WASHINGTON -- America's most powerful corporations just can't seem to catch a break.
After spending more than a year trying to defeat tea party libertarian Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- corporate America's premier political operation -- was forced to settle for honorable mention in Tuesday's primary elections. Amash cruised to victory over the Chamber's candidate, businessman Brian Ellis.
Amash has infuriated the Chamber -- which declined to comment for this story -- since coming to office in 2010, opposing government perks for big companies on issues as diverse as the farm bill and the very existence of the Export-Import Bank. Amash's refusal to play ball with corporate elites -- and the perception that he was a "ringleader" against corporate welfare -- led to clashes with House GOP leaders, who stripped him of a committee position.
Amash responded by opposing Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) as House leader. And on Tuesday, Amash triumphed over Boehner's longtime allies at the Chamber. Ellis' personal wealth and the Chamber's support weren't enough to open a fundraising gap over Amash's help from the Club for Growth and small donors, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. People in Michigan's 3rd Congressional District seem to actually like Amash, an impressive feat for a member of Congress in 2014.
"We were proud to support Justin Amash, a champion of economic freedom who stands up to the big spenders in both parties," Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller told HuffPost.
Defeating congressional incumbents is hard. Prior to Tuesday night, only two had gone down in 2014 -- then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who fell to a tea party insurgent with no national support, and Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), who was dethroned by Club for Growth-backed John Radcliffe. But the Chamber had hoped to make an example of Amash and send a signal to other tea party Republicans that fighting corporate America could cost them their jobs.
The Chamber didn't come away from Tuesday night entirely empty-handed. Its candidate Dave Trott took down oddball incumbent Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.). Bentivolio is the only tea party candidate that the Chamber has successfully unseated this cycle. And the victory -- over a former reindeer farmer, Santa impersonator and teacher who allegedly tried to make his students cry -- is incomplete.
Trott is rich, and he's a good fundraiser, besting Bentivolio nearly seven to one. By mid-July, he had a war chest nearly 10 times the size of Democratic primary winner Bobby McKinzie, according to CRP data.
But while national Democrats aren't really putting up a fight against Amash, they think Trott is vulnerable. He's a foreclosure kingpin, running the largest foreclosure mill law firm in Michigan, a state ravaged by the housing crisis.
Trott's firm, moreover, has faced robosigning allegations common to the foreclosure mill business -- claims that the company forges signatures to push through illegal foreclosures. And the 11th Congressional District isn't die-hard Republican. President Barack Obama won the district in 2008, and while redistricting has since made it a bit more conservative, national Democratic groups have their eyes on the race.
The Chamber is an almost entirely partisan operation. It has endorsed two Democrats and 258 Republicans for the 2014 elections, according to National Journal. While taking down Amash would have secured a Chamber-backed Republican in Congress, a real win in Michigan's 11th District will mean beating Democratic candidate McKinzie in the general election.
The Chamber's partisanship is hampering the organization's effectiveness in the tea party era. On some issues -- taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals, regulations on greenhouse gasses and labor standards -- the Chamber can count on Republican allegiance and Democratic antipathy. But on a big segment of the organization's platform, which includes just about everything in political play over the past four years, Democrats are actually the standard-bearers for the Chamber's positions: Immigration reform, not defaulting on the debt, infrastructure spending, a functional highway trust fund, the Export-Import Bank, terrorism insurance.
Democrats know it. In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) argued that the tea party departure from policies that directly benefit large corporations is a major opportunity for the Democratic Party.
"Some of the ... business guys say, 'Okay, I don't agree with [Republicans] on abortion and gay rights, but those aren't their real issues. Their real issues are the economy,'" Frank said. "And now I think they have a serious problem."
And at the moment, Amash, who declined to comment for this article, seems more willing to forge coalitions with hardline social conservatives than with business interests.
Amash describes himself as anti-abortion, and contrary to science, he considers some forms of birth control to be "abortion-causing." On immigration, he's been inconsistent.
"We're not gonna have a system where we take cops door-to-door and round up every illegal immigrant and deport them. I don't think that's feasible or plausible," Amash told Reason magazine in March. "We need a system in place that allows those who have come here illegally to become legal."
Yet last week, Amash voted to deport a half-million undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.
The Chamber has done substantially better in open seats, winning every primary it has engaged in, except for the Georgia Senate, where Chamber-backed Jack Kingston fell to David Perdue.
But after this cycle, tea party opponents of corporate welfare in Congress have little to fear.