The Chamber of Commerce Makes an Empty Immigration Threat

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 12 2014 2:25 PM

The Chamber of Commerce Makes an Empty Immigration Threat

US Chamber President Tom Donohue makes empty threats but has a full head of hair.

Photo by Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Immigration reform-optimism stories are breaking out all over. Kevin Robillard pulls quite the quote from Tom Donohue, the president of the Chamber of Commerce. He wants immigration reform this year. Some Republicans do not. They are digging their own unmarked graves.

If the Republicans don’t do it, they shouldn’t bother to run a candidate in 2016. Think about that. Think about who the voters are. I just did that to get everybody’s attention.

In the Daily Beast, Patricia Murphy profiles Rep. Renee Ellmers in the context of her unimpressive primary victory over an immigration reform foe. "In the end, Ellmers won the primary with 58.72 percent of the vote, three points greater than her margin in the 2012 GOP primary," writes Murphy, "even after withering attacks from Laura Ingraham,, NumbersUSA, ALIPAC, and local Tea Party groups, specifically for her immigration stance."


Last things first. "Withering attacks" don't cost anything to make. But what was spent on the race to give it to Ellmers? According to Murphy, Ellmers spent $650,000 on the campaign and was aided by $250,000 in ads from pro-reform FWD's potemkin conservative-outreach group, Americans for a Conservative Direction. Did those ads inform voters that Ellmers backed a comprehensive reform bill? Sort of—in them, voters were told that Ellmers supported something that would "secure the border" with "no amnesty, period."

All told, that's $900,000 boosting Ellmers. Her opponent, Frank Roche, spent $24,000, and his platform went further than most opponents of reform want to go right now. He wanted to "sharply reduce legal immigration focused on the economic needs of the 2nd district and America." Not an ideal candidate, not much money, and he held Ellmers to 58.72 percent in a two-way race. In 2012 Ellmers did win with lesss—56 percent—but she faced several opponents who split the vote. The strongest of them, Richard Speer, spent more than $32,000. Still peanuts, but it's obvious that Ellmers had to sweat more this time.

Look, not to get all mathy about it, but Ellmers beat her closest opponent by 26 points in 2012. This year her margin was 18 points. Better overall number, but not a "better margin," as America's Voice claims. In 2012 Ellmers won 37,661 primary votes; this year, with lower turnout, she won 21,358 votes. She and FWD spent about $42 per vote to Roche's $1.60 per vote. This isn't so much a case of the base endorsing a candidate's reform stance as the reform lobby bringing Mjölnir down on a district.

OK, back to Donohue. He says the GOP can't win in 2016 if it doesn't back reform? A lot of analysts agree. But the chamber just spent heavily in North Carolina to make sure that Thom Tillis, who opposes the reform bill backed by the chamber, won the GOP's Senate nod. Yes, in the state, he's backed a guest-worker reform that business supported. But the chamber is funding (really, really funding) candidates who are open to reform without any guarantees about what they'll back. Two weeks ago, when I stopped into one of the chamber's endorsement events for Tillis, its political director Rob Engstrom didn't dispute that Tillis opposed what the chamber now supports, but suggested that his 90 percent-plus rating was an improvement on that of Sen. Kay Hagan.

Sure it is. But 1) it's pretty obvious that the chamber will back candidates even if they can't be trusted on their version of immigration reform, and 2) it's awfully expensive to bail out a candidate who says a few nice things about reform.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 


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