Business groups target Senate races

Hamburger is a Times staff writer.

A wintry edge was in the air as five teams of unlikely looking political organizers, many of them from out of town, left the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce office on a wind-swept downtown street last week and fanned out to visit more than 200 businesses, proselytizing bank tellers, restaurant managers and factory owners alike.

It was just one example of the business establishment rolling out its version of the “ground game” that has contributed to many Republican victories in recent years, a meticulously targeted grass-roots operation that teams up volunteers with seasoned political operatives who parachute in for last-minute persuasion and get-out-the-vote drives.

But there’s something unexpected about the effort being orchestrated this year by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business groups. Instead of giving top priority to “pro-business” candidates for president, Congress and local offices, the emphasis is on a handful of U.S. Senate races.


Though officially nonpartisan, the chamber and other business organizations have provided valuable support to Republicans in recent elections, starting with the GOP’s presidential standard-bearer and going down the ticket.

This year, however, the chamber and its allies have narrowed their priorities: They are going all-out for a handful of GOP Senate candidates in an attempt to prevent the expected Democratic tide from producing such a lopsided majority that Republican filibusters and other parliamentary maneuvers could not hold it back.

In particular, business lobbyists fear that a Democratic supermajority could push through the Employee Free Choice Act proposal, or EFCA, which would make it easier for unions to organize workers.

The chamber and allied groups are flooding the airwaves and streets in Minnesota and four other states with money and ground troops.

The chamber, which spends more on election activities than any other business group, will dole out $35 million to influence federal races this year, dumping a third of that into just five Senate races. Allied business-backed coalitions report spending an additional $30 million to $50 million in key states for advertising against EFCA.

Ground zero in this rear-guard action is Minnesota, where first-term Republican Sen. Norm Coleman is fighting for survival in one of the most expensive Senate campaigns in the country. His opponent, comedian Al Franken, has raised a huge war chest and receives grass-roots help from organized labor, which also views this race -- and EFCA -- as a top priority.

The chamber-backed ground game is also focusing on Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is in a tight race; North Carolina, where Sen. Elizabeth Dole is trailing; Mississippi, where Sen. Roger Wicker is polling slightly ahead; and New Hampshire, where Sen. John E. Sununu has fallen behind former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

Earlier in the campaign, Minnesota was considered a prime target by ambitious Republicans who deliberately set their national convention here in hopes of pulling this state from reliably blue to red in the presidential election. For months, John McCain’s campaign outspent Barack Obama’s in advertising here. And there was a time -- in the heady days after the GOP convention in September -- when McCain led the Illinois Democrat in local polls.

The presidential race is no longer considered a real contest. McCain’s campaign has pulled its advertising in the state. Even once secure Republican House incumbents, including conservative firebrand Michele Bachmann, are endangered.

St. Cloud is the biggest city in Bachmann’s district, but the local chamber affiliate has taken no position in her race. It endorsed only Coleman, pointing to his long pro-business record and the importance of focusing on the Senate.

“Our team hit almost every downtown business -- including the thrift store and the barber shops,” said Teresa Bohnen, president of the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce, which has never before been active in a federal election. “We had a terrific reaction.”

In the previous decade, business organizations fought political battles mainly by writing checks, sometimes to make contributions to parties and candidates and sometimes to purchase independent mass media advertising. That is still happening in Minnesota and other states.

But in the last few election cycles, the U.S. Chamber and other groups, including the Business Industry Political Action Committee, have started reaching out to business owners and their employees, borrowing a strategy developed by organized labor that builds electoral strength through person-to-person communications.

The chamber’s political director, Bill Miller, notes that the group has endorsed Democratic Senate candidates this year and in the past. But in crucial, tight races, the chamber is helping Republicans, and the investment this year has drawn the ire of leading Senate Democrats.

The business group’s strategy in St. Cloud was pioneered in South Dakota in 2004, when the chamber hired 50 staffers to help defeat then-Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The model was developed by the chamber’s vice president for regional affairs, Doug Loon, who is coordinating the Minnesota ground game for the organization this year.

In addition to St. Cloud, business teams under Loon’s direction fanned out in the suburban towns of Eden Prairie, Minnetonka and Plymouth. The Minnesota plan includes an array of television advertising, some of it incendiary.

One ad paid for by the U.S. chamber and other business groups features a look-alike from the cast of “The Sopranos” television show suggesting that “union bosses” are directing Franken. Another suggests that thugs will attempt to control workplace decisions if the new law, which Franken supports, is passed.

The U.S. chamber has sent dozens of organizers into Minnesota to talk about the issue and to help the Coleman campaign.

The chamber has invested at least $1.8 million in each of its target Senate races, but in Minnesota the number is rising toward $2.5 million.

Other business organizations have jumped into the fray. The National Federation of Independent Business, for example, has spent more than $800,000 in Minnesota for Coleman, an unprecedented sum for one race, mostly on television and radio ads warning about the dangers of EFCA.

The specifics of the issue are arcane, but corporate and labor interests see the stakes as huge.

Union officials see the legislation as opening the way to rejuvenate the labor movement after three decades of decline. Business groups worry about quick organizing drives leading to costly contracts in a tight economy.

Organized labor will spend $350 million on elections this year at all levels, including a special concentration on Senate races. In Minnesota, the AFL-CIO has more than 2,500 volunteers and paid organizers on the ground.

Many of the paid AFL-CIO campaign organizers will remain in position after election day in Minnesota and other states, working on plans to ask winners to immediately commit to backing the EFCA. The chamber’s Miller says the model deployed in St. Cloud will similarly be used after the election to keep the pressure on elected officials from a business standpoint.

Both sides lobbied this issue aggressively last year when the EFCA passed the House but died in the Senate because of a GOP filibuster.

In that vote, McCain, siding with business, supported the filibuster, which prevented action on the bill. Obama, signaling his support for the unions, voted unsuccessfully for cloture.