How the Chamber of Commerce learned to love Susie Lee and House Democrats

By: - October 9, 2020 5:45 am
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Susie Lee after winning her race against Republican candidate Danny Tarkanian at the Nevada Democratic Party’s election results party in 2018 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives two years ago by winning competitive districts like the Nevada seat of Rep. Susie Lee and Michigan’s Haley Stevens.

Lee and Haley
Reps. Susie Lee and Haley Stevens in Education and Labor Committee. (Photo courtesy Susie Lee)

Now Lee and Stevens are among nearly two dozen House Democrats to benefit in their reelection battles from rare U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsements, to the shock and irritation of influential Republicans. The change also comes after the powerful business group revamped its ratings scorecard to take account of bipartisanship in Congress, and not just up-or-down votes on its own legislative priorities.

The Chamber historically supports mostly GOP candidates for public office, and this is the largest pack of Democrats it’s backed in a decade.

The Chamber has done little to promote the endorsements, though, and a top official took to Twitter in response to news articles focused on the partisan shift, emphasizing that the group endorsed nearly all of the House Republican freshmen as well as GOP challengers to four freshman Democrats who had low ratings on the Chamber congressional scorecard.

Executive vice president and chief policy officer Neil Bradley added the hashtag “#nonpartisan.”

In addition to the Democrats, the Chamber also endorsed more than 190 Republicans in this year’s congressional elections. The shift to back more Democrats comes as the party is expected to maintain control of the House, with swing districts, like some of those in which the Chamber weighed in, critical to the outcome.

Chamber officials did not respond to requests for comment on the Democratic endorsements, which also included Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria, of Virginia; Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer, of Iowa; Angie Craig and Dean Phillips, of Minnesota; Sharice Davids, of Kansas; David Trone, of Maryland; and Greg Stanton, of Arizona.

The endorsements have reverberated among Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a Fox News interview he no longer wanted to be endorsed by the business group, accusing its officials of having “sold out.”

Scott Reed, the top political adviser at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, cited what he described as a leftward shift in the group’s politics when he abruptly resigned his role late last month, according to several news reports on his departure. He also expressed frustration that the group was not spending more on key races for Senate Republicans.

A spokeswoman for the Chamber said Reed was terminated for cause, after leaking internal information and other actions.

After Reed’s exit, the group announced it plans to spend $1 million each to help Republican Sens. Susan Collins, of Maine, and Joni Ernst, of Iowa.

News releases on the Chamber’s website have focused on endorsements of Republican candidates, and didn’t highlight the Democratic endorsees when those candidates began to tout the Chamber’s support last month.

“I’m honored to have the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber,” Lee said in her own early September press release announcing the endorsement. “Especially now, when we are still struggling with this pandemic, we need leaders who know how to keep our economy moving while protecting workers.”

The shift in partisanship resulted after the Chamber redesigned its scorecard for rating members of Congress. Those ratings and endorsements had been based solely on how often a lawmaker voted with the Chamber’s position on certain legislation, such as bills on trade, immigration, health care and the minimum wage.

But the group now also evaluates whether a lawmaker supported Chamber-endorsed bills that didn’t come up for a vote (or declined to sponsor bills it opposed), and how often they co-sponsored a bill introduced by the opposite party.

Under that system, Lee, whose district is based south of Las Vegas, received an overall 82% rating, with a 67% rating when it came to votes on specific legislation, 99% on the bills she cosponsored, and 84% on bipartisanship.

Stevens, who represents a district in the Detroit metro area, had a 77% overall rating, with 67% on her voting record, 63% on co-sponsoring bills, and 72% on bipartisanship.

Stevens touted the endorsement in a statement last month, saying she was “delighted” for the Chamber’s support, and that she has been “laser-focused on a pro-growth agenda” during her first term in Congress. She also noted that her bipartisan rating from the organization was the third-highest in Michigan’s U.S. House delegation. (Republican Rep. Fred Upton and Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin had higher ratings on that criteria.)

“As we rebuild our economy, I look forward to working with the U.S. Chamber to pass policies that help Michigan small businesses get back on their feet from this unprecedented economic crisis,” Stevens said.

In that statement, the Chamber credited Stevens for her work as part of a bipartisan coalition pushing for the trade deal that replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.

“Rep. Haley Stevens’ leadership as a part of this effort, helps workers and manufacturers have full access to export markets and a restored sense of certainty for years to come,” said Kenneth Johnson, the Chamber’s executive director of congressional and public affairs.

While the national Chamber endorsed Stevens, an official with Michigan Chamber of Commerce told the Detroit News that the state-based group does not plan to get involved in Michigan’s 11th District race this year.

The chamber’s direct contributions to candidates so far lean toward Republicans, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which tallied that 72% of the $584,000 spent so far was given to GOP candidates.

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Laura Olson
Laura Olson

Laura covers the nation's capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom, a network of nonprofit outlets that includes Nevada Current. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections, and campaign finance.