Last week, Public Citizen’s Chamber Watch project began a series exposing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as one of the central actors pushing the modern day Republican Party’s extremist agenda. This week, we dive into the Chamber’s dark money spending during the 2016 election cycle. As discussed in last week’s blog, under Tom Donohue’s leadership, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has gone from a rather staid business advocacy organization with ties to both political parties to one that has become rabidly partisan.
In the 2016 election cycle, however, the Chamber took partisanship to even greater heights. For the first time ever, 100% of the Chamber’s elections spending benefited Republicans. What’s more, the Chamber formed an explicit alliance with leading Republicans (enter Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina) whose goal was to “Save the Senate” for the GOP and prevent a Democratic takeover of the closely-divided body. The Chamber was so determined to preserve a Republican majority in the Senate that it even spent big against Democrat Evan Bayh, a man it used to employ, and top Chamber officials often disparaged and mocked Bayh and other Democratic candidates on social media.
The Chamber, like other groups organized under section 501(c) of the tax code, is not legally required to disclose the sources of the money it independently spends on elections. It and other dark money groups can serve as conduits for anonymous donations from corporations and other wealthy special interests to flood elections, making it particularly dangerous to democracy. In a recently released report, “The Republican Party and the Chamber of Secrets,” Chamber Watch analyzed campaign spending data from the Center for Responsive Politics to get a fuller picture of the Chamber’s election spending.
The Chamber was the second largest non-disclosing outside spender in the 2016 cycle, after the National Rifle Association, and was the largest non-disclosing outside spender on congressional races. It spent nearly $30 million, all to benefit Republican candidates. [Table 1]
The Chamber spent most heavily on races for the U.S. Senate, spending a total of $25.8 million in 10 Senate races. Nine Senate races saw at least $25 million in outside spending – political expenditures from outside groups that are independent of a candidates’ committee. The Chamber reported expenditures in eight of these nine races and in eight of the 10 congressional races that drew the most outside spending in 2016. [Table 2]
Both the Pennsylvania race, and the New Hampshire Senate contest broke spending records, with campaigns and outside groups spending $164 million and $121 million, respectively. In the Pennsylvania race between Pat Toomey (R) and Katie McGinty (D), the Chamber was the largest non-disclosing outside spender out of 27 groups, spending more than $6.1 million. In the New Hampshire race between Maggie Hassan (D) and Kelly Ayotte (R) the Chamber was also the largest non-disclosing spender out of 14 groups, spending more than $3 million, while the next largest non-discloser spent just over $700,000. The Nevada Senate race saw the third highest level of outside spending, with the Chamber spending more than $4.2 million, more than any of the other 26 dark money spenders. Out of the top ten races with the most outside spending, the Chamber was the highest spender among non-disclosing groups in five races. [Table 3]
Of the ten marquee Senate races in 2016, the Chamber spent in 9 of them. The Republican candidates it supported won 7 of those 9, guaranteeing that the Senate would in fact be “saved” for the GOP. While it’s of course impossible to say that the Chamber’s dark money deluge in these races accounted for the slew of GOP victories, it certainly may have helped tip the balance in the closer races.
The Chamber’s deluge of dark money in congressional races should alarm all those concerned about the health of our democracy. When the nation’s leading business group can form an explicit alliance with one of our two major parties and solicit unlimited donations from anonymous donors, individual voters and small businesses should be worried that their voices will be shut out.
The Chamber’s 2016 election spending makes it abundantly clear that rather than being a voice for American business, the Chamber has become a very loud, very powerful voice for the Republican Party.