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Will the GOP’s Business Wing Pony Up? | Rules of the Game

Donohue, center, has been cautious when talking about the chamber's 2014 plans. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Donohue, center, has been cautious when talking about the chamber's 2014 plans. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

For business-minded Republicans fed up with tea-party-led budget standoffs, the past few weeks have offered much to crow about.

A handful of business-backed challengers have taken on tea party incumbents in the House; the National Republican Senatorial Committee has pledged to fight in primaries and has cut ties with a tea-party-linked consulting firm; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent heavily to help a Main Street Republican beat out his conservative opponent in Alabama’s 1st District GOP runoff.

The chamber’s $200,000 expenditure to help GOP lawyer Bradley Byrne narrowly beat tea-party-backed businessman Dean Young in Alabama was hailed as nothing less than “a turning point in American politics” by Forbes magazine, a sweeping assessment typical of reports on the race.

But it remains to be seen whether business groups will prove sufficiently bold, aggressive and well-funded to match the tea party activists they’re taking on. It’s far less risky to endorse the business-friendly candidate in an open-seat contest than to challenge an incumbent, as tea-party-aligned groups such as the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund routinely do.

Many major GOP donors remain skittish following the 2012 elections, which saw massive spending by Republican super PACs with underwhelming returns. Indeed, conservative outside spenders have been considerably out-raised so far in this election by groups friendly to Democrats, a reversal of past trends.

“I frankly find it hard to believe that you’ll find much action from the business community against Republican incumbents,” said Dan Meyer, a senior vice president at the Duberstein Group. “That’s just not their norm.”

The big question is whether the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will put its considerable heft on the line in the rough-and-tumble world of contested primaries. The chamber spent $35.7 million in the 2012 elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, making it the fifth-highest-spending outside organization in the election cycle, excluding the political party committees.

But although the chamber deplored the recent government shutdown, the trade group helped elect many of the very tea party lawmakers who orchestrated that budget crisis, including Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. Asked about primaries at a recent breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Chamber President and CEO Thomas Donohue replied with characteristic caution.

“We still have to see who’s running,” Donohue demurred. “We still have to see what happens in the next activity on the deficit. We still have to see what the circumstances are. We have a formal process for doing this, we will pursue that process, we will do whatever we perceive to be the best thing for the country and for the American business community.”

It was hardly a call to arms. And while news reports have made much of business-backed candidates taking on tea party incumbents in Michigan and Tennessee,  national organizations such as the chamber and the National Federation of Independent Business have largely stayed out of those races.

In Michigan’s 3rd District, for one, local business leaders have backed investment manager Brian Ellis. But the incumbent, tea party Republican Justin Amash, has actually received the maximum contribution from Amway Chairman Steve Van Andel, who happens to chair the Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors.

Even in races where Republican Party officials and leading trade associations are eager to weigh in, the presence of heavy hitters whom tea party activists deride as the GOP “establishment” may actually harm business-minded candidates more than helping them.

“There should be more engagement, but it needs to be more organic, at the local level, and not a Washington-down approach,” said GOP strategist Brian Walsh, former communications director at the NRSC. “Because that could arguably have a negative effect on the candidate.”

To be sure, business-minded GOP donors are waking up. Former Rep. Steven C. LaTourette, who runs a pro-business operation that includes political action committees and advocacy groups, has seen receipts quadruple from $500,000 to $2 million in the past six weeks. LaTourette recently launched a national fundraising tour, starting with an Election Day luncheon at the University Club of New York with two dozen GOP business donors.

“What we’re trying to do is get the people who have been disenfranchised back into the Republican Party,” said Sarah Chamberlain, chief operating officer for LaTourette’s Main Street operation, which includes a new super PAC dubbed Defending Main Street. “We feel strongly that we need to be a big tent to carry on as a national party.”

Still, it’s unclear whether all the promises and media buzz from the GOP’s business wing will materialize into meaningful campaign investments. One GOP operative noted: “The real question everybody has is whether it’s going to turn into real dollars, or whether it’s a conversation that will come to an end. And no one quite knows yet.”

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