctance by some conservative members to vote to raise the debt ceiling to avoid a default.  That vote was a key test for business leaders and the cavalier attitude of some Republicans stunned them.

Chamber operatives arrived in Alabama eight days before the 2013  special election and helped elect Bradley Byrne, a business backed candidate, who opposed the idea of a shutdown. The Chamber’s victory in Alabama was accomplished with social media, ground organization and close partnerships with local business organizations. The Alabama victory was seen at the time by Republican congressional leaders and Chamber of Commerce board members as “a model that works,” Reed said. The emphasis on ground game and local partnerships and individually tailored campaigns has become a central part of the Chamber’s 2014 playbook.

To help Republican candidates in swing districts in Colorado and California, the Chamber is using ads that emphasize immigration and include endorsements from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is popular with the increasing number of Hispanic voters in those states and is considering a 2016 presidential bid. Other surrogates, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, have been used in advertisements  in other regions.

Reed is outspoken in his unhappiness with Republican-oriented groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth.

At the Club for Growth, spokesman Barney Keller points out that the Chamber and the Club are united behind some candidates such as Rep. Tom Cotton in Arkansas. In Idaho he says the Chamber and its allies outspent the Club for Growth, which pulled out of the state several weeks ago because their endorsed candidate, Bryan Smith, was unlikely to make it against overwhelming spending by the Chamber and other business groups.

“You had every ally of crony capitalism backing (Rep. Mike) Simpson,” said Keller, noting that the incumbent Republican supported President Obama’s stimulus and bailout proposals as well as the debt limit increases . “The Republican party has a debate going on right now," Keller said,  over whether “they want to be the party of Simpson or the party of Bryan Smith, who opposes bailouts, Obama stimulus spending  and debt limits increases.”

The debate continues. But, so far, in the world GOP primaries, the Chamber is winning.

Tom Hamburger covers the intersection of money and politics for The Washington Post.

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