WASHINGTON — Fresh from helping save Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi from a tea party upstart, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is on the verge of endorsing an embattled Senate Democrat. According to The New York Times's Joe Nocera, national political director Rob Engstrom told the heads of the chamber's regional groups that the mother ship planned to support Louisiana's Mary L. Landrieu in a close race against three Republicans.
The chamber has always liked Landrieu, giving her its Spirit of Enterprise award nine times since 2002. And the chamber has lately been rethinking its blind support of Republicans when it means filling Congress with tea partyers. Any ninny could have seen that tea party Republicans would hate the chamber almost as much as the government they want to shrink to the size of a pea. The tea party sprung to life being against much of what the chamber is for: Wall Street bailouts, President Barack Obama's stimulus package, saving Chrysler and General Motors, raising the debt-ceiling, and keeping the government open. Right now, the Republican House the chamber helped create is blocking immigration reform and a long-term highway bill, while trying to kill the business-friendly Export-Import Bank as an example of corporate welfare.
Things didn't work out so well for the Chamber in 2012. According to the Washington Post, chamber-backed candidates lost in 13 of the 15 Senate races, and four of the 22 House races, it spent money on. This cycle, the chamber has poured money into Republican primaries to smother the tea party. Siding with the more pro-establishment Republican in each case, the chamber has won 10 intraparty fights, including the Mississippi race in which Karl Rove's American Crossroads gave up on Cochran. Even Republican incumbents are no longer safe from the chamber, which is endorsing the Republican challenger to Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, a major thorn in the side of House Speaker John Boehner.
Landrieu, with her pro-business record, is a Democrat the chamber can love. She scores high on the group's measure of fidelity to its causes, voting "correctly" 68 percent of the time in her career. Although she supported the Affordable Care Act, she wants to amend it, and harps on Louisiana's failure to get $16 billion in federal health care funds because of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's refusal to expand Medicaid. As chairman of the powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she will be in an excellent position to deliver on a pet project of the chamber's: the Keystone Pipeline.
This is a tough one for the chamber, given that one route to Republicans' taking back the Senate goes through Louisiana. Landrieu is inevitably called vulnerable in a state that has a Republican governor and has voted for George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney in the last four presidential elections, yet she always wins. As the lone Democrat against three Republicans in an open primary system, her chances of getting 50 percent and avoiding a December runoff are good. Her top challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy, just announced that his unmarried teenage daughter will be having a baby later this summer. Despite the solidarity she might feel with Cassidy on that point, Sarah Palin is supporting the arch-conservative in the race, retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness.
As of noon Monday, chamber spokeswoman Blair Holmes wouldn't confirm that the group was supporting Landrieu. Cassidy, should he win, will have no seniority, and is likely to support the chamber's agenda whether it backs him or not. Landrieu, if she wins without chamber support, could become a high-seniority enemy. It's not so tough a decision after all.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun