Primary challenges would require shift from Chamber

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce would have to upend its endorsement process in order to wage primary election challenges against Republicans who defied the group on raising the debt ceiling.

At least 117 of the House Republicans who voted against reopening the government and lifting the debt limit this month are on track to receive a coveted endorsement from the Chamber, according to an analysis by The Hill.

The Chamber’s endorsement process is in the spotlight after the debt-ceiling battle, during which business groups openly criticize Tea Party Republicans for their tactics.

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Business lobbyists have threatened to get involved in GOP primaries to try and elect lawmakers with a less ideological approach.

But in order for the Chamber to take that approach, it would have to decide that the debt-ceiling vote trumps all other considerations. Tom Donohue, the Chamber’s CEO and president, has signaled such a change is unlikely.

“We are not a single issue, or a single vote, organization,” Donohue told reporters on Monday at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

Donohue said the Chamber has engaged in primaries on a regular basis, but “we still have to see who’s running, we still have to see what happens in the next activity on the deficit. … We have a full process to doing this. We will pursue that process.”

Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s chief lobbyist, said the group’s endorsement process for 2014 is only in its early stages.

He said the Chamber relies on nine regional public affairs taskforces to make recommendations to the national public affairs task force, which in turn gives guidance to the Chamber’s board. Josten said the board would meet in late February or early March.

“The honest answer is sometime next year. … We’ll start in [the first quarter],” Josten said when asked about the Chamber’s political program. “We haven’t even had an endorsement meeting yet.”

The Chamber is one of the biggest players in national politics, and has the power to tip the scales in close races.

For the 2012 campaign cycle, the group spent more than $32 million on independent campaign expenditures, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

The Chamber endorses candidates who earn a 70 percent rating or higher on the Chamber’s legislative scorecard over their career on Capitol Hill. In 2012, the Chamber scored votes on a dozen House bills, including the highway bill, trade legislation and measures that would repeal parts of ObamaCare.

Some of the House’s most vocal GOP dissidents have scored well with the Chamber on its major votes. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) earned a 78 percent lifetime rating with the Chamber in 2012; Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) had an 82 percent score last year; Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) posted an 86 percent rating; and Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) tallied an 84 percent score. 

Further, 16 out of the 18 Senate Republicans who voted against reopening the government and raising the debt limit earned a 70 percent or higher lifetime score from the Chamber. 

The Chamber hasn’t released its 2013 scorecard yet, so freshman lawmakers new to Capitol Hill — such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), champion of the movement to defund ObamaCare — are not included in The Hill’s analysis.

While the Chamber said it would score against lawmakers who voted “no” on the budget deal, influential conservative groups are on the opposite side.

Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth both promised to punish lawmakers who voted “yes” on the debt deal on their own scorecards.

A spokesman for Heritage Action said the Chamber’s scorecards show that Tea Party Republicans are allies of business, even if they don’t always agree. 

“These guys are there fighting against ObamaCare, they’re there fighting against regulations, they’re there fighting against government spending, which is what the business community is exactly advocating for,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action. 

“The business community is going to be hard-pressed to find an alternative,” he added.

The Chamber has been in this position before. In the summer of 2011, the group was upset with Republicans who voted against an eleventh hour deal to raise the debt ceiling and avoid default.

A 2012 analysis by The Hill found that 65 out of the 66 House Republicans who voted against the 2011 debt-ceiling bill scored 70 percent or more with the Chamber for that year, keeping them in the group’s good graces.

Some business groups said they aren’t bluffing about getting involved in primaries.

David French, senior vice president for government relations for the National Retail Federation (NRF), said his group “will want to be helping our friends as early as possible and the action will be in the primaries.” 

That could mean the NRF shifting political action committee donations and boosting outreach to its members. 

“We are more likely to play in primaries to protect strong incumbents than attempt to elevate a bunch of challengers,” French said. “But I would say we are looking at all our options.”

Other business groups said they have no plans to change their endorsement process. 

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) didn’t take an official position on raising the debt ceiling but did say the drama added to uncertainty for small business. 

“We do not and will not oppose NFIB Guardian Award winners in primary or general elections. We will continue to support those candidates that support small business,” said Dan Danner, NFIB’s president and CEO, in a statement. 

Amash, Gohmert, Huelskamp and Schweikert all received the Guardian of Small Business award in 2012. 

A spokesman for the Club for Growthsaid he’s not surprised by business’s approach.

“That is what the establishment has always done. They will be protecting the incumbents,” said Barney Keller, the Club spokesman. “We will do what we always do, which is talk about the incumbent’s record.”