Democrats took control of the U.S. House of Representatives two years ago by winning competitive districts like the Iowa seats of Reps. Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer.
Now Axne and Finkenauer 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 Rep. Haley Stevens of Michigan; Rep. Susie Lee of Nevada, Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria, of Virginia; 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 Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst and Republican Sen. Susan Collins, of Maine.
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.
“Iowa’s small businesses are the backbone of our communities. They help grow our economies, create jobs, and are responsible for innovation and prosperity across our state – and I’m proud of my work fighting to support them, Iowa’s workers, and our local chambers of commerce in Washington,” Axne said in her own September news release annoucing the endorsement. “On behalf of all those I have partnered with in Iowa and in Washington to promote those goals of growth and prosperity, I am proud to receive the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today.”
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, Axne received an overall 72% rating and a 95% bipartisanship score that earned her a “Spirit of Enterprise” award from the organization in July. Finkenauer had an overall 70% annual rating, tied with Republican Rep. Steve King. Ernst received a 93% annual rating and the chamber’s endorsement.
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.