Ben Tarbutton has never worked so hard in a primary election to urge his company’s employees to vote early or educate them on a candidate’s record.
He’s doing both with gusto this year as part of a national effort by the business community to block the nominations of Tea Party-aligned contenders in Republican primaries.
Tarbutton, vice president at a railroad company in Sandersville, Georgia, is encouraging his company’s 30 workers to cast ballots, and informing them that he supports U.S. Representative Jack Kingston, one of seven Republican candidates competing in today’s U.S. Senate primary.
“If you don’t have the right candidate out of the primary, that’s going to hamper your efforts in the general,” he said, in a reference to the November election.
Tarbutton’s get-out-the-vote push in Georgia is being mirrored inside companies in Kentucky, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Arkansas and Oregon, all states with congressional primaries tonight. Today’s contests are widely viewed as the pinnacle of an intraparty power struggle between groups aligned with the limited-government Tea Party and a business coalition led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The aim of the corporate coalition is to avoid the nomination of untested candidates who could hurt Republican chances of taking control of the Senate away from the Democrats in November, as happened in the 2010 and 2012 elections. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to retake the chamber.
It’s also a mission to boost candidates who are better steeped in and more supportive of the business community’s agenda, including ensuring that the nation doesn’t default on its debt.
From Kentucky construction companies helping employees take on volunteer campaign jobs to company-branded websites in Idaho that allow workers to look at side-by-side comparisons of candidates on issues important to their employers, businesses are introducing a variety of political programs to engage their workers in typically low-turnout primary races.
“Employers can be the most credible source of information for their employees,” said Greg Casey, president and chief executive officer of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, a Washington-based advocacy group whose members include a majority of Fortune 100 companies. “We grind this down to granular detail and provide the tools and the calendar of the messages to be sent.”
Commonly known as BIPAC, Casey’s group has already held training sessions for employers in states with some of this year’s highest-profile Senate races, including North Carolina, Arkansas, Iowa and Alaska.
The group’s work could pay dividends today for U.S. Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho, an Appropriations subcommittee chairman who faces a primary challenge from Bryan Smith, a lawyer backed by the Tea Party movement.
The threat to Simpson, an ally of House Speaker John Boehner, awoke local business groups and Idaho companies with little or no history of getting involved in primaries. The U.S. Chamber, the nation’s largest business trade group, also listed his protection as one of its top 2014 election goals.
In mid-January, BIPAC held a meeting in Idaho for employers interested in engaging in Simpson’s primary race. An informal survey of the room determined that employers in attendance had access to 94,000 potential voters, or probably about 62,000 Republicans, said Jason Langsner, a BIPAC spokesman.
BIPAC then helped develop customized, industry-specific issue alerts and candidate comparisons and create voter registration reminders. It also worked with companies to create co-branded websites for employees with the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry.
“You never tell them how to vote, but you tell them where the candidates are on the issues that matter to their employer,” Casey said.
The Nashville-based National Federation of Independent Business is blasting e-mails out to members in states with primaries today. The group, the largest advocate for small businesses, has 350,000 members.
“A lot of these elections are won or lost in the primary,” said Lisa Goeas, the NFIB’s vice president of political and grassroots activity. “A lot of our members, being small business owners, are busy and don’t follow politics. It’s our goal to be sure they know who the candidates are and where they stand.”
The NFIB endorsed in some primaries, including the Kentucky Senate race and Idaho House contest, and hosted candidate forums in states where multiple pro-business candidate are running. Video from the Georgia Senate primary forum were to be e-mailed to NFIB’s 7,300 members in the state ahead of today’s voting.
The Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers, the nation’s largest manufacturing trade group, sent staff members to states with key races to train employers on mobilizing workers.
“The best way to provide support is to provide additional ground support,” said Ned Monroe, the senior vice president for external relations at the manufacturers association. “You can’t just help the individual candidate financially. We have to have an education component.”
The association’s staff members meet with member companies to share information about the candidates’ voting records and public statements.
In Kentucky, where the group has about 2,500 member-company facilities, three representatives huddled with as many as 10 businesses a day over the course of a week to highlight U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell’s 94 percent voting record with NAM.
McConnell, the senate’s Republican leader, is expected to win his primary today before facing a stronger challenge in November from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.
The communications are heavily regulated, Monroe said, adding that the resources his trade group provides include “legally approved” information about candidates.
Ron Wolf, director of external relations at the Kentucky chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, said he’s been fielding several calls a day from members who want to help with McConnell’s re-election effort.
“There’s been more focus on this this year,” Wolf said.
Wolf’s group, which represents roughly 700 Kentucky contractors, doesn’t have a federal political action committee that makes donations to candidates. Even so, individual members have hosted fundraisers and volunteered to do get-out-the-vote drives with the campaign, Wolf said.
“McConnell has been good for our industry, and our folks like to say thank you,” he said.