- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Looking to avoid a repeat of the Alabama Senate race, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Wednesday it will get involved in Republican primaries, using its considerable influence and war chest to try to stop the surge of right-wing, anti-Washington candidates.

Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue said they’ve been pushed to take a more active role in order to counter right-wing rabble-rouser Steve Bannon and others who are trying to recruit nominees who will challenge establishment Republicans.

“We’re going to spend a whole lot of money when we have an unsafe seat and a candidate that we believe is more interested in disrupting the process than governing and fixing the process,” Mr. Donohue said, suggesting they would spend at least as much as the $29 million invested in 2016.

The U.S. Chamber has traditionally aligned with Republicans, though Mr. Donohue wouldn’t rule out giving a boost to a Democratic Senate candidate this cycle should they be closer to the business community’s needs.

But he said they’ll try to make sure the GOP keeps control of Congress.

“We believe that whoever has the leadership sets the agenda, and so we will attempt to hold both houses of the Congress as it is, while at the same time becoming much more public and engaged on working with Democrats,” he said.

The chamber was unsure of its political footing after the election of President Trump, who ran on a platform of curtailing immigrant workers and nixing free trade deals. The chamber spent $29 million in the 2016 election, focusing heavily on congressional races. In 2014, it spent $35 million, as it helped the GOP win control of the Senate.

Since the election, the chamber and Mr. Trump have found ways to work together, with the chamber praising last year’s tax cut bill as a landmark achievement.

Instead, it’s been some of Mr. Trump’s supporters, such as Mr. Bannon, who have angered the business lobby.

The biggest test came in last year’s special election to fill Alabama’s Senate seat.

The chamber and Mr. Trump supported Republican Sen. Luther Strange. Mr. Bannon and some other hard-line conservatives backed Roy Moore, a former state chief justice.

After Mr. Moore won the nomination, the chamber refused to aid him in the general election against Democratic candidate Doug Jones. Mr. Jones ultimately won in a massive upset.

Mr. Donohue on Wednesday compared Mr. Bannon to the far left as dangers to the business community’s agenda.

“Steve Bannon and Elizabeth Warren — those people do not represent the best interests of this country,” Mr. Donohue said, referring to the current senator from Massachusetts.

Mr. Bannon has said he is trying to recruit a slate of pro-Trump, anti-Washington candidates to run in Senate primaries this year, hoping to further shake up the establishment.

While the chamber can bring substantial financial resources to fight Mr. Bannon, it’s not clear how the imprimatur of the country’s largest corporate lobby will play in some of those GOP primaries.

But the chamber may have at least gotten the upper hand over Mr. Bannon, who has been politically disowned by the Trump operation after he assisted in a new book about the inner workings of the White House. The White House says the book is full of fabrications. Mr. Trump has labeled Mr. Bannon “Sloppy Steve.”

The Bannon bungle has forced a number of Republicans to pick sides — and Mr. Bannon is losing.

Republican Michael Grimm, who is mounting a primary challenge to GOP Rep. Dan Donovan in a bid to win back his old Staten Island-based New York congressional seat, strongly denounced Mr. Bannon’s comments in author Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”

“They are baseless attacks against the president’s family, beyond disturbing, and I fully support our Commander in Chief,” Mr. Grimm said in a statement. Mr. Grimm recently served seven months in prison for tax evasion tied to his former health restaurant.

In Arizona, former state Sen. Kelli Ward had proudly touted Mr. Bannon’s endorsement in her campaign for the seat of retiring Sen. Jeff Flake, but dialed things back a bit after the book surfaced.

A Ward campaign spokesman said recently that Mr. Bannon is “only one of many” high-profile endorsements she has received.

“Her focus remains on winning this race, which she is in a great position to do, and then helping President Trump advance an America First agenda,” said Ward campaign spokesman Zachery Henry.

Still, association with Mr. Bannon is having an effect.

A new poll in the Arizona GOP primary, taken Tuesday after the entry into the race by former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, showed Ms. Ward falling from first to third place. She now trails Rep. Martha McSally, the new poll leader, and Mr. Arpaio, according to the survey by OH Predictive Insights.

The polling company said when Ms. Ward is explicitly tied to Mr. Bannon and Mr. Arpaio is explicitly tied to Mr. Trump, Mr. Arpaio surges into the lead and Ms. Ward falls further behind.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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