U.S. Chamber of Commerce Well Short of Planned Spending

Business Lobby's Goal of $75 Million in Campaign Expenditures May Be Out of Reach in Final Month

Posted October 5, 2010 at 6:33pm

Eager to reverse many of the Obama administration’s policies, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue has vowed to spend $75 million on the upcoming Congressional elections. But with less than a month until Election Day, the nation’s leading business lobby is well short of that bold goal as it competes with other outside campaign entities for business and conservative donors.

As of Monday, the chamber had spent just less than $9 million on electioneering and communications activities this year, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Those expenditures, the bulk of which were reported in the past month, were earmarked for television advertising in key Senate races, including those in California, Florida, Indiana and New Hampshire.

The chamber has also contributed $4.6 million to 527 groups, much of it to the Republican Governors Association. And the group has doled out slightly more than $100,000 from its political action committee. Of that sum, $79,000 went to federal candidates ‘ with almost 85 percent of that portion going to Republicans.

While most groups rapidly increase their spending in the final month before the elections, experts said the chamber still faces a steep climb to meet its target.

‘Based on what the chamber has said they have spent to date, the chamber has a long way to go to meet the target of $75 million,’ said Peter Stone of the Center for Public Integrity. He also said there remain unanswered questions about the chamber’s election-year fundraising.

‘But we don’t know how much they are holding back and how much they have raised so far,’ he said. ‘It is still conceivable they could pour as much as $50 million in the last weeks of the campaign into a gamut of activities, including ads and get-out-the-vote efforts.’

Stone recently authored a report for the Center for Public Integrity analyzing the major outside groups that are spending prodigiously this election cycle. In that report, Stone cited Bill Miller, the chamber’s national political director, saying the chamber has spent much more. Miller said the business group had spent $20 million through mid-September not only on TV advertising but also on mail and phone banks. Miller also said the chamber intended to spend millions of dollars on online mobilization using a new data bank of 6 million ‘Friends of the Chamber.’

It is difficult to get a handle on the chamber’s spending on grass-roots activity and its expenditures on state campaigns, which are not reported to the FEC.

The chamber is not required to report the companies from which it has collected donations to run its campaign. But last week media outlets reported the chamber had received $1 million from News Corp., owner of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, for its campaign effort.

Chamber spokesman J.P. Fielder did not address specific campaign spending.

In an e-mailed statement, Fielder said, ‘As Tom Donohue said in his State of American Business address last January this will be the largest political effort in the Chamber’s history because we feel in the current economy, it’s more important than ever to highlight where candidates stand on policies that create jobs.’

Fielder said that so far in this cycle, the chamber has ‘spent significantly on governors races, primaries and special elections (for example. Mass.).’ The chamber ran ads backing eventual Republican victor Scott Brown in the Senate special election in Massachusetts.

Fielder also said the focus was not just on TV spots but on educating voters on issues through ‘mailers, phones, a ground game as well as online and our Friends of the Chamber database.’

Some in the business community said they have come to expect some exaggeration from the chamber leadership when it comes to fundraising efforts.

‘They make a lot of promises and deliver a lot, but it is never as much as they say,’ one business lobbyist said.

The chamber, however, has demonstrated a willingness to open its wallet to try to shape public policy. Since President Barack Obama took office, the business group has spent $157 million on lobbying, much of it on trying to defeat some of the president’s key legislative initiatives, such as the health care overhaul and Wall Street regulations.

But this election season, the chamber is competing for conservatives’ money from a host of other groups such as American Crossroads, founded by Karl Rove, former political adviser to President George W. Bush. Steven Law, former general counsel for the chamber and current president of American Crossroads, told the Center for Public Integrity that the group has collected $32 million as of Sept. 20.

The RGA has reported raising $58 million and spending $31 million so far this cycle, collecting significant donations from the health insurance giant WellPoint, the energy company run by brothers David and Charles Koch, and Houston developer and major GOP donor Bob Perry.

Despite the plethora of groups raising money, National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors Senior Vice President Jade West doubts the chamber was having trouble drumming up financial support.

She said that when her group reached out to Members to maximize their contributions to the association’s PAC last month, ‘nobody said no.’

On Tuesday, an allegation by the liberal group Think Progress that the chamber was using foreign money to fund political activity sparked calls for a federal investigation from Democrats and liberal groups. The chamber has denied the claim.

So far the chamber has zeroed in on a series of competitive Senate races. The business group has reported spending more than $3 million on TV ads critical of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), accusing her in one spot of ‘voting to add trillions to the national debt.’

Boxer, in a competitive race against ex-Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina, has pulled ahead in the polls in recent weeks.

The chamber also reported spending $1 million opposing the Senate bid of Charlie Crist in Florida. Crist, who pulled out of the GOP primary, is running as an Independent against Republican Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek.

The business group has also run ads against Senate Democratic contenders Rep. Brad Ellsworth in Indiana, Rep. Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania, Jack Conway in Kentucky and Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado. They are running ads to help support GOP contenders Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Rep. Roy Blunt in Missouri.

So far the chamber has thrown its support behind one Democratic Senatorial contender, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. But the group has not reported spending on any ads to plug his Senate bid.

Alex Knott contributed to this report.