The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will air its first political ads of the 2012 election cycle Wednesday, in a million-dollar-plus buy that includes attacks on two vulnerable Democratic senators, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana.
The chamber spots are airing earlier in the campaign cycle than ever before — nine months ahead of their debut in 2008 — a sign that officials say indicates how aggressively the group intends to participate this election cycle.
"The business community has been under unprecedented threat," Rob Engstrom, part of a two-man team running the chamber's political operation, said in explaining why the trade group will break its previous political spending record — $50 million — to try to elect a more business-friendly Congress.
The two men expect to use a grass-roots organization, "Friends of the Chamber," to actively target 10 to 12 Senate races and 50 or more House seats, a record number. They also expect to see a boost in the number of state and local chamber affiliates becoming active politically. Already, they say, far more candidates have contacted the chamber seeking support than ever before, and those interested include Democrats. (By policy, the chamber does not endorse nor air ads in the presidential campaign.)
The chamber's power has grown enormously in the last decade under Chief Executive Tom Donohue, who has emphasized political engagement and building the organization's membership and treasury. Because it is a nonprofit trade association, the chamber can accept unlimited contributions from corporations and then use them in independent political ads — giving it an advantage over the strictly limited donations to candidates. Like other trade associations, the chamber does not release details of the donations and it has resisted efforts to require donor disclosure.
The new ads are so-called issue ads that do not explicitly endorse or oppose a candidate, but instead urge viewers to call the official. The ads reflect what Reed describes as a major battle line for the chamber this year: "Economic growth versus big government."
For example, the ad running in Montana recalls Tester's votes for "government-run healthcare" then urges voters to "call Sen. Tester and tell him to stop supporting big government and start fighting for Montana's families." Crossroads GPS, the conservative group co-founded by Karl Rove, released an ad last week slamming Tester for supporting an Environmental Protection Agency regulation on farm dust. One Montana cable show pulled the ad, according the Associated Press, because the network determined that it was false; the regulation was actually never proposed, and the vote cited in the ad was a procedural measure. Tester is locked in a tight race with Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg.
The Ohio buy is the biggest for the chamber — a sign of how hard the organization will fight in that battleground state and how eager the chamber is to knock off Brown, who scored a 9% ranking on the chamber's key vote survey.
Brown, a liberal Democrat elected to the Senate in 2006, will probably face off against rising Republican Josh Mandel, who now serves as state treasurer.
Brown is leading Mandel in early polls. But the race, considered crucial to maintain the Democratic hold on the Senate, is expected to be heated and expensive. Already, Brown has raised nearly $8 million and has $4.2 million cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Mandel has brought in $3.5 million so far this year and has nearly that much — $3.3 million — in the bank.
The chamber ads try to put a chill on Brown by emphasizing the coming heating bills for Ohio residents. The spot opens with a hand adjusting a thermostat as an announcer intones, "Energy costs are expected to rise," then hits Brown for "voting to increase energy taxes." It closes by urging viewers to "call Sherrod Brown. Tell him Ohioans need economic help, not higher energy taxes."
In Nevada, the chamber is advertising on behalf of Sen. Dean Heller, who was appointed to the Senate in May after GOP Sen. John Ensign resigned amid a sex scandal and subsequent ethics investigation. Heller faces Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who has served seven terms in the House and has more than $3 million in the bank for her Senate run. Heller has $2.7 million in cash on hand in his Senate account.
The Friends of the Chamber program was the brainchild of the chamber's recently departed political director, Bill Miller. The organization now boasts 7 million members who have generated more than 2.3 million letters and emails to members of Congress since 2008.