The right's new enemy No. 1: How the Chamber of Commerce became toxic

Tom Donohue's pro-business lobby has long been a top GOP ally. Here's how any association with it became poisonous

Published July 25, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

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

Rep. Kerry Bentivolio is a freshman House Republican who's facing a primary challenger on Aug. 5. Yesterday afternoon, he pulled what some might call a "campaign stunt." He returned, and made a big fuss about returning, a Chamber of Commerce "Spirit of Enterprise" award given by the top business lobby earlier this year. Not that it's much of an award -- the Chamber gave them to 205 members this year, and Bentivolio got one even though the Chamber has endorsed his primary opponent.

Bentivolio announced that "it is with great pride that I reject their award, and call on them to stand on the side of America, instead of on the side of China and corporate interests seeking to exploit people for profit." His chief of staff was even more efficient: "The US Chamber is in the pocket of Communist China and big companies seeking cheap labor in the United States." Bentivolio, according to the Washington Post, also "criticized the Chamber for supporting the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate last year."

Invocations of "Communist China" are a time-tested sign that a close election is down the home stretch. What's newer, though, is the toxicity of the Chamber of Commerce, one of the GOP's most traditionally loyal allies.

The Chamber's president and CEO, Tom Donohue, and its political director, Scott Reed, chose this election cycle to help "establishment" candidates against "Tea Party" insurgents -- or, more accurately, to usher the most electable GOP candidates through their primaries, lest any "goofballs" blow the party's chances of winning control of the Senate yet again. The effort has mostly worked, as the Chamber helped secure primary victories for its candidates in North Carolina, Kentucky, Iowa, South Carolina, Mississippi and elsewhere.

Until recently, it's been better to be the primary candidate with the Chamber's money, even though that comes with the risk of being labeled the "establishment" candidate and suffering a grass-roots backlash. But now it's starting to look like the costs are outweighing the benefits.

Earlier this week, the Chamber endorsee, Rep. Jack Kingston, suffered a mildly surprising defeat in the Georgia Senate runoff against businessman David Perdue. The Chamber had spent millions for ads backing Kingston's campaign. Kingston also had a lot of "Tea Party" support -- although neither of the two runoff candidates grass roots' top picks. And yet Perdue was able to pull it off. RedState's Erick Erickson, a Georgian and a Kingston supporter, argued that Perdue's final ad push to make Kingston "own" the Chamber endorsement put him over the top.

Every night for the last month on my show I’ve gotten the same concern on the phones, in emails, on twitter, on Facebook, etc. Kingston had the Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement. The Chamber of Commerce is bad on immigration. Therefore Kingston would be bad on immigration. In fact, his opponent and now the GOP nominee for the Senate in Georgia made a point to tell people that Kingston was the Chamber endorsed candidate. His closing argument in advertising made Kingston own the endorsement.

I tried pointing out that Kingston had consistently opposed amnesty, but it did not matter. After the Mississippi Senate primary, the conservative voters in Georgia were having none of it.

In the last two weeks, David Perdue made hay out of walking out of his meeting with the Chamber. He claimed the Chamber wanted him to vote with them 100% of the time. He would not.

That message resonated. Kingston was the career politician in the pocket of the Chamber and would pass amnesty.

But why are attacks against Chamber-endorsed candidates more effective now than they were earlier in primary season? Chalk it up to a couple of factors.

The first is something Erickson mentions: "After the Mississippi Senate primary, the conservative voters in Georgia were having none of it." The Mississippi Senate primary, in which Sen. Cochran and his backers expanded the electorate to win the nomination, was the Chamber's last big primary victory. And because of the way in which it was won -- "stolen!" -- it may, in fact, be the Chamber's last big primary victory.

And then there's immigration. If someone had suggested earlier this summer that the anti-amnesty fever among the Republican base would somehow run even hotter, it wouldn't have seemed possible. And yet here we are! The border crisis, and belief among the GOP rank-and-file that the promise of impending "amnesty" are the "magnet" that's drawing thousands of child migrants to the southern border, has made anything even approaching support for comprehensive immigration reform a complete no-go for Republican politicians. It was the border crisis that forced John Boehner to (officially) bury immigration reform legislation's prospects for the indefinite future. As comprehensive immigration reform's toxicity level -- again, somehow -- rose to previously unseen levels, so too did the Chamber's for supporting it.

The Chamber is fortunate that its right-wing vilification didn't reach this sort of status until late in the primary calendar, after it had already catalogued an impressive number of victories. But it may want to keep its opinions to itself, for a while, at least. Because if we're not there yet, we're nearing the bizarre reality where the Chamber's endorsement, of candidates or legislation, is a kiss of death -- among Republicans.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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