Chamber of Commerce laments 'hole in the middle' of US politics

It plans a huge financial push in 2016 to fill that gap with moderate, business-friendly Republicans.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor/File
US Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue, seen here at a 2013 Monitor Breakfast in Washington, said Friday that his organization will take on Democrats and tea party Republicans alike in 2016.

The United States Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobbying group, plans to play an aggressive role in the 2016 elections in a bid to maintain Republican control of the Senate and strengthen the ranks of business-friendly forces in Congress.

The group “will be very aggressive” in the battle to keep a Republican majority in the Senate, said Chamber president and CEO Thomas Donohue. Republicans currently have an eight seat advantage in the Senate but in the 2016 election will need to defend 24 seats versus just 10 for Democrats. 

Speaking at a Monitor-hosted breakfast for reporters, Mr. Donohue said the Chamber also would be active in the battle for 28 open seats in the House.

The Hill newspaper recently cited a Chamber official saying the group would commit as much as $100 million to the 2016 election, versus the estimated $70 million it spent on the 2014 election. While declining to confirm that estimate, Donohue said the Chamber would engage in “vigorous participation in the electoral process in 2016.” He added that the level of Chamber spending would depend on how much money the organization could raise. “We don’t keep it in the basement,” he quipped.

Donohue made clear that part of the Chamber’s election efforts will be aimed at countering the influence of hard-line legislators like members of the House Freedom Caucus, who have not supported the Chamber’s legislative agenda. That agenda includes immigration reform, reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, and finding a consistent funding source for spending on highways.

“When the tea party was first formed and they had four or five principles of sound economics, reasonable taxation … I mean who can be opposed to that?” Donohue said. “But it has gone far beyond that to the point that it has lost sight of what the fundamental reality is, and that is to govern in a way to create economic growth and to create jobs.”

Those on the other side of the debate see their battle with the Chamber as part of “the conflict between free markets and cronyism.” That is how David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute framed the issue in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Times. He added that “the long conflict between pro-market and pro-business forces may lead to some divisive Republican primaries this year.” 

Only some tea partyers will be vulnerable in primaries in the 2016 election, says Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s executive vice president for government affairs, who also spoke at the breakfast. “Some of the tea party members … I would have to say are fairly entrenched. There is not going to be a viable challenger that is going to succeed against them.  We are not going to put good money after a bad outcome.”

Donohue lamented the absence of moderates from both parties. “That hole in the middle is getting bigger as more and more people get very conservative and more people get very liberal,” he said. “We hope to fill that hole with the American people who need the government to act on [their] behalf.”

While focusing on the Chamber’s ongoing struggle with Republican conservatives, Donohue also took a verbal swipe at Democrats. “We are also concerned about the move to the far, far, far left and what that is doing to the Democratic Party.” Donohue said that the Chamber would keep looking for Democrats to support. “If we even get some opportunities there, we would think about that as well,” he said. 

While the Chamber typically does not take part in presidential politics, reporters asked Donohue about his view of businessman and presidential candidate Donald Trump. “If other candidates on both sides focus the message a little more clearly, I don’t think he will keep the lead he now has,” Donohue said.

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