Inside Big Business’s Plan to Beat the Tea Party

Frustrated trade groups think they may have a way to counteract the tea party’s influence: Act more like it.

Demonstrators with the Tea Party hold a sign directed at Speaker of the House John Boehner during a protest against the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeting of the Tea Party and similar groups during a rally called "Audit the IRS" outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, June 19, 2013. 
AFP/Getty Images
Alex Roarty
Oct. 17, 2013, 1 a.m.

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.

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