The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's new push to get involved in Republican primaries by defending incumbents against tea party challengers could actually make it easier to unseat them, according to the head of the influential Club for Growth.
Chris Chocola, the club's president, said the battle between the chamber, which he said advocates big business, and the rank-and-file free-market conservatives whom his group represents is well underway as Republicans try to field their candidates for the 2014 congressional elections.
The latest fight is shaping up in Idaho, where the chamber announced this week that it will run ads defending incumbent Rep. Michael K. Simpson, a Republican, against a challenge by lawyer Bryan Smith. The club has endorsed Mr. Smith.
"The chamber is pro-business and we are pro-free market, and that is the difference," Mr. Chocola told The Washington Times. "The opposing views are not new, but there seems to be some heightened interest from the establishment types to get involved in a race like Idaho. If that heightened interest continues there might be more chances that we end up on opposite sides."
The fissures within the Republican Party began at the end of the Bush administration but have intensified in the wake of the 2012 elections, with groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove's super PAC American Crossroads signaling that they plan to play a larger role in GOP primaries after watching tea party-backed candidates win the nomination but then lose to Democrats in general elections that analysts said were winnable. Examples are the 2010 U.S. Senate races in Nevada and Delaware.
Republican consultant Kevin Madden said the business community generally stayed on the sidelines in primary races, leaving the playing field open for the Club for Growth and other groups that have focused most of their attention on toppling establishment candidates.
"That has changed," Mr. Madden said. "I think it is going to be a more competitive advocacy environment. I don't see them going head to head, but I think these business organizations are going to be much more active in shaping the opinions of persuadable voters in races that matter."
Indeed, the chamber vows to be involved this election cycle and has left the door open to entering more primary races.
"We believe the stakes for the American economy and the business community are high, and we plan to vigorously participate in the 2014 elections," said Blair Latoff Holmes, a chamber spokeswoman. "Job No. 1 is protecting and expanding the pro-business majority in the House and gaining seats in the Senate."
"We will continue to evaluate our involvement in 2014 as we always have, measuring candidates records and positions on a broad range of issues important to the business community," she said.
But Mr. Chocola believes Republican voters are keen to break with what they see as big business interests, and having the chamber involved will help define the battle lines.
"We are happy to have people define the difference between the candidates and we think that, certainly in Idaho, they are helping," he said.
Other races where the chamber is taking sides include a House seat in Alabama, where the organization backed Bradley Byrne over tea party-backed Dean Young, calling Mr. Byrne the best candidate "to help grow our economy, create jobs and put our nation back on a sustainable fiscal path."
In West Virginia, the chamber is backing Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who is running for U.S. Senate, and Evan Jenkins, who is running for a U.S. House seat.
The business group threw its financial weight into the GOP primary in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing off against Matt Bevin.
In Idaho, the pro-Simpson ad warns that the free-enterprise system is under attack from House Democratic Leader "Nancy Pelosi and her allies who want more government, more spending and more regulations."
"Mike Simpson is fighting back, working for a balanced budget, reducing our dependence on foreign oil and fixing the Obamacare mess," the narrator says in the ad. "Mike Simpson, conservative, Idaho strong."
Responding to the ad, Mr. Chocola said he is not surprised that the chamber would back Mr. Simpson since both supported the $700 billion Wall Street bailout in 2008 and backed raising the nation's borrowing limit by trillions of dollars.
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