What are Republican Primary Voters Telling the Business Community?

June 27, 2014

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By Brad Alexander & Steve Horton

Several recent elections have amply demonstrated that corporate America faces a new reality in terms of its ability to influence electoral outcomes.    This new reality is the result of several larger waves of change in both attitudes and electoral processes, and business interests must adapt moving forward.
Clearly, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s unexpected 11-point upset in a Virginia primary represented the most nationally visible battle between the business and conservative activist wings of the Republican Party.  Mr. Cantor was a powerful ally of business big and small.   In his re-election campaign, business strongly and visibly supported his re-election in a range of ways that further identified him as one of the most pro-business candidates in the nation.  Cantor’s opponent, David Brat, ran a Tea Party-inspired campaign that was explicitly anti-business.  Brat advocated throwing corrupt Wall Street bankers in jail, railed against crony capitalism and insisted that immigration reform would only reward lawbreakers.
There’s certainly a national trend of national conservative groups attacking pro-business incumbents, but — despite what many commentaries would lead one to believe — those attacks have been far from universally successful.  Another populist conservative, Chris McDaniel, forced six-term Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, a Republican who embodies the party’s Chamber of Commerce wing, into a runoff.   However, Senator Cochran was able to win that runoff, and indications are that he did it by enlarging the traditional Republican primary electorate to dilute the influence of more ideological Republican voters.
High profile candidates with national conservative organizational support failed to win Republican nominations in Oklahoma and Colorado primaries recently.   And, a well-publicized attempt by a splintered collection of outside groups to attack Georgia’s House Speaker in his re-election was soundly thwarted.
Regardless of the actual win-loss record, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult for business to rely on Republican legislators for support on issues where conservative activists are also taking positions.  While business tends to support incumbent lawmakers regardless of policy outcomes, anti-business activists are moving to eliminate from power Republicans they see as obstacles to their liberty agenda.   Corporate government affairs staff who work in red states are becoming increasingly familiar with the phenomenon of legislators who philosophically align with business on jobs related issues, but feel that breaking from tea party doctrine in any visible way will lead to their defeat.
What is driving this new reality?  First, Americans of all political persuasions have internalized the idea that corporations and the federal government both have too much power.   Gallup has been asking this question in its national surveys for some time.   A decade ago, less than 50 percent of Americans felt that corporations had too much influence, and less than 40 percent felt that the federal government had too much influence.   Today, those numbers have dropped precipitously, with roughly two-thirds of the American public saying that corporations and federal government have too much influence.   At its heart, the tea party movement is as much about reigning in corporate influence as it is about shrinking government.   Simply put, many voters don’t see any difference between the two things, particularly as economic globalization widens income inequality and leaves many Americans feeling left behind.
Second, polarization and redistricting have dramatically limited the number of elections that are decided by the general public in November.   There simply are not very many states and congressional districts in the United States that are competitive in general elections.   This means that outcomes are decided in primaries, where the electorate is much smaller and much more likely to be influenced by voters who have stronger ideological views.   Further, business interests have traditionally been inactive in primaries due to their uncertainty, meaning that the business community is far behind conservative activists in understanding how primaries work and how to influence outcomes.   By the time general elections roll around and many business interests traditionally engage, the outcome of the race is already decided.
Finally, the deinstitutionalization of media allows ideologically charged campaigns to grow rapidly and largely unchecked by traditional influencers of public opinion, such as editorial boards and television advertising.  The local newspaper industry is consolidating and shrinking, and TV news is becoming a secondary, or tertiary, news source – particularly for active voters.  Instead, individuals are tailoring their news sources to their ideological predispositions, through Twitter or Facebook, various low-trafficked right or left wing blogs, statewide right or left of center news sites, or national online outlets. Online, in particular, the ability to tailor messages to like-minded audiences, organically or through advertising, provides poorly funded outsider challengers an avenue to successfully penetrate voter blocs.
Nationally, there are some signs that business interests are learning to operate in this new world.   In Georgia, a chamber of commerce driven effort made significant independent expenditures in over a dozen state legislative primary elections, defeating two anti-business incumbents and winning a hotly contested open State Senate race (as well has helping several pro-business incumbents fend off challengers).    This effort was successful largely because it employed tactics that work in primary elections, delivering hard-hitting messaging through mail, phones, social media and grassroots activism, rather than blanketing the airwaves with television ads that don’t efficiently reach primary voters.
Going forward, pro-business electoral projects will need to adapt effectively to this new reality, focusing less on traditional air war tactics that are really designed for general elections, and more on the tools that work in primary elections.   Additionally, corporate public affairs strategists need to internalize the reality that many politically active Americans view their employers as partners with the federal government in driving taxes up and middle class quality of life down.   This may mean going beyond traditional “pro-jobs” rhetoric, and doing more to directly address populist concerns that Wall Street growth has not benefited Main Street America.   In other words, there may well be ground gained by engaging with conservative activists, finding areas of common ground, and trying to limit the number of times the two sides clash.   Ultimately, both sides have a shared interest in job growth, tax reform, individual liberty and several other high level priorities; the debate is more over how these things should be accomplished than over whether they are good ideas.
One this is certain:  in red states and districts, conservative activists will often oppose the interests of corporate America, and will continue working to defeat elected officials who are perceived as aligned with the chamber of commerce wing of the party.   If business interests can effectively respond to this new dynamic, its impact on policy can likely be limited, but doing so will require a strategic overhaul.