The move would be a major tactical shift for the group, which isn’t naming names yet.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is gearing up to challenge some House Republicans in primary elections, frustrated after much of its agenda has been stymied by a small pocket of conservative GOP lawmakers.
The influential and well-heeled business group is already eyeing several races, but the plans are still in their infancy and the targets have not yet been decided upon, according to more than a half dozen Republican sources on K Street and Capitol Hill.
The group’s apparent new willingness to engage in hand-to-hand political combat to take out sitting Republicans would represent a major shift for the business community, which has largely shied away from targeting sitting lawmakers
House GOP leadership sources say they’re unaware of and don’t support any attempt to target sitting GOP lawmakers. But the Chamber’s internal dialogue comes as House Republican leaders have struggled to maintain discipline in their ranks. Recent attempts to crack down on dissenting lawmakers have backfired.
The early discussions by top-level Chamber operatives like Rob Engstrom and Scott Reed reflect a broad consensus among companies with business before Congress that the political dynamic needs to change on Capitol Hill.
The theory is simple: The Chamber spent some $70 million in 2014, mostly to help Senate Republicans build their majority. But many of their legislative priorities — immigration reform, the renewal of the Export-Import Bank and a long-term highway bill — have been held up by a clutch of conservative lawmakers in the House.
Of course, taking out sitting Republican lawmakers is easier said than done. The Chamber would have to find willing candidates, spend piles of money to take out an incumbent and have the fortitude to stand up to a backlash from conservative activists that is sure to follow. Not an impossible task, but very challenging.
Chamber spokeswoman Blair Holmes said the group supports “pro-business candidates in every election, regardless of whether they are a Republican, Democrat, incumbent or challenger.”
“Last year, we were very aggressive in primaries and the general, and we intend to be again,” Holmes said. “It’s not a change in policy as much as it is a recommitment to last cycle’s successful approach.” She added that the candidate it backed won in 14 of the 15 races the Chamber got involved in last year.
International Franchise Association President and CEO Steve Caldeira, who is a member of the Chamber’s public affairs committee, said the group is going to stay “maniacally focused” on what made it very successful in the 2014 election cycle.
“The fact that there are still members of the Republican House that are obstructionist, isolationists that would be willing to shut down the government only reinforces that the Chamber and the business community, for that matter, will double down on this winning formula,” Caldeira said. “I believe they are going to continue to be involved early in candidate recruitment to find candidates that have the willingness to run, the courage to govern once they get to D.C., and hopefully work in a bipartisan manner to get things done.”
The Chamber has a proven track record in primaries this cycle, but attempting to take out a sitting member would be a new political strategy.
The group endorsed Darin LaHood in his successful primary campaign to replace Aaron Schock in Illinois. The group also endorsed and helped mobilize the grass roots and business community for Dan Donovan, who took the seat previously held by Rep. Michael Grimm in New York City.
The Chamber also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Rep. Bradley Byrne, who beat conservative Dean Young in a 2013 special election in Alabama to replace retired GOP Rep. Jo Bonner. And the group played a critical role backing Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who faced a strong challenge in a runoff from tea party favorite Chris McDaniel.
Some lawmakers who favor the Chamber trying to defeat sitting lawmakers warn that the group’s imprimatur could also hurt. Too much inside-the-Beltway support could backfire by becoming a rallying cry for the opponent, these sources say.
The National Republican Congressional Committee — the official party election arm — does not get involved in primary election battles. But there’s no question that some members of GOP leadership would like to rid the conference of some of its troublemakers.
The House Freedom Caucus, in particular, has been a thorn in the side of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) as they try to push their agenda across the floor. Many members of the Freedom Caucus also refuse to contribute to the NRCC.
Most GOP lawmakers declined to discuss the prospect of primary challenges, but one senior Republican, granted anonymity to talk about intraparty battles, said, “Generally, I would like our own team to stay together.”
“Division isn’t good for our team,” the Republican said. “But I wouldn’t tell people who to support.”