Two months after the violent Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol Insurrection that resulted in five deaths and delayed the electoral vote count for president, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was so concerned that it changed its endorsement policy. This added evaluating each candidate for their “demonstrated commitment to governing and rebuilding our democratic institutions.”
On Monday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce seemed to give little weight to that policy change when it formally endorsed the GOP Congressional candidate Kevin Kiley of Rocklin. As exclusively reported here last year, Kiley served as a featured speaker and signed books at a March 2021 rally co-organized by an individual who had recently called for Americans to arm for civil war following Jan. 6. Kiley spoke before and after rally speakers who had QAnon, hate group and militia ties, and in Kiley’s only primary debate appearance earlier this year, he refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of President Biden’s election.
The memo announcing the U.S. Chamber’s endorsement change was authored by Senior Political Strategist Ashlee Rich Stephenson. She was on hand Monday in Folsom to announce the Kiley endorsement, but neither she nor the U.S. Chamber’s press office would respond to questions by phone or email about whether the Chamber considered or dismissed any of these aspects of Kiley’s history before endorsing him.
The Folsom Chamber of Commerce also endorsed Kiley at the Monday event, but the head of the Folsom Chamber Joe Gagliardi also did not respond to calls and emails for comment. (The Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce has so far made no endorsement in this race.)
A current California Asssemblyman, Kiley is running in the redesigned and open CA-3 against moderate Democrat and Navy veteran Dr. Kermit Jones, who served two tours in Iraq. The district sprawls across 10 counties from Plumas up north south to Inyo, with most population in Placer, Sacramento and El Dorado counties. Kiley beat another Republican in the primary partly by securing the endorsement of Donald Trump, who would have won the CA-3 in 2020 by 1.9%.
In the campaign, Dr. Jones has regularly made an issue of Kiley’s “radical associations,” and Jones’ campaign manager Michaela Kurinsky-Malos said the U.S. Chamber’s endorsement of Kiley makes “it clear where they stand in the fight for our democracy.”
“While Dr. Kermit Jones was serving our country and his patients, Kiley was rallying with militia groups and blatantly undermining our democracy at every opportunity for his own political gain,” said Kurinsky-Malos, who noted Jones is a small business owner himself. “Dr. Kermit didn’t serve our nation to stand on the sidelines while politicians who support insurrections run for office.”
OTHER QUESTIONABLE CHAMBER NODS
Kiley is not alone in securing a U.S. Chamber endorsement this year despite a shaky history standing against forces seeking to destabilize U.S. democracy. The U.S. Chamber has also endorsed at least 11 of the 147 GOP members of Congress who voted against certifying all 2020 presidential electoral votes after that vote count was interrupted on Jan. 6.
The U.S. Chamber has previously clarified that if an incumbent had only voted against certification that would not be enough to deny an endorsement. Stephenson wrote last year, “Casting a vote is different than organizing the rally of January 6th or continuing to push debunked conspiracy theories.” However an examination of those 11 incumbents show their histories have gone beyond just that vote.
For instance, West Virginia Rep. Carol Miller hired one of the “Stop the Steal” rally organizers onto her staff the same month as the insurrection. This was in addition to Miller having signed onto a controversial Texas Attorney General lawsuit that attempted to throw out Biden electors in multiple states (but was quickly dismissed by the Supreme Court). She also voted last year against a House resolution to subpoena Steve Bannon to testify before the Jan. 6 House Committee.
Among California House incumbents, the U.S. Chamber’s endorsement of Rep. Ken Calvert most stands out. Like Miller, he also signed onto the Texas lawsuit and voted against subpoenaing Bannon. But he has also said this year he hopes charges are dropped against the arrested insurrectionists. (Calvert faces Democrat Will Rollins in Riverside County’s CA-41 district.)
Like Kiley, both Calvert and Miller are endorsed by former President Donald Trump, who has pushed most election conspiracy theories and has publicly blasted anyone in the Republican Party who does not believe the 2020 election was stolen from him. Trump’s influence on the party was also a major reason the Republican National Committee in February formally censured both GOP Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for participating in the House Jan. 6 investigation and what the RNC called the “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”
GOP ENDORSEMENT MINEFIELD
In the past, endorsing a fellow member of the GOP was simple, especially after a winner emerged from the primaries. But the rise of Trump, conspiracy theory groups like QAnon, and so many candidates brazenly posting impolitic statements on social media has turned endorsements into a bit of a minefield. Throw in how two-thirds of GOP voters regularly tell pollsters Biden is not a legitimately elected president, and the radical turn of so much of the Republican Party has only increased endorsement challenges for many conservative groups.
Last year, the Elk Grove Chamber of Commerce in south suburban Sacramento appeared flat-footed when questioned about its endorsement of GOP Congressional candidate Buzz Patterson. The chamber had done little independent vetting, probably lulled by both the California GOP (CAGOP) and the Sacramento County GOP endorsing Patterson despite independent reports about connections with QAnon, his organizing a rally on the state capitol steps that featured many known extremist speakers (including one later arrested in the Jan. 6 insurrection), and his training his campaign staff and supporters using a former strategist from one of the nation’s largest purported hate groups.
When SactoPolitico contacted the Elk Grove Chamber and other groups that endorsed Patterson last year, they made one of two choices. One option was to refuse to respond to questions and stick with their endorsement like the CAGOP and Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs Association did.
The other option was to respond in a limited way but deny any bad vetting or second doubts on their part. This was the path chosen by the Elk Grove Chamber, the Sacramento County GOP and the anti-property tax group Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA).
In 2020, HJTA was especially interesting. Seven of its 28 candidates it endorsed had far-right views or associations, including Patterson. Two of these would even lose their California GOP endorsements during election season, but HJTA stuck with both. But in 2022, given the chance to re-endorse two of these candidates who will appear on November runoff ballots (Mike Cargile and Alison Hayden), both the HJTA and the California GOP notably this time chose not re-endorse.
This suggests 2020 media scrutiny by outlets like SactoPolitico led the CAGOP and HJTA to be somewhat more careful with their 2022 endorsements.
However, limits do exist to 2020 lessons learned for vetting. Take Kevin Kiley who was early on endorsed by the CAGOP, but the CAGOP may have painted itself into a corner there. After all, the chairwoman of the CAGOP – Jessica Millan Patterson – spoke at the same very questionable 2021 rally as Kiley, and like Kiley, she has refused to answer any questions about the prudence in hindsight of that choice.
Not that this should excuse the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from explaining about the apparent wide gap between its pro-democracy words and questionable endorsement choices.