Once A GOP Pillar, Chamber Of Commerce Is Now A Lightning Rod

The Chamber of Commerce says it tried to help Eric Cantor in his primary campaign, but Cantor refused the offer.

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The man who defeated Eric Cantor, David Brat, is a dedicated free marketeer. He supports longtime conservative goals like a balanced budget amendment, but he also spent much of his campaign bashing big business lobbying groups, especially the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He's part of a movement in the Republican Party that's deeply suspicious of big business. And as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, Brat see groups like the chamber as part of the problem in Washington.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Tuesday's election was a stunning defeat for Eric Cantor, but it also represented a big loss for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In campaign appearances like this one, Brat frequently made the chamber the target of his rhetorical ire.

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DAVID BRAT: My opponent, Eric Cantor, runs on the Chamber of Commerce agenda - point, after point, after point. I'm running on free markets, which is not - show favoritism to anyone.

ZARROLI: Brat also took aim at some of the positions favored by the Chamber and other business groups, such as relaxing immigration laws. The election happened at a time when the Chamber is taking a much more controversial role in party politics. It has poured money into primary races in states such as Idaho and Mississippi, supporting establishment candidates. That has made it deeply unpopular with some Tea Party groups. Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol says there's a segment of the Republican Party that strongly supports free markets but mistrusts big business.

THEDA SKOCPOL: That's really a break from what you might call Chamber of Commerce, pro-business, get along, make deal, kind of Republicanism that I think a lot of people believed was the norm.

ZARROLI: Skocpol spent considerable time with Tea Party groups for a book she wrote. She says this movement deeply distrusts the culture of deal making in Washington - what Brat and others call crony capitalism. Sal Russo is chief strategist for the Tea Party Express.

SAL RUSSO: You see it all over the country in state houses as well, where the people that have the wealthier lobbyists get low carve outs and tax credits and benefits that most Americans don't have.

ZARROLI: The Chamber of Commerce declined to comment for this story, but released a statement praising Cantor and saying it will take some time to understand the dynamics of the race. Former Michigan Governor John Engler, who now heads the Business Roundtable, takes the long view of what happened Tuesday. He says American politicians have a history of running against bigness, whether it's big business or big labor.

JOHN ENGLER: I think it is way of emphasizing, I'm the underdog. The big guys are against me. I'm the little guy, and aren't you people - all the little people - with me?

ZARROLI: Engler says it's possible to read too much into Tuesday's primary. Other Republicans who favor an immigration overhaul and have ties to big business have won their races this year. He also says Tea Party conservatives and business groups continue to share many of the same goals, such as less government regulation and lower taxes. Engler says, Eric Cantor may have lost...

ENGLER: ...The agenda, though, in front of the Congress doesn't really change. And I think that's the one thing that I would observe - that he's going to be replaced by another Republican.

ZARROLI: And the lawmakers most likely to replace Cantor as Majority Leader also have strong ties to business groups. But the nomination of David Brat suggests that tensions remain within the Republican Party about the role that big business groups, such as the Chamber, play. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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