Chilling Election Message to Tea Party Is Business Goal

It’s all about protecting loyal friends and eliminating a few troublemakers.

That’s the business community’s goal in U.S. House elections amid a power struggle between the limited-government Tea Party movement and more traditional Republicans. While control of the Senate is November’s main prize, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is spending heavily in select House races, including one in Idaho where the Republican primary is tomorrow.

The nation’s largest business-lobbying group hasn’t said how much it will spend in the 2014 election, though it probably will exceed the $33.8 million in 2010. The Chamber has already aired television ads in more than 20 House and Senate races, and it’s expected to intervene in key districts to defend pro-business House Republicans against Tea Party opponents, or to help business-friendly challengers unseat Tea Party incumbents.

The aim is to send a chilling message to the Tea Party’s most zealous members, as well as bolster Republicans who have been loyal to House Speaker John Boehner and taken tough votes, such as those to raise the federal debt ceiling.

“It all started in the Alabama special late last year, when one candidate vowed to come to D.C. and shut the place down,” said Republican political strategist Scott Reed, who advises the Chamber of Commerce. “He lost and a strong conservative was elected.”

That race for an open House seat featured Dean Young, a self-described “Tea Party Republican” who questioned President Barack Obama’s birthplace and pledged to shut down the federal government over the Affordable Care Act. Defeating him in the primary was business-backed Bradley Byrne, the Chamber’s first victory since it pledged to be more active.

Aiding Boehner

With Republicans expected to retain their House majority in November’s elections, a reduced Tea Party caucus -- now numbering about three or four dozen members among the House’s 233 Republicans -- could give Boehner greater flexibility in 2015. It may decrease the intra-party fighting that’s plagued him since he became speaker in 2011 and help with passage of business priorities, including infrastructure spending.

“We are supporting candidates that are committed to the growth agenda, understand and support the importance of governing and can win in November,” Reed said.

Tomorrow’s primary in a district that includes Idaho’s Snake River Canyon offers one of this year’s purest tests in the intra-Republican fight. It pits eight-term Representative Mike Simpson, an Appropriations subcommittee chairman and Boehner ally, against Bryan Smith, a lawyer and political novice aligned with the Tea Party.

TARP Support

If Smith fails in Idaho, it will raise questions about where the Tea Party can score a major victory this year.

Simpson has cast several votes that angered the Tea Party, including support for a debt-ceiling increase last year and the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program bailout of financial markets in 2008. He also was one of just 16 House Republicans who in March 2012 supported a budget plan that would have raised revenue as well as cut spending. Still, his business-oriented backers are expressing confidence.

So far, the Tea Party has a mixed record in the 2014 primaries. The candidate most closely associated with the movement in North Carolina’s May 6 Republican U.S. Senate contest lost, while the one backed by national Tea Party groups won the Republican Senate nomination in Nebraska on May 13.

Michigan Races

The motivation for business groups to become more active in the Republican primaries stems in part from last year’s partial government shutdown, which was led by the House’s Tea Party caucus. Business leaders were stunned when some of those members resisted raising the government’s debt ceiling while discounting a default’s economic impact.

As in Idaho, intra-party challenges in some Michigan House districts are dividing Republicans before that state’s Aug. 5 primary.

In suburban Detroit, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and national chamber are backing Dave Trott, a wealthy lawyer and businessman who’s on the state chamber’s board of trustees, against Tea Party-aligned Representative Kerry Bentivolio, who was elected in 2012 after the incumbent withdrew following a ballot-signature scandal.

In the Grand Rapids area, Michigan billionaire and Amway Corp. co-founder Richard DeVos and his family are aiding two-term Representative Justin Amash, a libertarian and Tea Party favorite who opposed Boehner’s re-election as speaker in 2013 and is sometimes the lone “no” in lopsided House votes. Challenger Brian Ellis, a businessman, has backing from Dow Chemical Co. and the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, a Washington-based advocacy group whose members include a majority of Fortune 100 companies.

New York Race

In the south-central New Jersey district of retiring Republican Jon Runyan, Tea Party-aligned Steve Lonegan faces businessman Tom MacArthur in a June 3 primary. A Lonegan win may make it easier for Democrats to capture a district that backed Obama in the 2012 election.

A competitive Republican primary may also develop in upstate New York, where Representative Richard Hanna, part of a congressional “Problem Solvers” group of legislators promoting compromise on some issues, is opposed by Claudia Tenney, a state legislator claiming Tea Party ties. That primary is June 24.

In Idaho’s Simpson-Smith face-off, business groups and those aligned with the Tea Party are among the organizations that have combined to spend about $3 million, more there than in any other House primary to date, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.

1,900 Ads

The Chamber had run almost 1,900 ads promoting Simpson’s re-nomination through May 12, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG data.

“We are very confident going into the election that the voters will elect Mike Simpson,” said Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry. “Business groups getting involved and engaged in the process certainly turned the tide.”

Smith, 51, has pressed the case that Simpson, 63, doesn’t reflect the district’s “conservative values.”

Smith has drawn backing from Club for Growth, a Washington-based group that favors spending cuts, and Washington-based small-government advocates FreedomWorks and the Madison Project.

The threat to Simpson from outside groups awakened national and local business entities and Idaho companies with little or no history of getting involved in primary contests. LaBeau’s group formed a super political action committee, which allows it to raise and spend unlimited sums on campaign messages, as one line of defense for the incumbent.

Radio Silence

LaBeau said he’s basing his optimism about Simpson’s prospects on polling he has seen as well as a decline in Tea Party group advertising.

“Club for Growth has gone radio silent and they haven’t been active for nearly two weeks,” he said. “They are probably looking at the same data we are and they are spending their money elsewhere.”

Idaho’s Second District covers most of the state’s southern half and is home to a robust potato crop and one of the nation’s most concentrated Mormon populations.

It’s also one of the most concentrated Republican districts, so the primary’s winner will be heavily favored to win the seat. Mitt Romney, who has endorsed Simpson, won 64.5 percent of the vote there in the 2012 presidential election.

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