The US Chamber of Commerce's Multimillion-Dollar Attack Plan
“Obamacare will be a nightmare for Florida seniors,” a grim voiceover announces. “Did Bill Nelson consider the consequences when he cast a deciding vote for Obamacare?”
“Tell Jon Tester: the Washington way isn’t the solution,” another intones. “We need less government and lower taxes.”
“Sherrod,” a third asks, referring to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, “what planet are you on?”
If you live in a state where a competitive race could help tip the balance in the Senate this fall, you’ve almost certainly seen ads like these, laden with menacing theme music, light on the facts and funded by the US Chamber of Commerce. The nation’s largest business lobby is showcasing bold ambitions this year in an effort to build on gains made in the 2010 midterms, when at least $33 million of Chamber advertising helped push the nation dramatically rightward. The group began placing ads in swing districts as early as November 2011. Since then, it has rolled out a campaign aimed at influencing at least fifty House and eight Senate races, and according to Politico it has set a goal of $100 million in spending for this electoral cycle.
Watchdog groups believe the strategy in 2012 is similar to that of 2010: the Chamber goes into a district, blitzes it with attack ads to soften up the opposition and then steps back to let other deep-pocket groups come in. The intent is to force Democrats to play defense across the board, thus spreading their resources thin. According to the liberal online publication ThinkProgress, twenty of the twenty-one ads the Chamber released in May were hostile to Democratic candidates.
“The Chamber has spent about $600,000 attacking me,” Tester, the farmer turned Democratic Montana senator, told me in April. “I’ve got a great small-business record. I’ve carried bills the US Chamber has advocated for in the past. [But] they see Montana as a state that they can pick up. They’re dishonest, painting me as something I’m not. They’re trying to paint me as Wall Street, as somebody who’s ‘gone DC.’ It’s about as crazy as anybody can get.”
The organization is maintaining its longstanding policy of not officially taking sides in presidential elections. But even though it has not directly funded anti-Obama or pro-Romney ads, that doesn’t mean its leaders wouldn’t dearly love to oust Obama. Robert Weissman, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, says the Chamber hopes to influence the presidential election indirectly—by shaping the contours of the public debate in the months leading up to election day and by bringing conservative voters to the polls.
It is also reportedly coordinating with the top conservative Super PACs to craft a unified message and spending strategy. US Chamber Watch has documented a series of meetings between the Chamber’s counsel and GOP strategists dating back to 2009, when they conceived the notion of creating American Crossroads, the Super PAC headed by Karl Rove. Since then, the watchdog group believes, the Chamber has been holding regular meetings with Crossroads, which claims that it will be able to bring $300 million to the 2012 election fight, and with Koch brothers–backed organizations (including Americans for Prosperity), which have bandied about the figure of $400 million as their target. Further evidence of cross-pollination: Chamber strategist Scott Reed previously worked for the GOP, and former Chamber counsel Steven Law is president of Crossroads GPS, the Rove-affiliated 501(c)(4) “social welfare organization.”
According to the Washington Post, the key players in this alliance have been meeting every couple of weeks to strategize. In May, Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei reported in Politico that the Chamber, Crossroads, Americans for Prosperity and the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund had joined together in a pledge to raise an unprecedented $1 billion to influence the upcoming elections.
Compared to these figures, the $100 million that the Chamber hopes to spend could seem almost paltry. But to view it as such would be a huge mistake—for if recent years have proven anything about the role of money in the country’s politics, it’s that a group with a sizable budget for carefully targeted advertising can exert outsize influence on election day.
All of this adds up to a ton of bad news for the country’s democratic system. Pay-to-play makes it that much harder for ordinary people to get a fair hearing. It wrecks the notion of good governance, and it undermines the idea that the public interest can be well represented by the state and its elected officials.
And yet there are signs that the Chamber has overplayed its hand. Historically, the organization has been careful to camouflage its right-wing economic agenda, claiming it simply champions a “common sense” approach to the country’s problems. But these days the Chamber is struggling to tame the Tea Party beast it helped to unleash, whose destabilizing extremism was on display during last year’s debt ceiling debate. And the Chamber is facing increased scrutiny into its questionable spending of charitable funds for political purposes as well as its alleged misuse of money ponied up by anonymous donors. The Citizens United ruling gave corporations a free pass to influence elections, but with the flood of money has come heightened attention to the organizations that are bundling and spending it, often playing fast and loose with established federal election requirements. That puts the Chamber in an unwelcome—and possibly damaging—spotlight.
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