The Republican Party no longer listens to big business. America’s well-heeled chief executives don’t want to hear this, but after helplessly watching the lawmakers whose campaigns they funded close the government and drive the nation toward calamitous default, the business sector—along with its trade groups in Washington—is starting to admit it has lost its influence. Now, it’s searching for a plan.
“We’re getting outworked and outmuscled by a faction of ideological activism that we … don’t understand the way we used to understand the chamber-of-commerce Republican,” said David French, a senior vice president at the National Retail Federation. French and other business-sector lobbyists are not simply frustrated; they’re downright perplexed by a creature they view as extreme and impractical.
But private-sector interests—from the financial industry and retailers to defense contractors—see the path ahead as a minefield. Not only do the tea-party voters who sent the no-compromise Republicans to the House view national business groups like the NRF or the chamber as “establishment,” but supporting a challenger will backfire if the incumbent prevails.
So they’re talking about taking an approach with a smaller footprint, about regaining leverage in GOP circles by encouraging grassroots business activism. That means getting local (and politically moderate) business owners to pressure their tea-party lawmakers toward negotiation and compromise, and nudging these local (and more politically moderate) business leaders to run for office themselves. Anything, lobbyists and Republican strategists say, to create the impression that this is an organic development—that Washington and national business interests are keeping their heavy hands out of the districts. “It has to be more effectively run out of communities and districts, as opposed to out of Washington,” French said. “It’s incumbent on the business community to get more involved so that there’s a broader base of support than who might normally be considered establishment.”
The model for that kind of campaign movement is the tea party itself, whose largely organic groundswell in 2009 paved the way for the election of many of the House and Senate members now terrorizing the business community. “We’re getting these local chambers a lot more involved in the federation. They’re a lot more involved in the policy discussions,” said Scott Reed, senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “And they’re going to be making some decisions on politics.”
While this strategy might—might—help keep an “establishment” tag from dragging down a business-friendly candidate, there’s ample reason for skepticism. Activists, by their nature, are far more engaged in politics, and asking more-cautious, pragmatic business owners to suddenly rise up against ultraconservative lawmakers could be a stretch. (Besides, Washington Republicans certainly know that many locally focused business owners, angry about the failure of tax reform and irritated by new requirements under the Affordable Care Act, have some stake in supporting the tea party.)
That’s why some organizations are declining to delude themselves, even if their own plans to deal with the tea party amount to little more than white-board brainstorming. Some Republican operatives have suggested funneling money into super PACs dedicated to backing only business-friendly Republicans, with the aim of disguising the money’s origin. That might prevent the kind of tea-party-versus-establishment conflict that business groups would be destined to lose. “You go find a willing billionaire and you’re off to the races,” said one former political strategist with a big-business trade group.
Indeed, money might ultimately be the only effective lever for many business groups—that is, if they spend it in a more targeted fashion and avoid the temptation, fueled by a season of fiscal irritation, to simply stop contributing in large quantities to the GOP umbrella groups that need them: the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. “I would hate to be [NRCC Chairman] Greg Walden or any of those people over there trying to raise money,” said the former big-business operative. The operative added that he’s “already circled the day of Nov. 15 on the calendar,” when the NRCC’s October donations are due to be reported. Echoed French, “One likely by-product of this conversation is for donors in business circles to just throw up their hands and give up and walk away.”
An NRCC aide rejects the idea that the campaign committees will be punished. “While [business interests] have every right to be frustrated with extreme wings of both parties, I think at end of the day, they’ll come home to House Republicans, because we are the last line of defense when it comes to blocking regulations and policies that will severely impact their bottom line,” the aide said. Sure, business leaders know their quarrels are with a just few dozen of the most conservative lawmakers of Congress. They also still prefer the GOP’s antitax, antiregulation agenda to the Democrats’ philosophy.
But the business sector is operating with a fresh sense of urgency. So while some operatives think hard-line conservatives will feel pressure only after true and tragic calamity actually ensues (“It’s about their constituents starting to feel a significant amount of economic pain as a result of their actions,” one business lobbyist said), corporations are realizing they don’t have the luxury, or the stomach, to wait those voters out.