The current conventional wisdom floating around the media, seemingly extrapolated largely from quotes to the press from businessmen and their surrogates, is that “Big Business [is] trying to unseat the Tea Party.” However, there’s no evidence that this is happening.
Remember the first time Tea Party House Republicans held a gun to the US economy, refusing to pay America’s debts unless Democrats accepted a wide-ranging set of demands, and as a result, business leaders promised to spend big to defeat hostage-taking radicals?
“We’ll get rid of you,” said Tom Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce to the Tea Party lawmakers.
That was 2011, during the first debt ceiling stand-off. And the following election year, none of the threats materialized.
In 2012, the Chamber ended up spending millions in undisclosed business funds to help elect Todd Akin, Ann Marie Buerkle, Dean Heller, Connie Mack, Denny Rehberg and other lawmakers who supported taking the debt ceiling hostage. Political action committees for the largest corporate interests in America, including General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Deloitte, the American Bankers Association and Honeywell, gave several million in direct donations to Tea Party hostage-takers, helping many survive the election last year and repeat their antics this year.
Now, it seems big business is bluffing again and advancing a false narrative that they are flexing their political muscle against the Tea Party. The storyline, boosted by ThinkProgress, Bloomberg, National Journal and the Associated Press, among others, is that corporate America has lost influence with the GOP and is helping to defeat lawmakers who threatened to push America into default.
So far, the spin makes the business community appear moderate, though there is nothing backing it up. Despite making statements and sending letters voicing their concern, the Chamber has failed to spend a single penny in advocacy against the Tea Party hostage-takers. It hasn’t rescinded any of its so-called “Free Enterprise Awards,” either. (The award has been given to many Tea Party lawmakers, including repeat hostage-takers like Representatives Steve Scalise (R-LA), Tom Graves (R-GA), and Morgan Griffith (R-VA), who encouraged a debt default by comparing it to a second American Revolution.)
Contrast this with how the Chamber behaved in 2009, when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives. By November of that year, twelve months before the midterms, the Chamber launched an onslaught of attack advertisements against House Democrats who did not vote their way, after months of issue ads in targeted districts.
Then, after helping the Tea Party seize the House and several governors’ mansions during the midterms, business groups pumped funds into an effort to gerrymander the Tea Party into permanent rule. CitiGroup and the US Chamber—both of which now complain about flirting dangerously close to default—provided huge donations to the RSLC, the political committee devoted to gerrymandering seats to the House GOP and Tea Party caucus’ advantage.
Will we see a reversal? Next year, there are a handful of high-profile primary races in which establishment Republicans are challenging incumbents, but none of them are proof that there is a concerted effort by business to drive out the Tea Party. Representative Justin Amash (R-MI) is being challenged on social issues and for his outspoken views on foreign policy, not on the debt ceiling. Representative Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) has been a target for a primary well before his vote to shut down the government, largely because he is seen as a political novice who doesn’t know how to raise money. Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) is facing an establishment challenge, once again, but because he is an outsider within the party for his persistent votes to regulate Wall Street and crack down on political corruption.
Finally, Representative Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) may lose his seat because of revelations that he pressured a patient with whom he was having an affair to seek an abortion—not for his vote over the debt ceiling.
In fact, in terms of primary challenges, it looks like well-heeled GOP interest groups will successfully oust Boehner Republicans to make way for additional Tea Party–style politicians. Politico reports that Republican Representatives Mike Simpson (R-ID), Pete Sessions (R-TX), Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Bill Shuster (R-PA) face challenges from the right next year. Challengers in these races are calling for more debt ceiling hostage-taking. The Club for Growth, a pro-government shut down group funded largely by wealthy investors and businessmen, is leading the charge.
Here’s the reality: the large political action committee and trade associations that control much of corporate America’s campaign spending decisions will help the Tea Party and House GOP win re-election next year.
Big business political operatives lean Republican, and will stick with the party even if Republicans disrupt the economy for political reasons. Over the years, congressional Republicans waged a multifaceted effort to place partisans in their party in charge of the most influential lobby groups within the Beltway.
In the nineties, a mid-career John Boenher helped oust US Chamber president Richard Lesher—a moderate who sided with Democrats at times—to pave the way for Tom Donohue, a known GOP loyalist. During the George W. Bush era, Rick Santorum, Tom DeLay, Grover Norquist, Ed Gillespie and others created the “K Street Project” to install GOP operatives into key business lobbying positions.
Tom Perriello, a former one-term House Democrat from Virginia who was one of the first to be targeted by the US Chamber in attack ads aired a year before his re-election, says business leaders are too cozy with the GOP. Now the leader of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, he tells me that he’s “disappointed but not particularly surprised in the business community’s failure to force the Republicans to act reasonably on the CR, default or immigration, for that matter.… there seems to remain a broad cultural and political aversion [among lobbyists] to do anything that seems to help the Democrats and President Obama in particular.”
Still, Perriello thinks a change could be on the horizon. Many traditionally Republican business groups in Virginia have sat out the gubernatorial race, partially out of disgust for Ken Cuccinelli’s Tea Party extremism. Even GOP corporate lobbyists like John Feehery have been vocal in calling for the business community to do more to challenge the Tea Party.
But right now, it’s too early to say if 2014 will be any different than the last few congressional elections. The evidence suggests in fact that radicals are gaining ground within the GOP while facing little accountability. When it comes to taking on the Tea Party, business leaders have a lot of bark and no bite.
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