Is the Chamber of Commerce No Longer Bipartisan?

Once upon a time, Senate Democrats occasionally scored a U.S. chamber endorsement. Will they ever again?

Mitch McConnell, a Republican senator from Kentucky who serves as Minority Leader of the Senate, strikes a gavel to initiate day three of the Republican National Convention (RNC) at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2008. The RNC will run until Sept. 4.
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
March 31, 2014, 1 a.m.

“Our health care is a mess,” a TV nar­rat­or says. He is somber, but as cym­bals crash and trum­pets sound, his voice bright­ens im­me­di­ately. “But Sen­at­or Mary Landrieu is work­ing hard to fix it. She has fought for bet­ter health care for Louisi­ana seni­ors and more-af­ford­able pre­scrip­tion drugs. She un­der­stands that it should be doc­tors and pa­tients who make the de­cisions, not gov­ern­ment bur­eau­crats.”

It is six years old, but in all of 30 seconds, the spot and its un­ex­pec­ted spon­sor high­light much that has changed in the polit­ic­al world since then. The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce paid for the ad back­ing Landrieu in 2008, a time be­fore Obama­care, be­fore Landrieu’s mod­er­ate wing of the Demo­crat­ic Party fell in­to de­cline, and be­fore the cham­ber’s elect­or­al re­la­tion­ship with Demo­crats — a small but very real part of its polit­ic­al activ­ity — dwindled to a frac­tion of its former self.

The of­fi­cially non­par­tis­an or­gan­iz­a­tion has al­ways sup­por­ted more Re­pub­lic­ans than Demo­crats, but the mar­gin has grown in the past few elec­tions. And as the cham­ber warms up its polit­ic­al muscles for 2014, when the fate of former en­dorsees like Landrieu hangs in the bal­ance along with con­trol of the Sen­ate, many watch­ing the races won­der where the busi­ness group’s sup­port will go.

Even if Landrieu and some oth­er Demo­crats still hold ap­peal, sup­port­ing her would af­fect oth­er polit­ic­al plans, es­pe­cially cham­ber-en­dorsed Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell’s ef­fort to muster a Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity. “The No. 1 pri­or­ity of the U.S. cham­ber’s polit­ic­al pro­gram is to make Sen­at­or Mc­Con­nell the ma­jor­ity lead­er in the United States Sen­ate,” the cham­ber’s polit­ic­al dir­ect­or, Rob Eng­strom, told the Lex­ing­ton Her­ald-Lead­er in mid-March after his or­gan­iz­a­tion of­fi­cially backed the Ken­tucki­an.

In a more re­cent in­ter­view, Eng­strom said he meant it as a ges­ture of sup­port for Mc­Con­nell’s lead­er­ship and that the cham­ber’s “race-by-race, state-by-state” ap­proach re­mains in ef­fect. “Our cri­ter­ia nev­er in­cor­por­ate par­tis­an­ship,” he said. En­dorse­ments for Demo­crats like Landrieu are still a dis­tinct pos­sib­il­ity.

Don’t ex­pect to find out any­time soon. Eng­strom notes that the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment con­tin­ues to evolve rap­idly, es­pe­cially in the Sen­ate, where top-tier Re­pub­lic­an chal­lengers just star­ted cam­paigns in New Hamp­shire and Col­or­ado. Many of the cham­ber’s en­dorse­ment de­cisions are a ways off, apart from a few Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bents already fight­ing tough primar­ies.

“Our pri­or­ity is pro­tect­ing and grow­ing the pro-busi­ness ma­jor­ity in the House and mak­ing gains in the Sen­ate,” Eng­strom said. “We haven’t en­dorsed in a ma­jor­ity of Sen­ate races at this point. But par­tis­an­ship is not a factor in our en­dorse­ment pro­cess — peri­od. There is nev­er a day where any­one says, ‘Well, but this is what it means for the Sen­ate [ma­jor­ity].’ “

The en­dorse­ment stats show an or­gan­iz­a­tion lean­ing more Re­pub­lic­an lately. The cham­ber’s PAC con­tri­bu­tions to Demo­crats bounced up and down over the past dec­ade, but then they cratered in the last two elec­tions. Twenty con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats re­ceived cham­ber money in 2008, the year the group de­voted more than $1 mil­lion in out­side spend­ing to back­ing Landrieu, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics. The cham­ber en­dorsed three oth­er Sen­ate Demo­crats that year — Montana’s Max Baucus, Arkan­sas’s Mark Pry­or, and Vir­gin­ia’s Mark Warner.

In 2010, only six Demo­crats re­ceived PAC funds from the cham­ber of com­merce, and only five did in 2012, ac­cord­ing to CRP. And since the pas­sage of Obama­care and a raft of oth­er ma­jor Demo­crat­ic le­gis­la­tion in 2010, just one Sen­ate Demo­crat — West Vir­gin­ia’s Joe Manchin, who wasn’t in Con­gress for that vote — has won a cham­ber en­dorse­ment. There were none in 2012.

While that de­cline is not in dis­pute, the reas­ons for it are. “We’ve seen a lot of re­tire­ments,” Eng­strom says, and plenty of busi­ness-aligned Demo­crats were also de­feated in the 2010 GOP wave elec­tion. Most of the House Demo­crats the cham­ber sup­por­ted with out­side spend­ing in 2010 lost. Both polit­ic­al parties have be­come more ho­mo­gen­eous over the last 30 years, a trend for which 2010 serves as an in­ter­est­ing mark­er. In Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s vote rat­ings for that year, there was no over­lap between the parties in the Sen­ate; the most con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat was still more lib­er­al than the most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an. That pat­tern has con­tin­ued for three years.

The num­ber of cham­ber-ap­proved Demo­crats in the House could con­tin­ue shrink­ing. Just sev­en House Demo­crats qual­i­fied for the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s “Spir­it of En­ter­prise” awards this year by vot­ing the cham­ber’s way on at least 70 per­cent of its key votes in 2013. But three of them — Utah’s Jim Math­eson, North Car­o­lina’s Mike McIntyre, and New York’s Bill Owens — will re­tire at the end of this term. At least two of them will be suc­ceeded by Re­pub­lic­ans in the next Con­gress. (No Sen­ate Demo­crats qual­i­fied for the award in 2013, al­though Eng­strom says that doesn’t pre­clude the pos­sib­il­ity of en­dors­ing someone whose ca­reer vot­ing re­cord comes close to meet­ing the cham­ber’s stand­ard.)

A hand­ful of battle­ground-dis­trict Demo­crat­ic fresh­men came close to that 70 per­cent threshold in 2013, but plenty of their com­pat­ri­ots have long since de­cided it’s not worth try­ing to win the cham­ber’s sup­port. “Most Dems on Cap­it­ol Hill view them as in­creas­ingly par­tis­an,” said Jim Man­ley, a former aide to Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id who is now a com­mu­nic­a­tions ex­ec­ut­ive. “Most are still anxious to get sup­port from loc­al cham­bers,” Man­ley con­tin­ued, “but many have giv­en up on the na­tion­al or­gan­iz­a­tion, view­ing them as just pretty much part of the Re­pub­lic­an Party.”

That’s cer­tainly not a uni­ver­sal truth; the cham­ber’s mil­lions could yet play a role in some be­sieged Sen­ate Demo­crat’s struggle for reelec­tion. The next few months will tell wheth­er cham­ber-backed Demo­crats in the Sen­ate re­main en­dangered — or are already ex­tinct.

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