Why these elections matter for the US Chamber of Commerce


Hours before the polls closed in the latest congressional races, Scott Reed, the senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was looking way ahead to the future.

"The chamber has been around for 102 years, and it is going to be around for another 102 years," Reed said in an interview with CNBC.com. There was a time when the chamber's durability was without question, but over the last four years, amid the rise of anti-establishment conservatism, it has more often appeared to be a ship at sea.

In Tuesday's multistate primaries, however, the chamber appeared to get a shot in the armone it hopes will prove to all that it remains on top of the kingmaker's throne. Its most significant race of 2014 instantly became Georgia's Senate Republican primary, where the chamber has already spent $920,000 supporting Rep. Jack Kingston, whose second-place showing forced a runoff with business executive David Perdue.

The US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

After it became clear late Tuesday that Kingston had mustered enough votes to force the runoff, Rob Engstrom, the chamber's national political director, announced on Twitter that the organization would be "all in" for the incumbent.

In Idaho, Rep. Mike Simpson, who received $725,000 from the chamber defending against tea party challenger Bryan Smith, ran away with his race. The chamber also claimed feathers for its hat with the incumbent primary wins for Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell and Pennsylvania Rep. Bill Shuster, both of whom swatted away opposition from the populist right.

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Licking its wounds from an ineffectual 2012 election, the chamber, which represents more than 3 million businesses, pledged at the start of the cycle to take a more proactive and surgical effort at promoting business-friendly candidates, starting in the primaries. Thus far, according to the Center of Responsive Politics, the nation's largest business lobby has spent over $12.1 million this election cycle, with the expectation it could spend over $50 million come November.

Perhaps no election in recent history has been as important for the chamber's own sense of self.

Leading up to Tuesday's races, the chamber has been the subject of derision from the left and the right: Conservative talk radio host Mark Levin recently derided it as "the Chamber of Crony Capitalism," while Salon, the left-leaning website, questioned the organization's basic understanding of politics, noting that the chamber's push for comprehensive immigration reform has been snubbed by a Republican Party it now spends all of its money on.

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Chamber President Tom Donohue's half-joking remark last week—that if congressional Republicans end up blocking immigration legislation this year, the party should sit out the 2016 presidential election—was roundly mocked.

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"Maybe Donohue should do a little thinking of his own about who the voters are—and more importantly, about what immigration reforms are right for the country, not just special interests," wrote the Heritage Foundation's Genevieve Wood.

In his interview with CNBC.com, Reed pushed back against the criticism, arguing that Donohue's comments had set the tone for a joint letter, issued two days later by an array of conservatives, including the Tea Party Express, supporting immigration reform this year.

Reed said that despite its endorsements in the GOP primaries, and portrayals in the media, his organization is not at war with the tea party. Instead, he said, it is trying to slough out a "small number" of political opportunists it claims have stolen the tea party mantle.

"I don't know how much impact we will have on the media narrative, but the tea party is a movement made up of men and women that believe in freedom [and] the Constitution. ... It sounds like your local chamber of commerce," said Reed.

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Much of Reed's work of late has been in convincing media types of the chamber's renewed relevance. He traces a string of successes starting last fall, with its support of Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne's special election victory in the House.

"Tonight's results are just a step in the ultimate direction on hopefully growing the pro-business majority in the House and making some big gains in the Senate," Reed said late Tuesday. "The thing that is unique about the chamber is the day after the election, it is still in business. ... Unlike a lot of groups, we have the lights on the next morning."