Recalling the encounter to CNN last week, Tenney said she asked Sullivan, “Why did you endorse someone who is against all the policies, who’s, like, voted for everything in New York that really was not really good for business, but was good for the trial bar, and it exposed many of us to liability?”
Sullivan handled it graciously, Tenney said, and didn’t seem surprised by the round of complaints. “He said ‘I kind of knew I was gonna get this,'” she said of the February meeting of Republican members of the House Small Business Committee.
For the Chamber, the dustup was another sobering reminder that their longtime ally, the Republican Party, is growing more populist by the year — and many of its members now view the business groups with suspicion. For years there was cooperation between the party and the Chamber, blocking the Democratic policy agenda and electing Republicans during the Obama years. (The US Chamber is a lobbying organization funded by its members, from large corporations like 3M and Microsoft to small businesses. It is distinct from state and local chambers, some of which are members of the national Chamber).
For that, many Republicans privately argue that the one-time powerful lobby has lost its focus and can no longer be trusted as a pillar of the GOP coalition. The Chamber, meanwhile, insists its purpose — advocacy for its members and for free enterprise — hasn’t changed, even if the Republican Party has.
“The Chamber’s north star is and always has been to create American jobs, stimulate economic growth, and help businesses work on solving the nation’s most important challenges,” said a spokesman in a statement provided for this story. “The Chamber is committed to supporting pro-free enterprise, pro-business, pro-governing members of Congress from any party.”
The fallout has been felt between the GOP leaders of Congress — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — who have scoffed at their courtship of Democrats and questioned the organization’s focus on issues in which they once aligned.
And when it comes to electoral politics, GOP leaders see a sharp drop off from just six years ago when the Chamber was a dominant force in key races to last year when they endorsed vulnerable House Democrats and were a minor player in pivotal Senate races.
“Whatever they’re doing — we’re not seeing it in a visible way in terms of the playing field when it comes to political campaigns,” said Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who faces reelection next year and serves as minority whip. “I know there was a time when they were really active. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.”
“The Chamber of Commerce filed for divorce years ago, and the GOP has finally accepted it,” said Terry Schilling, the executive director of the American Principles Project, a social conservative advocacy group.
And privately, the assessment is even more harsh.
“The National Chamber of Commerce effectively endorsed Nancy Pelosi for speaker in 2020,” a senior House GOP aide said.
But the general sense of alienation reflects the widening gulf between the business community and other parts of the Republican Party’s coalition.
Salvaging the relationship
Yet the Chamber’s own efforts to expand its influence and reflect the broader political views of its member companies on issues like immigration have further alienated the group from Republican lawmakers. The beginnings of the break-up had already begun near the end of former Chamber CEO Tom Donohue’s tenure and have accelerated with the tapping of Suzanne Clark, the first woman to head the business lobby, as his replacement.
Republicans say Donohue’s criticisms of Trump’s immigration and trade policies and the Chamber’s cozying up with some Democrats were damaging. The Chamber’s endorsements for those freshman Democrats last year — eight of which lost narrow races — sparked more outrage among Republicans.
Many GOP House and Senate campaigns are no longer courting the Chamber’s endorsement, a move that began before the 2020 election, after McCarthy said he did not want the group’s support “because they have sold out.”
Some Washington Republicans say other personnel changes at the Chamber around the time of Clark’s elevation to CEO are cause for concern — and reflect the lack of relationships that exist now between the business lobby and top GOP lawmakers.
Caroline Harris, the Chamber’s top tax lobbyist who was a major force behind the Republican-backed tax overhaul in 2017, left the organization after 14 years, according to an email obtained by CNN. This comes months after the Chamber’s longtime political director, Republican strategist Scott Reed, departed after his contract was terminated.
In a statement at the time of his departure, the Chamber claimed Reed had “repeatedly breached confidentiality, distorted facts for his own benefit, withheld information from Chamber leadership and leaked internal information to the press,” prompting his dismissal.
Reed declined to comment for this story.
A history of cooperation
The flashpoint between the Republican Party and the business community over voting rights is only the latest example of a growing rift since the heyday of the Barack Obama era, when the US Chamber helped sink progressive legislation to boost unions and tackle climate change, pushed back against the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and aided the party’s takeover of the Senate in 2014.
The Chamber has seen its clout on Capitol Hill tested even under Republican administrations, including in the second term of George W. Bush, when the President failed to quell his rightward flank in failing to pass a major bill granting legal status and a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants.
“Plainly, they were hedging their bets,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of Senate GOP leadership, said of the chamber’s endorsements of Democrats. “But you know I don’t think they’re going to like a 28% tax rate and have all their members who make over $400,000 a year paying a lot more taxes. I guess, it just seems like it’s not very well thought through.”
Business lobby now a bit player in races
And some Republican strategists say the party no longer needs its traditional allies in the business community.
But the Chamber then decided to take a step back from elections, even as it remained the biggest business lobbying group. In 2020, it spent about $5.7 million — the 67th of 657 outside spenders.
A GOP strategist told CNN that the latest fundraising numbers show that Republicans “don’t need to rely on businesses” to bankroll their campaigns.
In the Biden era, the Chamber, Business Roundtable and major corporations have made moves further distancing themselves from Republicans out of power in Washington.
CNN’s Tara Subramaniam contributed to this report.