Quietly last Friday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce posted a memo online announcing changes moving forward to its criteria for supporting political candidates. In addition to supporting the chamber’s priority issues, the memo said candidates for endorsement will be evaluated on their “demonstrated commitment to governing and rebuilding our democratic institutions.”
The U.S. Chamber said the change came in response to the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection as well as the “the erosion and breakdown in democratic norms that has occurred over many years.” However, what exactly will demonstrate a candidate’s commitment to American democratic institutions remains unclear, and multiple attempts for clarification by The Sacto Politico received no response.
Republican political consultant Mike Madrid has been quite critical of the silence by most conservative groups and elected officials as the Republican Party has grown increasingly tolerant of anti-democratic extremists. He was a co-founder of The Lincoln Project, and he welcomed the announcement by the U.S. Chamber.
“Even a statement like that is very significant for the U.S. Chamber, especially if they assign all of the state chambers to start behaving accordingly as well,” Madrid said.
Local silence, ambiguity
That remains to be seen. Calls and emails to four of six local chambers of commerce went unreturned. This included to the statewide California Chamber of Commerce and local chambers for the cities of Elk Grove, Folsom and West Sacramento.
However, Laurel Brent-Bumb, CEO of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce, did respond. She said the Jan. 6 insurrection “was a very scary, unpleasant wake-up call.” She applauded the endorsement change by the U.S. Chamber and said her chamber already follows a similar criteria.
“I agree that this is positive news. The evaluation of a candidate and not just their voting record is important in evaluating the individual overall. That should include integrity and moral character, as well as working in the best interest of the country, not they’re ability to get reelected,” Brent-Baumb said.
Less unclear was the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. When asked for a response, the statement from the group’s president and CEO Amanda Blackwood at first made no reference to the Jan. 6 riot or the U.S. Chamber’s change of criteria. Instead she directed attention to the chamber’s four-point business promise as the group’s key endorsement criteria, but this made no reference to supporting and rebuilding democratic institutions.
When this was noted, Blackwood added to her statement a brief reference to democratic institutions. This reads, “During this period of great change, it is important to reflect, review and reevaluate policies and actions that reflect the values of our diverse business community; both now and in the future, including the protection of our democratic institutions.”
The Kiley Case
The Sac Metro Chamber was also asked – but it did not respond to – a question whether it would look favorably on a currently endorsed State Assemblyman like Kevin Kiley who spoke at events featuring far-right individuals. Kiley did just this on Sunday, sharing a rally stage with several speakers either connected to QAnon and large hate groups. One speaker even recently called on Americans to arm themselves for a coming ideological civil war.
Madrid described as “shameful” any state legislator who knowingly speaks at an event with such individuals. He believes such actions lend a patina of respectability and emboldens such destructive individuals.
“You give it voice. You give it oxygen,” he said.
The Elk Grove Chamber of Commerce’s silence was also notable. In early October, The Sacto Politico revealed one of their endorsed Congressional candidates had several connections with QAnon and trained his campaign staff and volunteers using the same former national strategist with one of the largest hate groups in the U.S. who also spoke at the rally above.
When this information was shared with the Elk Grove Chamber, it replied the information would be shared with its endorsement committee for review. Two days later, the group’s president and CEO Angela Perry emailed, “We do not plan to make any changes to our endorsements.”
Madrid said silence like this reflects the slowness of the conservative business community to respond to fringe groups taking over much of the Republican Party nationally, statewide and locally. He said this particularly glaring at the state level.
“The California Chamber needs to change its M.O. It’s still operating very much like it’s the 1980s and 1990s, and the whole world has changed around it,” he said. “It has made a very big mistake in hiring exclusively Republican consultants. It will quickly need to shed that history because a lot of these consultants have been complicit in promoting, protecting and defending a movement that is frankly just racist and insurrectionist.”
National Chamber Ambiguity
The U.S. Chamber’s new endorsement criteria is not without its own questions. Two days before the Jan. 6 riot, U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas Donohue stated in a news release, “Efforts by some members of Congress to disregard certified election results in an effort to change the election outcome or to try [to] make a long-term political point undermines our democracy and the rule of law and will only result in further division across our nation.”
This didn’t prevent nearly 150 Republican members of the U.S. House and Senate from voting to not certify the electoral votes of Arizona and/or Pennsylvania. But the Chamber’s memo last week softened this clear statement. It said, “We do not believe it is appropriate to judge members of Congress solely based on their votes on the electoral certification.”
Thus it now appears some previous undermining of democracy and the rule of law is acceptable to the U.S. Chamber. But how much? For instance, what about the 126 members of Congress who signed onto the Texas Attorney General’s lawsuit to the Supreme Court to overturn the entire election?
The lawsuit was seen almost universally as without merit and was quickly rejected by the Supreme Court. The lawsuit was supported by 91 members of Congress who would later vote against certifying Arizona and/or Pennsylvania, and 35 members of Congress who didn’t challenge neither. But all of these efforts contributed to the belief among Trump supporters that Joe Biden was not fairly elected and to the Jan. 6 insurrection that claimed five lives.
Closing caveat emptor
Madrid added local chambers of commerce are wise to not assume candidates endorsed by the state and county-level GOP have been well vetted. In the last cycle, California GOP organizations endorsed many candidates with little scrutiny and only to be later revealed to be associated with QAnon, conspiracy theories, and hate-filled rhetoric on their social media streams.
“The trend line over the past four to six years has been an explosion of these kinds of candidates,” Madrid said. “Once is unfortunate. Two can be forgiven, but when it is three, four, six, seven, ten times, you have to be honest with what this is now.”
“The business community specifically must be a lot more careful about using the Republican Party’s imprimatur as a valid, credible source,” he said.