With Chamber of Commerce Defections, a GOP Mainstay Finds Allies Among Democrats

First came the Never Trumpers, and I did not speak out, because they stood against Donald Trump. Then came the Lincoln Project, and I did not speak out, because their videos went viral. Then came the Chamber of Commerce, and by then it was too late.

Bruce Josten, US Chamber Of Commerce Executive Vice President for Government Affairs, listens while Thomas Donohue, CEO and President of the US Chamber of Commerce, speaks during a press conference at the US Chamber of Commerce January 12, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Bruce Josten, U.S. Chamber Of Commerce executive vice president for government affairs, listens while Thomas Donohue, the Chamber’s CEO and president, speaks during a press conference at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Jan. 12, 2012 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The slow migration of the elite wing of the Republican Party into the Democratic fold saw its most pronounced movement earlier this month when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, long an appendage of the GOP, overcame internal dissension to endorse 23 vulnerable House Democrats for reelection, along with a slate of 30 Democratic congressional candidates total. 

The move comes as Democrats have been performing increasingly well among white, suburban voters and the elderly, particularly women, a shift in voting patterns that handed control of the House of Representatives to the party in the 2018 midterms and has made cul-de-sac right states like Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina increasingly competitive. A new survey from the Atlanta-Journal Constitution found President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden locked in a 47-47 tie in Georgia, while other polls have found Biden within striking distance in Texas. 

The tectonic plates are not shifting smoothly, and the move by the Chamber, which is, broadly speaking, a lobbying and political operation funded by large businesses, has sparked an intra-business fight, drawing protestations from the fossil fuel industry, whose loyalty to the GOP has not waned. Allen Wright, a top executive at Devon Energy Corp., quit the U.S. Chamber’s board in protest of the endorsements. Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce, lashed out at the national Chamber for endorsing freshman Democrat Rep. Kendra Horn, who he said was hostile to the industry in Oklahoma. 

On Friday, lit up by an article on the drama in Breitbart, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both demanded a phone call with Chamber head Tom Donohue. The article, in Breitbart’s unsubtle style, was headlined, “The Great Betrayal: How Republican Wunderkind Became Democrat Darling at the Chamber of Commerce,” and focused on the role of one-time conservative movement figure Neil Bradley in the Chamber’s shift. 

Pence tried to be conciliatory, acknowledging that every cycle the Chamber has endorsed a Democrat or two, such as New Jersey’s Josh Gottheimer or Texan Henry Cuellar. Still, he noted, never has the operation put its clout behind the full project of making sure that Democrats retain the majority in the House. Republicans need to flip 16 Democratic seats to win back the majority, a not-inconceivable feat given how many seats Republicans lost last cycle by the slimmest of margins. But the Chamber support undercuts that effort in a variety of ways, including by giving a Democrat in a tight race a card to play if they are attacked as a tax-and-spend liberal who’ll stall economic growth. 

Democrats have not been shy over the past few weeks in touting the endorsement back home. 

While the Chamber is a different beast in Washington, at the local level, town Chambers of Commerce tend to have a Kiwanis-esque reputation for boosting small businesses and working to beautify streets, sponsor Little League teams, or otherwise contribute to the fabric of the community. The national Chamber routinely exploits that cultural misunderstanding, by positioning itself as similarly benign, and now Democratic candidates can exploit it to their own advantage. 

The Chamber has been a fierce ideological ally of the Republicans, but that ideology was always a cover for its true motive: doing what it is paid to do by big companies and industries.

In some ways, the Republican surprise at the Chamber’s pivot suggests that leading party figures never understood the organization’s mission. It has indeed been a fierce ideological ally of the Republicans, but that ideology was always a cover for its true motive: doing what it is paid to do by big companies and industries, which generally prefer Republicans in power but whose highest priority is profit. If that means working with Democrats, so be it. As detailed in the 2016 book by Alyssa Katz, “The Influence Machine,” the Chamber on a national level has long been a mercenary project funded by rent-seeking corporations looking to cloak their profit motive in the sheen of pro-growth ideology.

Trump, on his call with Donohue and Pence, asked Donohue if the endorsements were final, and Donohue said the group had no plans to change them, Axios reported. He noted that bipartisanship had been important for some of Trump’s major successes, including his renegotiation of NAFTA. 

Neil Bradley, an Oklahoma native, launched his career as an aide to Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma senator who was the tea party before the tea party. Bradley went on to work for the Republican Study Committee, a mirror version of the House Congressional Progressive Caucus. From there, Bradley became a top lieutenant to Rep. Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican who represented the conservative flank of House leadership before he was stunned in an upset by a local tea party-backed professor, Dave Brat, in a 2014 primary. Bradley, after a stint with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the current GOP House leader, wound up at the Chamber, where he serves as executive vice president and chief policy officer. 

Brat, in turn, was ousted in 2018 by Democrat Abigail Spanberger, a veteran of the CIA, as seats that had only recently been safely in the hands of Republicans began drifting Democratic. Now the Chamber, under Bradley’s guidance, has endorsed Spanberger in his old boss’s seat. The Chamber’s realignment has caused great consternation among Republicans, while Democrats, eager for the support, have spent little time discussing what it means to have the backing of an organization it only recently associated with all of the things that are wrong with politics and an economy tilted in favor of the wealthy and powerful. 

Bradley said that the endorsements prove what the Chamber has always claimed, but rarely been believed: that it is fundamentally nonpartisan. “Many of these Democrats are representing districts that were previously represented by Republicans. Perhaps it’s possible that both Republicans and Democrats are representing their districts,” he said.

Heading into the 2010 midterms, the Chamber went to war against then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic majority, pumping millions into the effort to flip the House. “If they were to win, it would mean that we are now … a plutocracy and oligarchy,” Pelosi said. “Whatever these few wealthy, secret, unlimited sources of money are can control our entire agenda.” 

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during a press conference advocating for the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act in the House of Representatives later this week on Capitol Hill on February 5, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks during a press conference advocating for the passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act in the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill on Feb. 5, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

They did win, making Cantor majority leader and in line for the speakership, but Pelosi reclaimed the gavel eight years later, and this time, she and the Chamber have engaged in a delicate dance, as Pelosi quietly refused to bring to the House floor the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, legislation to expand and reform labor laws and make it easier to organize workers into unions. Stopping the PRO Act was a top priority of the Chamber and will remain a top priority in the Biden administration. Under intense labor union pressure, Pelosi finally put the bill on the floor in early 2020, where it passed with 224-194.

Only six Democrats broke with the party and voted against the legislation, meaning that most of the Chamber’s endorsed candidates opposed the Chamber on a major priority. Of the 23 front-line Democrats endorsed by the Chamber, just three — Kendra Horn in Oklahoma, Ben McAdams in Utah, and Joe Cunningham in South Carolina — sided with the Chamber in the vote. Those three Democrats won their seats by a total of roughly 7,000 votes. (Bradley said that the books on the Chamber’s scorekeeping were closed early this year, before the PRO Act came to the floor.)

Spanberger voted aye on the PRO Act, but the Chamber’s strategy — rooted in the hope that if Democrats take full control in Washington, their willingness to fight for labor will diminish, as it has before — appears to be aspirational. Indeed, a Pelosi-led House has passed labor law reform before, during the 2007-2008 term, when the party was sure that if it made the desk of President George W. Bush, he would veto it. Democrats couldn’t find the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster it in the Senate, and once President Barack Obama was sworn in, it never passed the House again — similar to how Republicans successfully repealed Obamacare more than 50 times when Obama was there to veto it, but somehow couldn’t get it to Trump’s desk. The Chamber is no doubt hoping a similar scenario unfolds if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the White House, and is increasing its clout among vulnerable Democrats, which could help them win converts next term, when passing it would actually matter. 

Going through with endorsements of Democrats in tight races was the Chamber’s way of showing “you can trust we’re going to follow through. … We’re going to stand by our word.”

Bradley said he would frame the decision to endorse slightly differently. Endorsing Democrats who performed well on the Chamber’s scorecard — which means voting or co-sponsoring the right way on at least 70 percent of the organization’s priority pieces of legislation — was important in terms of building credibility across the aisle, he said. “When we started this Congress, there was healthy skepticism [among Democrats] that the Chamber would follow through [on making endorsements]. When push came to shove, would they make up an excuse?” Going through with endorsements of Democrats in tight races, he said, was the Chamber’s way of showing “you can trust we’re going to follow through. … We’re going to stand by our word.”

Indeed, the Chamber’s endorsement list includes a who’s who of Democrats the GOP was most hoping to pick off: Reps. Sharice Davids of Kansas; Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico; Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher of Texas; Andy Kim of New Jersey; Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne of Iowa; Elaine Luria of Virginia; Haley Stevens of Michigan; David Trone of Maryland; Angie Craig and Dean Phillips of Minnesota; Greg Stanton of Arizona; Josh Harder, TJ Cox, and Harley Rouda of California; Susie Lee of Nevada; and New York’s Anthony Brindisi and Antonio Delgado.

Virtually all of the Democratic candidates endorsed by the Chamber have simultaneously pledged not to accept money from corporate political action committees — though the Chamber’s PAC routinely cuts a check to endorsed candidates and has done so in most cases this time, according to Federal Election Commission records. The Chamber is technically not an individual corporate PAC, but is more accurately the mother of all corporate PACs.

The Chamber’s major spending this cycle is going mostly to protect vulnerable Senate Republicans to keep Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader. The House endorsements have not come with big outside spending, but aside from their intrinsic value, they mean that the Chamber isn’t spending against vulnerable Democrats down the stretch, as it often is. The Chamber also plans to endorse some Republican challengers to incumbent Democrats, Bradley said, but the organization’s priority remains the Senate.

Pelosi’s major policy priority for the term was reducing prescription drug prices, another initiative that the Chamber fiercely opposes, darkly warning that any regulation or negotiation of prices would spell the end of the development of new drugs. It’s a rare area of policy agreement between Pelosi and Trump, though they have so far failed to agree on legislation. In September, after the Chamber announced its endorsements of key House Democrats, Trump issued an executive order aimed at bringing prices down. Bradley responded publicly by calling Trump’s order a “flawed and dangerous policy that will result in a substantial reduction in investment in new cures and drugs at the worst possible time,” followed by a promise to fight back. “We urge the administration to reconsider this approach, and the U.S. Chamber is assessing options to challenge this misguided policy,” he said. 

While the left has been mum about the Chamber’s new affinity for Democrats, the right has been paying close attention. “I don’t want the U.S. Chamber’s endorsement, because they have sold out,” Bradley’s old boss McCarthy sniffed on Fox News. “It is hypocrisy that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would endorse these Democrats that are part of this socialist agenda that is driving this country out and is fighting this president. Remember, these are the people who voted for impeachment, when this president has done so much for this nation.”

The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn, facing a reelection fight in Texas, has come out swinging. 

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called for the Chamber’s leadership to be ousted. 

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, mocked them for cowardice. 

Republicans who’ve fashioned themselves as populists, like Donald Trump Jr., are linking the Chamber’s shift to its longtime support of increased legal immigration. 

“Everyone has their roles to play,” Bradley said of the criticism from his former boss and other Republicans. The truth, he said, is that the business community wants a working relationship with both parties, and worries that political gridlock is bad for the economy in the long-term. That it’s an aide to Cantor — who famously launched the GOP tactic of obstruction by refusing to work with Democrats on an economic stimulus package in 2009 — making that argument is an irony not lost on Bradley, though he noted that Cantor was also criticized from the right for negotiating too much, as when Cantor and Biden co-chaired an effort to find a bipartisan path to slash the deficit. 

“Of course there are gonna be votes and times the parties don’t work together. What folks are saying is when things have to get done, or you want reforms that endure, you have to figure out a way to work together across the aisle, and that’s what’s increasingly lacking, phase four being a perfect example,” he said, referring to the failed effort to get a new round of Covid-19 recovery legislation.

“There used to be a few issues where people put on their team colors, and lots of issues where they’d work together. … Today every bill is an attempt to put on your team colors.”

“There used to be a few issues where people put on their team colors, and lots of issues where they’d work together, from appropriations to infrastructure and even immigration,” he said. “Today every bill is an attempt to put on your team colors.” 

Bradley favorably cited last week’s passage of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. The bill, he said, was originally the product of liberal groups like the National Women’s Law Center, and led by liberal Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler. The scene was set for a partisan battle, but the Chamber came to the table with concerns from the business world, but also a willingness to see something pass, Bradley said. The question of how to accommodate pregnant employees, he said, was one that his organization’s members would like to see resolved in a uniform way. The Chamber argued over the bill’s clause on dispute resolution, and the final bill settled on employing a similar process to the one used to adjudicate disputes stemming from the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Every employer has dealt with that for 30 years, let’s copy that process,” Bradley said the Chamber argued. “Not everything has to be a big fight,” he said of the bill that won 329 votes, including 103 Republicans. “There is this belief across the business community we have to figure out how to work with both parties.”

As the Chamber is wandering into the Democratic tent, it’s doing so while the party is in flux. At the same time that college-educated and suburban voters are flocking to the party, an insurgent left is making major inroads, even in districts packed with suburban voters. Chappaqua, New York, home of the Clintons, will be represented by progressive Mondaire Jones after the insurgent won a bruising primary earlier this year. Marie Newman knocked out Rep. Dan Lipinski in suburban Chicago. 

From left, Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Reps. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., Sharice Davids, D-Kan., and Angie Craig, D-Minn., conduct a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to announce a new infrastructure investment framework on January 29, 2020.

From left, Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal, D-Mass., Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Reps. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., Sharice Davids, D-Kan., and Angie Craig, D-Minn., conduct a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center to announce a new infrastructure investment framework on Jan. 29, 2020.

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP

While the Chamber support can be helpful for swing-district Democrats in their reelection bids, doing too much of the Chamber’s bidding could end up hurting them back home in a primary from the left. One of the Chamber endorsements, for instance, went to freshman Rep. Sharice Davids, who won a narrow and bitterly fought primary in a wealthy suburban Kansas district in 2018. She carried the suburbs, but lost the Black working-class sections of her district to Brent Welder, who had the backing of Justice Democrats, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Davids and her supporters assured voters that she was equally as progressive as her rival, aided by her pledge not to take corporate PAC money, and, with the backing of an EMILY’s List Super PAC, won the primary by just over 2,000 votes. That her claim to the progressive mantle was less than solid became clear when, after being sworn in, she joined the New Democrat Coalition, becoming one of a handful of freshmen to join both the pro-business caucus and the Progressive Caucus simultaneously. From there, her voting record has been enough to satisfy the Chamber that she deserves reelection. 

The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the brazen push by Republicans to fill her seat ahead of the election is having a radicalizing effect on Democratic voters, who poured more than $100 million into the election last weekend, shattering records. Those voters are going to want something in return for their investment: a Democratic Party that fights back. But the Chamber’s going to have a few things it wants first. And for that, it’ll be leaning on swing-district Democrats. 

“Partisans on both sides wanna paint members of each party with the same brush. Every Democrat must be AOC, and conversely for Democrats, every Republican must be whatever bogeyman is the reverse. That’s not true,” Bradley said of the Bronx lawmaker the Chamber tried and failed to oust in a Democratic primary. “AOC did very poorly on the Chamber scorecard.” 

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