The country’s biggest business groups are making noises about taking on tea party candidates in primary races. But reclaiming a more reliably pro-business Republican Party -- one that stops railing against “corporate welfare” and threatening to default on the nation's debt obligations --isn’t going to be easy.
For one, the trade groups are talking about only a handful of races so far: four primaries, only two of which would involve taking on Republican incumbents. The group of House Republicans who led the charge to shut down the government numbered in the dozens. And on Wednesday night, 18 Republican senators and 144 GOP House members opposed the bill to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling.
Even if many of those "no" votes were symbolic, that’s a large number of GOP lawmakers who felt enough political pressure to reject the deal, suggesting how deeply tea party politics with an anti-corporate bent have seeped into the GOP's mainstream.
In this vein, the most telling moment this week was when a compromise surfaced that would have eliminated the medical device tax. The idea should have been a no-brainer for a traditional pro-business Republican to support. Instead, it was pilloried by Michael Needham, chief executive of Heritage Action for America, who said that killing the tax would amount to “corporate cronyism.” The deal quickly died.
Views like these threaten to unravel the decades-long alliance between business and the GOP and have clearly alarmed groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Trade organizations are only in the early planning stages of wresting back control, so they may decide to get involved in more races eventually. But this is also extremely new territory for them; they’re used to participating in general elections, not primaries.
There are also limits to how far these groups can go if they want Republicans to keep control of the House. They can try to weed out a few ultra-conservative lawmakers who have been causing trouble for House Speaker John Boehner and send a message to activist groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth. But they can’t go so far in targeting certain Republicans that they risk losing seats to Democrats.
And just deciding which Republicans to take on won’t be obvious. Among the most recalcitrant House Republicans were some who have have received top marks from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho, for instance, was among the hard-core conservatives who terrified business executives with their threats to not raise the debt ceiling. But Labrador is hardly “anti-business” by the Chamber’s own standards. Last year he received the group’s “Spirit of Enterprise Award” for “his support of pro-jobs, pro-growth policies.”
Adding to the confusion is that the business community is hardly monolithic. Trade groups may want to take on some of the tea party candidates, but they’re up against other figures in the business world, including a handful of financiers who have pumped money into the Club for Growth. And chief executives who are thoroughly confused by what’s happened in Washington the last month may have their own ideas about what to do, including the start-and-stop Fix the Debt effort.
Why don’t these business trade groups abandon the Republican Party altogether, as some have asked? Besides shared policy goals like lower taxes, there’s a long personal history between Boehner and the leaders of the biggest trade groups. Since the 1990s, Boehner has been carefully nurturing the party’s relationship with these organizations --and it shows. Nearly every Republican lobbyist I interviewed in the last week couldn’t say enough nice things about Boehner, that he was loyal, decent and wouldn’t let them down. These lobbyists never doubted he would raise the debt ceiling. And they were right.
In a way, these groups have invested too much in Boehner and the GOP to back down now. They helped the Republicans win back the House in 2010, linking arms with the same tea party politicians who are causing them problems now. The idea then was that having Republicans control the House was the best way to win on the narrow policy battles -- Will this tax go up? Will those regulations get approved? -- that are the bread and butter of lobbyists. But with Congress no longer passing major legislation, all that’s left is intra-party squabbling. And business groups have no choice now but to wade into the fight.