U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue delivers his annual State of American Business address in Washington, Jan. 10, 2018. Credit: Susan Walsh | AP

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, navigating dramatic cultural change that’s transforming the worlds of politics and business, plans to become less aligned with the Republican Party than it has been for decades.

The largest and most powerful corporate lobbying group in Washington, D.C., is changing the way it evaluates lawmakers for the first time in 40 years, launching a $250 million capital campaign to remodel its headquarters and even rethinking its approach to regulation.

Several dues-paying companies have balked as the chamber endorsed fewer and fewer Democrats over the past several election cycles. The GOP’s drift toward protectionism, nativism and isolationism since Donald Trump took over the party in 2016 is also at odds with the chamber’s longtime support for expanding free trade, growing legal immigration and investing in infrastructure.

The chamber’s major strategic shift, outlined here for the first time based on a series of exclusive interviews with its leaders, grew out of more than two years of intensive conversations. The deliberations began in earnest shortly after Trump became president but long before the Democratic takeover of the House in the midterms ushered in divided government.

Tom Donohue, the chamber’s longtime president and chief executive, compares it to making substitutions during a basketball game.

“It’s very unfortunate that the far right has gone very far right, and the far left has gone very far left. If you think about this, there is a hole in the middle,” he said. “So what we’re doing — and this is critical — is adjusting and responding to the new politics. We’re adjusting and responding to the new Congress and the way the administration operates. The people that win in sports and in politics and in business are the people that are not so focused on one approach but are ready to adjust.”

The Democratic establishment soured on the chamber as the group came to more reliably support GOP candidates. Democrat Evan Bayh even worked for the chamber for five years after leaving the Senate, for example, but the group spent $1.4 million on television ads against him when he ran unsuccessfully to get his old seat back in 2016.

“It’s not just about telling a different story. We have to fundamentally act differently, too,” said Tom Wilson, the chairman of the chamber’s board of directors and the CEO of Allstate Corp. “We cannot just single-source our politics through one party. We need to be more accessible and more bipartisan than we were. You can decide how much we were, and everyone’s got their own views on that, but we just need to reach across the aisle to more Democrats.”

Senior chamber officials have launched a charm offensive on Capitol Hill, reaching out to freshman Democrats from swing districts whom they perceive as reasonable to set up meetings and highlight areas of common ground.

During the sit-downs with Democratic members, chamber leaders are explaining how they will change the scorecard this year to incentivize Democrats to work with them. The chamber has historically relied solely on a handful of key votes, but the polarization of Congress and the rise of party-line voting has skewed the ratings so that it’s hard for Democrats to get good numbers.

This year the chamber is adding two other components. One relates to sponsoring something the business community supports. The other relates to sponsoring bills across party lines, even if the chamber doesn’t support them.

“If anybody here ever thought of themselves as working for a partisan place, they should stop,” said Suzanne Clark, the senior executive vice president of the chamber. “Because if we are for free trade, we have to be for whoever wants to work with us on that. … We complained all the time that there was no middle … and then some people started pushing back and saying well you’re not supporting the middle. Everybody keeps worrying about the majority in any one moment, so who is creating the middle?”

Chamber leaders say they hope these changes lead to more Democratic congressional endorsements in 2020 and beyond. “If you’re a Democrat and you think, ‘Well, I’m never going to be aligned with the chamber on 70 to 80 percent of their stuff, so I’m not even going to try,’ that’s not their fault,” Wilson added.

“The Republican-sponsored legislation was more in line with the chamber’s positions … than the Democratic-sponsored legislation was. It wasn’t that everything Democrats did we didn’t like, but as a result of that natural inclination, what happened was relationships deteriorated. They deteriorated in little ways, like a day at a time. … We need to change the way we go to market here and the way we build our relationships.”