The right's "goofball" test: Why the business lobby's new standard became "don't be an obvious idiot"

Chamber of Commerce's endorsees are winning races by talking tough on immigration. That's fine, the Chamber says!

Published May 22, 2014 5:48PM (EDT)

Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue.   (Shizuo Kambayashi)
Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue. (Shizuo Kambayashi)

It looks like we've settled on a consensus "winner" for GOP primary season: the Chamber of Commerce, America's friendly neighborhood big business lobby.

Here is the Washington Post calling them the "biggest winner in primaries" thus far. Here is eagled-eyed journalism hero Chris Cillizza, also of the Washington Post, declaring them the big winners from Tuesday. (As my colleague Simon Maloy notes, Cillizza also helpfully puts people who won their primaries in the "winners" column and people who lost their primaries in the "losers" column.)

Indeed, the Chamber is scoring a winning card in terms of the candidates it's endorsed and supported financially thus far. Kate Nocera at Buzzfeed runs through the proud list:

The Chamber has spent millions supporting the slate of candidates in recent months: Thom Tillis in North Carolina handily won his senate primary a few weeks ago, as did Rep. Tom Cotton in Arkansas on Tuesday. Two House members, Reps. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania — both once thought to be seriously at risk to a primary challenge — also emerged victorious. Rep. Jack Kingston secured a second-place spot in Georgia’s senate primary, sending him to a July runoff. And, of course, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell cruised to victory in Kentucky.

And the fun is only beginning, the Post writes: "The Chamber is likely to double its campaign spending this year from the 2010 mid-term elections outlay of  $34 million." Most recently, it's dropped another $100,000 into a PAC supporting Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran ahead of his June 3 primary.

And yet... what is the Chamber getting out of this? You'd expect a group that outlays somewhere near $70 million in an election season to get a certain amount of subservience from the candidates it supports. Perhaps, on, say, comprehensive immigration reform, passage of which is one of the Chamber's top legislative priorities. The organization's leader, Tom Donohue, has gone so far as to suggest/joke that the GOP shouldn't even bother fielding a presidential candidate in 2016 if they don't move on immigration.

But as we wrote last week, most of the Chamber's big endorsees this year -- Mitch McConnell, Jack Kingston, Thom Tillis, Thad Cochran -- have taken firm stances against any and all forms of AMNESTY!, such as the (arduous) path to citizenship included in the "Gang of Eight" bill that passed the Senate last year, in order to steer clear of their primary challengers.

So is there a point at which the Chamber would turn off the spigot? Not really, a spokesperson tells Buzzfeed:

“The Chamber is not a single issue organization and we aren’t going to agree with members or candidates 100% of the time … Immigration is certainly a top-tier issue for the Chamber but we’re also focused on policies that will create jobs and grow the economy such regulatory reform, trade, and energy development to name a few,” she said.

“This cycle we’re investing our resources in places where we can make a difference, and will put the Chamber brand behind candidates who believe in free enterprise, who have the courage to govern, and who can win in November,” she added. “A candidate’s electability and a willingness to govern are key metrics in our involvement.”

Translation: we don't care what they have to say to win, as long as they win, damnit. Scott Reed, the Chamber's political strategist, makes even more clear the organization's goal in this interview with Politico's Mike Allen:

ALLEN: As you talk to your Republican friends around town, at this moment, do they expect to take the Senate?

REED: No, I don't think they do. I think they're optimistic.

ALLEN: What could keep that from happening?

REED: Nominating a few goofball candidates in a couple of these Senate races that would cause them to fall apart.

And so we get right down to it: the Chamber is dropping tens of millions of dollars in this primary cycle just to ensure the party doesn't pick candidates who'll say something weird about rape or witchcraft during the general election. Say what you have to say about immigration and everything else the Chamber cares about! Just promise them you won't start any sentences with Well, here's my hot take on pregnancies caused by rape, and the Chamber will fill your coffers with all you need.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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