Skip to content

The Fight for the GOP’s Soul Rages On

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce plans to shatter its previous political spending records during the 2016 elections in a campaign aimed not only at defeating Democrats but also at winning back the soul of the Republican Party.

The nation’s largest business lobby has set out to exceed its $70 million tab from the 2014 elections with as much as $100 million in campaign spending — a huge outlay that reflects the business community’s determination to prevail in its ongoing war with GOP conservatives.

On the other side, right-wing groups also view the elections as a crucial path to victory in their tactical and policy brawls with House and Senate GOP leaders. And conservatives believe they have new wind at their backs now after scoring a major win with Speaker John A. Boehner’s surprise resignation.

The goal of the chamber and other like-minded industry organizations is clear: Elect business-friendly Republicans in contested primaries to strengthen their hand during policy debates on the Hill. Some of business’ top targets in 2016 will be right-wing, tea party candidates, the types that have bucked the corporate agenda in Congress by supporting government shutdowns, opposing an immigration overhaul and attempting to close the Export-Import Bank.

“We made it quite clear last cycle: The gang that wants to shut down the government, that’s a clear contrast to what the business community agrees is best for economic growth,” says Scott Reed, the chamber’s senior political strategist.

The Business-Industry Political Action Committee, now under the leadership of former representative and moderate Republican Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania, also plans to outpace its previous investments in campaigns.

Though Gerlach won’t put a price tag on BIPAC’s plans, he says the goal is to increase its previous hauls, which in 2012 hit about $500,000 and in 2014 about $140,000.

“There’s going to be a lot of important House races in the ’16 cycle, and there’s no doubt in open seat situations in particular, there may be situations where business is at odds with conservative groups,” Gerlach says. “And that’s OK. That’s what the process is for.”

The chamber this year launched $3 million in election ads by mid-summer as it aimed to cut through the noise in battleground states that will decide not only the next president but, of more relevance to the chamber, control of the Senate.

“The chamber is now operating in a 24-month cycle,” Reed says. “That’s new.” He adds, “This is the earliest we’ve ever spent money.”

Conservative organizations believe they, too, are within reach of stacking Congress with more kindred spirits.

The business community’s legislative priorities include expanding free trade and a tax overhaul — which puts industry in accord with conservative groups. But pitting it against the right wing, business also wants immigration law changes, supports Ex-Im and fiercely opposes government shutdowns. Conservative organizations warn that if business groups focus too much on shutdowns and Ex-Im, that could put their shared goals in peril.

“The candidates we’re going to identify and support will be the best candidates to get you regulatory relief, corporate tax reform, free trade,” says David McIntosh, a former House member from Indiana who now runs the conservative Club for Growth, which derides Ex-Im as “crony capitalism.” “If they make Ex-Im a litmus test, I think that doesn’t serve the business community at all, and we’ll fight them,” he says.

Early Starts

The chamber and other business-aligned organizations, taking their cues from ideological conservative groups that have worked to oust or boost candidates in primaries, no longer want to wait until general elections.

“It used to be the business community would hold off in primary situations,” Gerlach says. “Now there is more and more a recognition that the election for some districts is the primary.”

BIPAC is looking at the open Nevada seat being vacated by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, as well as Senate races in Illinois and Ohio.

The chamber’s early ad buys, so far, include support for incumbent Republican Sens. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, John McCain of Arizona and Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, who is spearheading the effort to renew Ex-Im. The group also funded spots in support of Republican Rep. Joe Heck’s effort in the Nevada contest to replace Reid.

The chamber, in a roundabout way, is helping Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman by running ads against Democrat Ted Strickland, a former governor, who is in a primary battle for the chance to take on Portman. Stickland is considered a stronger opponent for the incumbent senator.

Many of those races don’t pit business against ideological conservatives — protecting Toomey is also a priority for such organizations as the Club for Growth — but that belies some of the coming vitriol, especially in House contests where both sides are sizing up their potential fields.

Business stakeholders, for example, are eyeing primary challengers to Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican, who has taken a conservative hard line against such industry priorities as the Export-Import Bank and supports cutting off all government funding in order to deprive Planned Parenthood of taxpayer money.

Huelskamp’s primary opponents include Roger Marshall, a doctor, and Alan LaPolice, a student-retention specialist at a community college.

McIntosh says his group would go all out against the business community to support Huelskamp, who twice voted against Boehner over the speakership.

The club has made just one endorsement in a House race — offering its support for Jim Banks, a conservative candidate to replace Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., who is running for Senate. But, McIntosh says, the group will weigh in on many more races.

“In the House, you have a leadership that have repeatedly failed to deliver on the promises to conservatives, so the goal there is to elect more members who are going to put a stake in the ground,” McIntosh says.

Conservatives, he says, “are increasingly getting frustrated by the speaker and leadership saying, ‘Oh, sorry, we cut a deal with Nancy Pelosi.’ ”

Recruits Needed

Conservative groups are stepping up their “scouting” of potential candidates, McIntosh says.

But so now are folks on the side of business.

“The business community has to get out there and try and recruit people that are going to be good,” says Kathryn Lehman, a Republican lobbyist at Holland & Knight, who chairs her firm’s PAC. “You can’t wait until you’ve come down to the general election. It’s more work, and it takes more planning. But your money is, arguably, more important and you give yourself more options, if you get involved in the front end.”

The business community’s 2016 election effort won’t only be about money.

Gerlach, who took the helm of BIPAC this year, says he’s making voter education and grassroots organization among corporate employees a priority — encouraging workers to register to vote and to show up at the polls.

“There’s a lot of recognition that it’s such a hugely important election cycle and who gets elected matters,” Gerlach says. “But I’m still not sure yet how much employees understand the importance of their actual participation in the process, so that’s going to be our job to educate them.”

Companies that find themselves on the front lines of the business-versus-conservatives battle say their employees are increasingly tuned in and motivated to donate.

“Our employees certainly are more interested than they have been in the past, and they’ve been very interested in the past,” says Gordon Johndroe, a Boeing vice president for communications who previously was deputy White House press secretary and National Security Council spokesman during the George W. Bush administration.

Boeing, one of the Export-Import Bank’s biggest customers, has been lobbying for its renewal. The company’s PAC is the fifth biggest corporate PAC, with nearly $700,000 in donations so far this cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

“We are not a single-issue PAC, but in general we support candidates who support issues of importance to Boeing,” Johndroe says. “We’re going to look for candidates who take a pragmatic approach and understand that we work in a global business environment. We need Congress to be supportive of American manufacturers if we’re going to compete against overseas rivals.”

Of course, Republicans aren’t the only ones with internal strife, as Reed of the chamber points out. The outcome of Democratic primaries, such as in the Ohio or Florida Senate contests, may position pro-business Republicans as strong or weak.

In the Florida Senate race to replace Republican Marco Rubio, who is running for president, hard-core liberal Rep. Alan Grayson is running in the Democratic primary against Rep. Patrick Murphy. Business groups say they hope their preferred candidates benefit from such divisions.

“We’re all wearing down our knee pads praying he’s the nominee,” Reed says of Grayson.

Recent Stories

Should doctors in Congress earn money for their side job?

Supreme Court dodges definitive answer on legality of a ‘wealth tax’

Senate Finance Democrats look to raise revenue for 2025 tax cliff

Capitol Lens | Juneteenth on the Maryland campaign trail

At the Races: Trumping incumbency

Trump, Biden propel migrants to forefront of ‘contentious’ race