Democrats are offering a mixed message to the business community as they try to peel away support from the Republican Party.
For months, Democrats have wooed the business community by touting their support for the expiring Export-Import Bank, an agency Tea Party Republicans have been fighting to disband.
But at the same time, top Democrats have questioned the patriotism of companies seeking offshore tax deals, and pushed a populist set of proposals, including a hike in the minimum wage, that are businesses broadly oppose .
The dissonance in those messages underscores the challenge that Democrats face in keeping their Senate majority in a year when they must defend seats in GOP states and voters are tiring of President Obama.
Still, Democrats say there’s no reason their populist economic pitch should jeopardize long-term efforts to make inroads with corporate America.
“It’s not mixed for us,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said about the Democratic message.
Democrats acknowledge that their priorities are never going to perfectly match up with a business community that is attracted to the GOP platform of lower taxes and fewer regulations. Party aides also say that, with the Senate up for grabs in November, Democrats understand that the business community needs to at the very least hedge its bets this fall.
That means Democrats are unlikely to get the full support of business powers such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.
But party leaders say they have repeatedly pressed business leaders about their reflexive support for Republicans — especially given the government shutdown last year and the GOP’s resistance to business priorities such as immigration reform.
“I want to say to the business community: I think blind dedication to Republicans is a serious mistake,” Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.), one of the leading congressional critics of the tax deals known as inversions, told reporters last week.
Democrats say they’ve been more reliable allies to the business community on a host of matters in recent years, including infrastructure spending, reviving a slew of expired tax breaks and avoiding fights over raising the debt ceiling.
The latest example of that trend, Democrats say, is the fight over the Export-Import Bank, which grants and guarantees loans for U.S. companies doing business abroad.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas) are among the Republicans that have publicly opposed the bank, arguing it forces the government to dabble in private business dealings.
In a compromise, GOP leaders in the House are seeking to extend the Ex-Im charter until next summer, when the bank’s supporters in the business community fear it will be easier for conservatives to kill it. Democrats including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) are pushing for a longer extension for the bank.
“Their agenda, if they’re honest about it, has a lot of elements in it that only Democrats are pushing for,” Durbin said about business groups. “The Tea Party Republicans are not their friends. Never will be. And the Main Street Republicans are intimidated.”
Still, that message has met some resistance from the business community, and leading industry lobbies have made it clear they’re no fans of the Democrats’ efforts on inversions.
Some Democrats privately acknowledge that their election-year platform hasn’t helped their outreach efforts. To complicate matters further, the Democrats’ populist message on pocketbook issues, inversions and other economic matters has yet to catch fire with voters, leaving the party with a tenuous hold on the Senate majority.
Business groups have long maintained that they don’t exclusively back one party or the other. But some of the biggest groups representing the industry also focus nearly all of their campaign energy on helping Republican candidates.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobby, has spent $21.3 million backing candidates this cycle, with about $15 million going to support GOP candidates and another $5 million to oppose Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Of the $182,775 the Chamber donated to candidates this election cycle, $250 went to a Democrat: New York Rep. Dan Maffei.
In recent weeks, Chamber officials have also gone on the offensive against the Democrats’ efforts on inversions, especially rhetoric from Obama and senior administration officials who have questioned the patriotism of companies that reincorporate abroad and labeled them “deserters.”
Top Democrats are now less likely to specifically call out a coproration’s loyalty, but the Chamber is still running television advertisements to oppose Democratic efforts to retroactively limit companies’ ability to merge with smaller foreign companies and shift their legal address abroad.
A Chamber spokeswoman, asked about how the group squared Democratic outreach efforts with the push on inversions, said only, “You would probably be better served to ask Democratic leadership what their position is on pro-business initiatives.”
Top Republicans don’t seem worried either, insisting they’ll gladly put their platform up against the Democrats. “I think the Dems are consistently trying to poach businesses and throw them a scrap once in a while so they can generate some political support,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), a member of GOP leadership. “But I think that’s an awfully hard case to make.”
Still, with the long-term fate of the Ex-Im Bank up in the air, even some GOP lobbyists are treading carefully around the Democrats’ messaging on other issues.
“If you go issue by issue, both parties can be all over the place,” said Tony Fratto, a former spokesman for George W. Bush who supports extending the bank’s charter.
Former Democratic aides now on K Street said businesses are savvy enough to distinguish between a pressing issue for the community, like the Ex-Im Bank, and the more partisan politics that the two parties are employing, such as in the battle over inversions.
Democrats insist their push for anti-inversion legislation is far from just a political ploy. But they also argue the business community shouldn’t get fixated on Democrats calling out of a small group of companies seeking lower tax rates offshore.
“We ought to be talking about a pro-growth economic plan,” said Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) “I don’t think that’s inconsistent.”
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