Corporations curtail political involvement this year

Times Staff Writer

Encouraged by their success with grass-roots campaigning in 2004 and legislative victories scored in the GOP-controlled Congress, pro-business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce raised millions for this year’s political campaigns.

But many corporations have become noticeably less enthusiastic about sending executives and other workers into the field as campaign volunteers -- dealing a blow to the strategic coalition that has helped Republicans dominate national politics for the last 10 years.

Also, say business advocacy groups, there has been a decline in business executives’ willingness to make political appeals to employees on behalf of candidates.


The change is palpable for Washington lobbyist Richard Hohlt, who works on behalf of banking and manufacturing interests. In years past, Hohlt called the executives he represented to advise them about key races in which their corporate employees would then become involved.

This year, Hohlt says, he’s found it “more difficult to get clients engaged in the election.”

Darrell Shull, a vice president at the Business Industry Political Action Committee, or BIPAC, has had a similar experience. His Washington-based organization encourages corporate activism, and his responsibilities include urging companies and their employees to get involved at the local level.

“In 2004, we fielded a lot more questions about how companies could help specific candidates,” Shull says. “This time, maybe because so many races are in play, our people seem to be less focused on candidates. They’re more focused on issues.”

Two years ago, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman credited BIPAC and other business groups with putting the GOP over the top in Ohio, Iowa and other key states by getting corporations involved in grass-roots campaigning.

This year, BIPAC and the chamber laid plans to be even more active, with the chamber spending far more than in the past and BIPAC signing up more than 1,500 companies and associations, compared with about 800 in 2004.


But both acknowledge that the climate has turned against them.

“The overall environment is difficult,” says Bill Miller, the chamber’s political operations director. “It’s an away game.”

Business advocates offer three primary reasons for the change: Economic issues that motivate business are not salient in a campaign season dominated by Iraq and congressional scandal. With Democrats gaining, pragmatic business owners are less eager to identify exclusively with the GOP. And the rapidly increasing number of races in play has proved challenging and sometimes overwhelming to business organizations.

Hohlt thinks that business activism may also be the victim of its own success. “When things are going well, people aren’t as motivated,” said Hohlt, a leading donor to Republican causes this cycle.

Dirk Van Dongen, who leads the National Assn. of Wholesaler-Distributors in Washington, says donations and enthusiasm among the business coalition members he works with remain high for targeted GOP candidates.

He acknowledges that he has detected a bit more resistance to his pro-GOP message among small to medium-size member companies. The change is “infinitesimal,” he says, but “this is a sobering election. It is not one that breeds natural enthusiasm.”

Businesses are writing more checks to campaigns than ever and continue to contribute heavily to Republicans, though recent reports suggest Democrats are gaining slightly. The chamber has budgeted some $40 million for state and federal races, much of it dedicated to local organizing on behalf of Republican -- and a few Democratic -- candidates.


The National Federation of Independent Business has raised $11 million, a record, and emphasizes its work in key races.

Overall, though, it appears this cycle that corporations may be returning to 20th century norms, when business participated in politics primarily by writing checks.

That had changed markedly in the late 1990s. Inspired by proposals to limit soft-money contributions, BIPAC, the chamber and others began seeking other strategies. One thing they decided to do was compete with organized labor to influence workers on the job.

The chamber, like BIPAC, sent out voter guides for member companies to distribute to workers. The guides generally touted Republicans and slammed Democrats.

Unions scoffed, but large corporations, including more than half of the country’s 50 largest multinational companies, signed up for the program, and GOP officials believe their activism helped chip away slivers of Democratic support. These marginal gains proved valuable in close races.

After the 2004 election, chamber President Tom Donohue wrote members that the election represented “a landmark achievement for the chamber’s political program ... [investing] up to $30 million in the Nov. 2 elections. What was the return on this investment? In House and Senate races, the chamber endorsed 269 candidates, and 249 of them won.”


This year, Donohue’s letter may not be so glowing. Though the chamber has deployed 300 paid campaign workers around the country, the effort has been beset by uncertainty.

“The challenge this time is that the playing field has not narrowed as happened in the past,” says Miller. “This time it has expanded -- so there are places where we have deployed people, then called them back and redeployed them to another spot where a race has heated up.”

Even in tough years, though, Miller says, it’s important to engage.

“If you’re not out there with vigor in October, then when January comes along and you are concerned about your legislative agenda, people don’t think about you.”