Rep. Chris Stewart represents Utah’s solidly red 2nd District. And he sounds like it.
“Oh yeah, duh,” he told CQ Roll Call when asked whether he thought the free market could do a better job than the government promoting U.S. exports overseas. “I’m a conservative Republican.” But his thinking on whether Congress should reauthorize the Export-Import Bank hasn’t always been so clear cut. Despite his 74 percent lifetime conservative rating from the Club for Growth, Stewart didn’t fall in line with the group's push to kill the Export-Import Bank — its charter expires on June 30 — until several weeks ago.
In fact, in late April, he received the Spirit of Enterprise Award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — one of the biggest proponents of reauthorizing the bank — for supporting “pro-job policies.”
His evolution on the issue says a lot about the Export-Import Bank — namely how it split conservative Republicans — and about how outside groups such as the club and the chamber targeted representatives on an issue that’s poorly understood and easily spun.
The divide among conservatives is likely to keep reauthorization from a vote in the Republican-controlled House. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he's open to allowing a vote even though he is against the bank, offering backers a faint flicker of hope. But it's an extreme long shot that anything will head to the president's desk before the deadline.
From the pro-business perspective of the chamber and the National Association of Manufacturers, which hosted a news conference with lawmakers on June 2, the bank is a job creator that keeps America competitive. But for critics such as the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, "the Bank of Boeing" is corporate welfare.
“I had town hall meetings last week,” Stewart said. “And we asked them — say there’s 100 people in the audience — how many of you know what Ex-Im Bank is? Maybe four or five raised their hands. Really, that’s all.” The few who did know, Stewart said, worked for Boeing, which operates a plant in his district and is one of the biggest beneficiaries of Ex-Im loans.
But Club for Growth's president, former Indiana Rep. David McIntosh, thinks the club is changing what voters know about the bank. The club bought time for two waves of TV ads in eight safe GOP districts this spring, with a third on the way.
Just as Stewart was coming to terms with his decision to oppose reauthorization, which he “didn’t feel a real urgency” to promote publicly, the club announced it was airing an ad in his district to put pressure on him.
Stewart quickly announced his opposition — to the club and on Facebook — and the club canceled the ad buy. But that put Stewart in an awkward spot.
“Now we’re kind of screwed. Because now it looks like, well, we cowered to Club for Growth, and that wasn’t at all what happened,” Stewart said. “We had simply decided before and they weren’t aware of it.”
Fellow Utah Rep. Rob Bishop had a similar experience. He announced he was against reauthorization soon after the club said it would be targeting him as part of its ad campaign. The group canceled the ad after Bishop expressed his position.
“The campaign really played no role in his position,” Bishop Communications Director Lee Lonsberry said. “The Club for Growth hadn’t reached out to us, and if that call had been made, they probably wouldn’t have included Bishop on their list.”
Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores of Texas, another target of the club’s ads, has since called for Congress to let the bank expire.
Regardless of whether the group was a factor in those members' decisions, McIntosh is pleased.
“We wanted to show that there’s momentum building,” he noted, adding that additional members might think, “I don’t want to be the next one, maybe I should come out against it.”
The chamber went up with radio ads in dozens of congressional districts, as well as TV ads defending several of the same Republicans the Club for Growth is targeting, such as Georgia’s Earl L. "Buddy" Carter, Pennsylvania’s Bill Shuster and Tennessee's Stephen Fincher, who introduced reauthorization legislation in January.
The chamber's ads were also directed at a conservative Republican audience. Spots in Shuster's and Fincher's districts began by labeling the member "conservative" and went on to urge voters to "thank him for standing with conservatives."
Stewart thinks the ads from both groups "kind of missed their mark." In particular, he questioned the chamber’s rationale for advertising on talk radio shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.
“Now, your typical Glenn Beck listener is calling us and saying, ‘Dude, you gotta support those jobs,’” Stewart said. “And we’d say, ‘You know, this is Ex-Im Bank. Do you know what that is?’ ‘No, not really.’”
The chamber would not discuss its messaging strategy with CQ Roll Call. But it’s no wonder the Club for Growth’s ads open with, “What is the Export-Import Bank?”
The club ads quote sources it thinks its audience trusts, McIntosh said. One Washington Examiner op-ed excerpt that flashes across the screen calls the bank “a petri dish of corruption and graft.”
The club chose solidly red districts to appeal to the most sympathetic constituents, with a focus on members McIntosh called “opinion leaders in the conference.”
Targeting the Export-Import Bank fits with the club’s anti-tax, free-market agenda. But it’s also an issue where McIntosh sees achievable results, especially with Republicans controlling both chambers.
“ It’s something Republicans can do without getting the president’s signature,” he said. “All they have to do is decide not to pass a bill.”
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