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Chamber of Commerce readies a risky bet

The powerful business lobby isn't just rallying behind GOP allies; the Chamber is also planning mischievous investments in Democratic primaries.
Thomas J. Donohue, President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, answers questions after speaking at his annual \"State of American Business\" address at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington
Thomas J. Donohue, President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, answers questions after speaking at his annual \"State of American Business\" address at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington
The next national elections are still 444 days away, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is already hard at work, intervening in all kinds of races. For the most part, the influential business lobby is directing campaign resources to vulnerable allies, but the Chamber's plans for the cycle actually go much further.
Politico reported last month that the Chamber, "frustrated after much of its agenda has been stymied by a small pocket of conservative GOP lawmakers," is gearing up to take on some congressional Republicans in primaries. The message to allies on Capitol Hill wasn't subtle: the more Republicans block policy priorities important to Big Business, the more likely the Chamber will back those lawmakers' intra-party rivals.
Conversely, the Associated Press reported yesterday that the Chamber of Commerce is also taking an unexpected interest in Democratic primaries.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is weighing a major role in Democratic primaries in key congressional races nationally, which could produce weakened nominees who would be more easily defeated by Republicans, according to an internal memo obtained on Thursday by the Associated Press. The unorthodox strategy could heighten Democratic upheaval in states like Florida and Pennsylvania where the party is struggling to unite around a nominee as it fights to retake the Senate -- and that appears to be precisely the Chamber's goal.

According to the AP's report, the Chamber's internal memo "lists nine races -- four for the Senate and five for the House of Representatives -- in which it is considering getting involved in the Democratic primaries to benefit Republican candidates."
The document was reportedly written by the Chamber's "top two political officials," Rob Engstrom and Scott Reed, and sent to "members of the Chamber's Public Affairs Committee."
The strategy would work roughly as you'd expect: the business lobby would look for key races that Democrats are expected to win, throw support to those Democrats' less-electable primary opponents, and set up a general election in which Republicans stand a better chance of success.
In Illinois, for example, Sen. Mark Kirk (R) appears to be quite vulnerable to a challenge from Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D). Under the Chamber's plan, the group would intervene in support of Duckworth's Democratic rival, former Chicago Urban League leader Andrea Zopp, assuming that Kirk, who trails Duckworth in statewide polls, would face a far easier race against Zopp.
In Ohio, Sen. Rob Portman (R) faces a tough race from former Gov. Ted Strickland (D), so the Chamber would rally behind Strickland's rival, Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld (D).
It's basic, old fashioned electoral mischief. The Chamber wouldn't support candidates like Zopp and Sittenfeld because the group agrees with them; it would support these candidates because the lobbying organization sees them as easy to beat.
There is, of course, the very real possibility that Democratic primary voters will see through the charade. It's also possible that folks like Zopp and Sittenfeld wouldn't be quite as weak as conservatives assume.
But the angle that's bugging me is the Chamber's broader judgment.
Sure, Democrats are going to clash with Big Business on issues like the minimum wage, pay equity for women, and protecting the environment. But as the Chamber of Commerce has probably noticed, congressional Republicans are incredibly unreliable as partisan allies go.
The Chamber invested tens of millions of dollars to get a Republican Congress, and for its trouble, GOP lawmakers have ignored the Chamber on immigration, the Export-Import Bank, and infrastructure investments.
The Chamber urged Republicans not to hold the debt ceiling hostage in 2011, and GOP leaders ignored their ostensible allies. The Chamber pressed Republicans not to shut down the government in 2013, and GOP lawmakers couldn't have cared less.
As we've discussed before, the conventional wisdom is that congressional Republicans are "business friendly." The GOP is made up of "natural allies" of business lobbying groups because Republicans have a reputation for prioritizing what's best for the private sector.
And while there's obviously some truth to that, there's no denying the fact that the Chamber of Commerce and its lobbyists have some fairly specific priorities, many of which are being neglected, ignored, or deliberately rejected by the Republican majority the organization helped elect.
If the Chamber assumes far-right lawmakers will have less influence if Republicans win more seats in 2016, the group is apparently poised to place a bad bet.