May 9, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: GOP heavyweights launch “anti-woke” lobbying group

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A new business lobby backed by Republican heavyweights is looking to build clout with GOP leaders amid high-profile splits between the party's policymakers and key segments of corporate America, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The American Free Enterprise Chamber of Commerce is positioning itself as an alternative to groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The new group's backers complain the Chamber has lurched left from its onetime post at the vanguard of a Republican-aligned political apparatus.

  • The chairman of the AmFree chamber, as it's known internally, is Terry Branstad — the former Republican governor of Iowa and President Trump's ambassador to China.
  • Its CEO is Gentry Collins, a former political director of the Republican National Committee.
  • The AmFree Chamber will provide an avenue for American businesses looking to influence Republicans, who appear poised to retake congressional majorities next year.

What's happening: The new chamber's formation comes as corporate America grapples with increasing pressure to engage on issues such as voting rights, racial justice and abortion — and the potential political fallout from doing so.

  • "I hope to make the case to our policymakers at all levels that we must move away from the trend towards socialism and back to a pro-business, pro-growth posture," Branstad told business leaders during a conference call last Thursday, which Axios also attended.
  • In a memo pitching the group to potential members, a copy of which was obtained by Axios, the AmFree Chamber offers "tools for American businesses to maintain access to the marketplace in the face of 'woke capital' and 'cancel-culture' threats," among other benefits.

The big picture: A high-profile split last year between the U.S. Chamber and congressional Republicans — including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the potential next Speaker — provides a lane for a group that can effectively wield influence among GOP leaders, say sources close to the project.

  • "The void that is filled is [the AmFree Chamber] isn’t dead to Hill Republicans who will likely control the floor of both House and Senate" next year, one Republican lobbyist told Axios.
  • A senior House leadership aide told Axios the U.S. Chamber has "become more interested in electing so-called pro-business Democrats who vote for their party’s decidedly anti-business, woke agenda."
  • "It’s no surprise Governor Branstad and others have recognized this and are stepping in to fill this void," the aide said.

What they're saying: "[W]e warmly welcome anyone who joins our agenda, advocating for businesses and their workers. We need the pro-business voices to be heard loud and clear," a U.S. Chamber spokesperson told Axios.

  • The group "has worked with our network of state and local chambers across the country to secure important legislation, benefiting businesses of all sizes and our country as a whole," the spokesperson said, citing its work on trade, inflation, infrastructure and "the threat of government overreach."
  • "To find viable solutions, we need to collaborate and work with all stakeholders."

Between the lines: Multiple sources close to the new Branstad group used the term "woke" to describe the U.S. Chamber, a social-justice buzzword that's been relegated largely to the domain of conservative critics.

  • One source pointed to the group's engagement on ESG, or environmental, social and corporate governance business practices, and positions on tech sector regulation at odds with Republican critics of the industry.
  • Another brought up its preservation of scaffolding on its Lafayette Square headquarters covered by graffiti and artwork during 2020's Black Lives Matter protests.
  • While candidates still regularly tout the endorsements from the chamber and its state affiliates, it's become a political epithet in some high-profile Republican primary contests.

How we got here: The last time a Democratic president faced his first midterm election, the Chamber was a Republican-aligned powerhouse.

At this point in the 2010 cycle, it had reported more than $30 million in independent political spending, according to OpenSecrets data.

  • So far this cycle, it's reported a little more than $200,000, though the group says that's largely due to a shift toward political tactics such as digital ads that don't require reports to the Federal Election Commission.
  • It's also spending huge sums on its Washington lobbying operation and has maintained a steady pace of contributions to federal political candidates.
  • It's some of those past contributions — to Democrats in competitive races last cycle — that helped drive a wedge between the group and key Republican leaders such as McCarthy.
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