Chamber looks to support Democratic allies in 2020

Chamber looks to support Democratic allies in 2020
© Greg Nash

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week endorsed Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and left the door open to supporting other Democrats in the 2020 election, in a shift for the nation’s most influential pro-business lobby.

The group, historically seen as Republican-leaning, has taken steps to improve its ties with Democrats. Scott Reed, the Chamber’s chief political strategist, told The Hill that the advocacy group is “putting our money where our mouth is,” by backing candidates who supported the group’s agenda regardless of party. 

The Chamber has endorsed Democrats in the past. In 2018, for example, the group backed Rep. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerCentrist House group offers bipartisan COVID-19 relief deal Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers introduce resolution condemning QAnon | US Cyber Command leader vows to 'defend forward' in protecting nation from cyberattacks House Democrats request briefing on seizure of terrorist cryptocurrency assets MORE (D-N.J.). But the last time the Chamber spent money on a Democratic candidate was in 2014 — for Rep. Scott PetersScott H. PetersModerate Democrats push leadership to pull marijuana legislation One doctor's thoughts on a hopeful future Pelosi axes idea of Saturday vote on additional COVID relief MORE (D-Calif.).

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For Cuellar, the group held an endorsement event for the seven-term congressman in Laredo, Texas, and put out a six-figure TV advertisement in Spanish about his work to get the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) over the finish line. It spent $200,000 on TV ads mentioning Cuellar, Texas Tribune reported.

Cuellar is facing a tough primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros, who is endorsed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez to voters: Tell McConnell 'he is playing with fire' with Ginsburg's seat Lawmakers fear voter backlash over failure to reach COVID-19 relief deal Why Democrats must confront extreme left wing incitement to violence MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersNYT editorial board remembers Ginsburg: She 'will forever have two legacies' Two GOP governors urge Republicans to hold off on Supreme Court nominee Sanders knocks McConnell: He's going against Ginsburg's 'dying wishes' MORE (I-Vt.).

Asked if they will be supporting other Democrats, Chamber executives said they are still working out potential endorsements but that another Democratic candidate had met with the group this week.

The courting of Democratic allies comes as the Chamber has found itself on the outs with President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Trump dismisses climate change role in fires, says Newsom needs to manage forest better Jimmy Kimmel hits Trump for rallies while hosting Emmy Awards MORE and his administration, over issues such as tariffs and immigration policy.

USMCA was one of the few areas which saw House Democrats, the White House and the Chamber on the same page. 

Looking for new allies, the Chamber met with a number of Democratic freshmen after their party took the House in the 2018 midterms.

In 2019, Chamber CEO Tom Donohue announced a new rating system that would focus on bipartisan achievements when the Chamber endorses lawmakers. “Lawmakers should be rewarded for reaching across the aisle  — not punished,” Donohue said at the time.

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He stressed that again at his annual State of American Business address in January. 

“We need to encourage and support lawmakers who are committed to getting things done and help grow their ranks — on Capitol Hill and in the upcoming elections,” Donohue said.

How the Chamber manages these endorsements in 2020 will be closely watched.

“They need to be able to credibly claim that they’re bipartisan,” said Tim LaPira, a political scientist at James Madison University. 

“In the past 20 years [they] have been trending more and more toward the GOP but they can’t exclusively support the GOP,” he added. “They’re going to overwhelming support Republicans but they’re going to have to strategically and selectively support some Democrats.”

LaPira said an ideal Democratic candidate for the Chamber would be a centrist lawmaker who deals with appropriations, is pro-trade and pro-immigration.

“We’re describing Henry Cuellar down to a tee,” he said.

To be sure, the Chamber is still mostly backing Republicans this cycle, as it has in the past.

The group has endorsed Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMcConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Most Americans think winner of election should pick next Supreme Court justice: poll Murkowski: Supreme Court nominee should not be taken up before election MORE (R-Maine), Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyMcConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Will Republicans' rank hypocrisy hinder their rush to replace Ginsburg? Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE (R-Ariz.), and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisMcConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight Will Republicans' rank hypocrisy hinder their rush to replace Ginsburg? Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE (R-N.C.), some of the most vulnerable Republicans in the upper chamber this cycle. 

So far, it has put out two ads for Collins and for McSally, both of which focus on issues like jobs or trade. The vast majority of the Chamber’s spending this cycle will be for races in the Senate, which Republicans are battling to hold.

But Cuellar could be the first of more Democrats. 

To secure the endorsement, Cuellar attended the Chamber’s Political Advocacy Committee meeting in January, according to the Chamber. The committee then voted on endorsing him for his primary.   

Cuellar bucked his party on a number of bills important to the Chamber. He was one of seven Democrats who voted “no” on the Protecting the Right to Organize Act on Feb. 6, a major reform of labor laws that businesses said would make it easier for unions to organize. Business groups, including the Chamber, lobbied against the bill, which is not expected to pass the GOP Senate.

Cisneros’s campaign for its part has hit Cuellar over the support he is taking from business-friendly groups, including LIBRA Action — part of Americans for Prosperity — which reportedly spent $34,000 to help Cuellar.

“Congressman Cuellar siding with his big corporate donors over working people in our district once again shows why he’s Trump’s favorite Democrat,” Cisneros said in a statement about the Chamber’s endorsement, pointing to his vote against House Democrats’ labor bill.

And her campaign hit at the Chamber.

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the largest corporate lobbyist in the world,” Danny Diaz, Cisneros’s campaign manager, said in a press release. “They’ve spent millions of dollars to defeat Democrats across Texas and the country.”

The Chamber’s help for Cuellar, though, comes at a crucial time in his reelection bid. Cisneros has proven to be a tough opponent for Cuellar, who was recruited to primary him by the Justice Democrats, a progressive group. Cuellar has had a rocky relationship with his party at times. He won election to Congress by challenging then-Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas), the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at the time. Cuellar is also one of a handful of anti-abortion rights Democrats.

Democratic leaders are taking the primary seriously. On Saturday, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiAs families deal with coronavirus, new federal dollars should follow the student Sunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates Hypocrisy rules on both sides over replacing Justice Ginsburg MORE (D-Calif.), threw her support behind Cuellar.

“Congressman Cuellar is a pro-business, Blue Dog Democrat while his opponent is a job-killing socialist,” Colin Strother, Cuellar campaign spokesman, told The Hill. “That is why he is supported by pro-business groups … his opponent is supported by socialist organizations that want to kill 108,000 oil and gas jobs in his region.”

Cuellar is in a safe Democratic district. When asked about the Chamber endorsing centrist Democrats, Chris Pack, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, downplayed the move. “I guess business groups don’t like socialists — go figure!” Pack said. 

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LaPira said it was unlikely the endorsements would rattle Republicans.

“I think the Republican Party leaders, they’re going to fully understand that the Chamber’s going to do this,” LaPira said. “Just like labor unions are going to occasionally support a Republican.”

The Chamber this year has been quick to jump into the 2020 fray. Many trade associations don’t endorse candidates or only give them money from their PACs, but the Chamber is already supporting candidates.

“Our strategy is spending earlier than everybody else and setting the terms for the debates,” Reed said. 

“We are focused on supporting men and women with real-world business and leadership experience with the intent to bring fresh ideas to build upon recent, pro-growth successes,” added Ashlee Rich Stephenson, Chamber vice president and national political director.

The Chamber is rallying other business groups as well, with the American Bankers Association (ABA) also endorsing Cuellar.

“The left has been doing this for years with unions, we’re now catching up and having a consistent message,” Reed said on building coalitions to back pro-business candidates.

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ABA spent on one ad blitz for Cuellar in partnership with the Texas Bankers Association. The 30-second spot notes his support for bills to help families get home loans or to start small businesses.

“We are proud to partner with Texas bankers to shine a spotlight on Henry Cuellar’s strong support of legislation that is critically important to banks and their communities,” ABA president and CEO Rob Nichols said in the endorsement.

Whether the Chamber finds other Democrats it is willing to back remains to be seen. But Reed said the group was eager to aid its allies.

“When Chamber candidates ask for help, we’re going to give them extra assistance,” he said. 

This story was updated at 11:19 a.m.