More than a year after Congress banned businesses from funding the national party committees with soft-money checks, a group of Republican loyalists is settling on a new electoral role for Corporate America that relies more heavily on grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts than on million-dollar ad buys.
The decision could represent a major shift in how businesses play in political campaigns in 2004 and beyond.
“During the age of prosperity, it became easy for businesses to write soft-money checks to the parties and fund candidates directly with hard dollars. The wave of the future is that businesses are going to have to mobilize voters if they want to impact elections,” said Greg Casey, president of the Business-Industry PAC and a leader in the emerging campaign.
The decision by the K Street insiders represents a rebuff to pressure from GOP political consultants and party loyalists who have been urging corporations to transfer the millions of dollars they once sent to the Republican Party into a massive television blitz in 2004 designed to ensure that the House, Senate and White House remain in Republican hands.
“Where Corporate America has been beneficial to the Republican Party is the ability to provide the resources to the party to get the message out,” said one Republican political strategist, who declined to be identified. “The liberal third-party groups — the Sierra Club, the [National] Abortion [and Reproductive] Rights Action League, the AFL-CIO — will spend the vast majority of their resources on a advertisements against Republicans. Where will Corporate America be?”
Added Mitch Bainwol, a Republican political strategist who served as executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the previous cycle, “You need both a good ground game and air cover.”
A few GOP-friendly groups, such as the pharmaceutical industry and the National Rife Association, are laying the groundwork for expensive television campaigns to benefit President Bush and Republican candidates. And Republican campaign strategists predict that several large soft-money contributors will help fund the air war.
But many corporations are leaning toward a far more cautious — and they believe effective — campaign to educate their employees about business-friendly candidates and make sure they register to vote and go to the polls on Election Day.
Though the movement remains in the early stages — especially because the Supreme Court has not issued the final word on the restrictions on soft money and independent advertising campaigns — some of the largest corporations are on board with the plan, including the Boeing Co., ExxonMobil, Halliburton, Chevron, Proctor & Gamble, Intel and Georgia Pacific.
The plan also is backed by influential business lobbyists on K Street, including Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Dan Danner of the National Federation of Independent Business, Michael Baroody of the National Association of Manufacturers and Dirk Van Dongen of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.
“I think business leaders have concluded that the better use of their resources is to mobilize their own kind,” said Van Dongen, who has close ties to the White House.
The emerging business campaign has its roots in an effort during the 2000 presidential campaign started by White House ally David Gribbin, a former aide to Vice President Cheney who recently retired as a lobbyist at Clark & Weinstock.
The idea was to persuade corporate executives to give their employees information about the business-friendly candidates in presidential and Congressional races.
Working through BIPAC, business leaders contacted 1.5 million voters in 2000. That figure swelled to 11 million employees in 2002.
Next year, businesses plan to contact more than 20 million voting employees about the business-friendly candidates in House, Senate and presidential races.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) said Republicans need a mix of advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts. But he recognized the potential of the grassroots strategy.
“If they make 1 million contacts now, and 80 percent of them vote Republican, then if I get 2 million contacts, I get 80 percent of those,” he said.
Eventually, Republican leaders hope companies will endorse candidates and send out mailings to their employees and shareholders urging them to contact Members of Congress on issues important to the company, say those involved with the effort.
The Business Roundtable, an association of 150 of the largest U.S. businesses, took the first step in that process earlier this year when several of its most politically active companies sent fliers to their shareholders touting the benefits of the White House plan to slash taxes on corporate dividends.
Now that corporations can no longer send million-dollar checks to the Republican National Committee, many in the business community believe that similar grassroots efforts — rather than money — will serve as a litmus test for loyalty to the Republican Party.
“I believe that within a few years, if a Fortune 500 company wants a meeting in Washington, the ticket of admission will be, ‘Bring us the mailing you sent to shareholders on the topic,’” said GOP activist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. “Because if you haven’t done that, then you are asking me to do something that you haven’t even done. That will become the opening bid.”
For the 2004 elections, BIPAC is working with individual businesses and trade associations to set up internal company Web sites so businesses can provide employees with information about how to register, where to vote and how to get an absentee ballot.
“The number one source for political information is one’s employers,” Norquist said.
Web sites also have information about candidates for office, such as voting records. However, the sites do not tell employees to vote for a particular candidate or even a Republican candidate.
“You don’t tell them how to vote, but you say, ‘Here are the issues that are important to us and you make sure they are registered and vote,’” said BIPAC’s Casey, a former Republican Senate Sergeant-at-Arms. “To the degree that Republicans vote more correctly on our issues, they will be the beneficiaries.”
By providing political information directly to employers and encouraging them to vote, business leaders believe they can go a long way toward countering the strength of unions in similar voter-mobilization efforts and winning elections.
In Minnesota’s 2002 Senate race, for example, 55,000 state employees logged onto BIPAC-run Web sites to get information on the candidates. Republican candidate Norm Coleman won the race by fewer than 50,000 votes.
Others say that businesses can make a huge impact simply by making sure their employees have absentee ballots. According to election data, 19 million registered voters did not vote in the 2000 elections — 10 percent of whom were traveling.
“If the business community can work that piece alone, it would make a substantial difference in turnout,” Van Dongen said.
Several business leaders are planning their own grassroots campaigns to aide business-friendly candidates.
David Rehr, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, plans to prod his member companies to stuff their employees’ paychecks with campaign materials in the months leading up to the 2004 elections.
Rehr also is considering a plan to distribute political information on the beer coasters that the association’s members distribute to more than 200,000 bars and restaurants around the country.
“It might thank a Member for voting to kill the death tax or for keeping beer taxes low. You flip it over, and there is their picture,” Rehr said. “It could create quite a little buzz.”
Other businesses plan to follow an approach that has been used by the NFIB for years to influence elections.
The association targets key races and floods the telephone lines, fax machines and mailboxes of hundreds of thousands of voters with information about candidates that favor issues that help small businesses.
In the past election cycle, the small-
business lobby helped contact nearly 8 million voters in states and districts with key races, according to figures provided by NFIB.
Republican campaign strategists have nothing but praise for the NFIB efforts — but they doubt that the larger business community can mimic the strategy.
That’s why some Republicans have pressed businesses to spend millions of dollars on television campaigns supporting Republican candidates.
“If you look at the independent ads, you see labor, you see environmentalists, you see special interests,” said Sen. Don Nickles
(R-Okla.). “The business community, by and large, is not out there.”
But many business lobbyists say that such ads do little to influence voters. They charge that campaign strategists favor expensive television advertising campaigns because the they personally profit from the business.
“Too often Republican consultants say, ‘Let’s run ads,’ because they are easy instead of doing the real hard work of educating their members, getting them out and getting them to vote,” said Rehr. “My goal is not to make the Republican consultants wealthy.”