WASHINGTON — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s advertising is outpacing both political parties in close Senate races, adding volume to attack ads — some of which have been questioned by fact-checkers — being aired against Democrats.
The nation’s biggest business lobby is second only to Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a Republican group supporting presumptive party presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in airing campaign ads, according to a Bloomberg review of data provided by New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
“Our members have been in a defensive posture because of the unprecedented threats aimed at them” on labor, health care, and energy policy by Obama’s administration, said Rob Engstrom, the chamber’s national political director. “Our members are interested in getting back on offense and creating jobs in this country.”
The chamber’s top targets include Democratic senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bill Nelson of Florida, Jon Tester of Montana, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. The organization is also running ads supporting such candidates as former Republican governor Linda Lingle, who is running for an open Hawaii seat.
So far, the chamber has targeted nine Senate races and 31 House seats, according to Blair Latoff, a chamber spokeswoman. Of the 40 races, the chamber is backing a Democrat in two House races, John Barrow of Georgia’s 12th congressional district and Jim Matheson of Utah’s second district
“They’re with the Republicans. There’s little evidence otherwise,”said J.B. Poersch, a strategist for Majority PAC, a super-political action committee dedicated to helping Democrats retain Senate control.
A prime issue being used in the ads is the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the health law Obama shepherded through Congress. In the four Senate races where the chamber has put much of its money — Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Montana — its most-run ads focus on the health law, which all of the Democratic incumbents supported.
In Florida, the chamber has replayed one ad, titled “Nightmare,” 2,599 times. The ad narrator says that seniors will see $500 billion Medicare cuts to fund “Obamacare,” a claim which Politifact.com, a research project based in Tampa, Fla., rates “mostly false.”
The law doesn’t cut $500 billion from the current Medicare budget. It does restrain future growth of the government health program for seniors by $500 billion less than originally projected over the next ten years.
The chamber, a nonprofit organization, doesn’t have to disclose its donors. According to 2010 corporate annual reports, health companies are dues-paying members of the organization. Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based drugmaker, Merck & Co., gave $725,000 to the chamber, while Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna Inc., a health insurer, invested $100,000. In 2009, when the law was being drafted, health companies accounted for 40 percent of the chamber’s $214.6 million budget, a Bloomberg review of data showed.
In Ohio, the chamber has run the most negative ads of any group including the candidate campaigns, with 5,515 spots. The ad that has run the most says Brown supports raising energy taxes.
One of the votes behind that claim was a measure to eliminate $12 billion in tax breaks to oil companies over 10 years as a way of reducing the budget deficit, according to Politifact. It failed to gain enough votes for consideration on the Senate floor.
Brown also opposed a measure to expand offshore oil and gas drilling, which U.S. energy companies say would help lower fuel taxes.
The chamber counts major oil companies as members, including Chevron Corp. which made a $500,000 payment to the group in 2010, according to corporate records.
Politifact rated the ad “mostly false” since the taxes Brown was supporting affected oil companies and not Ohio consumers and since the “consumer impact of offshore drilling would be minimal and in the far future.”
Anthony Corrado, professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, said while Crossroads and the Democratic and Republican National Committees are investing primarily in the presidential race, the chamber has the opportunity to drive the debate in congressional elections.
“They tend to focus their advertising early” so they can dominate the airwaves, he said. “The chamber has been very effective in recent election cycles pursuing a very targeted strategy of focusing on competitive races and highlighting their issues.”
The chamber’s on-air presence demonstrates corporate America’s rapid expansion into elections since it spent $4 million on congressional elections in the 2004 election. By 2008, the chamber’s political investment had grown to $36 million, according to a review by the Campaign Finance Institute in Washington.
In promising the largest grassroots mobilization and voter education campaign in its 100-year history, the chamber plans this year to spend more than the $50 million it poured into the 2010 campaign cycle. Engstrom, the group’s campaign strategist, wouldn’t disclose a specific total.
“They’re arguably the powerhouse here, outside of groups like American Crossroads,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
Engstrom called “patently false” Democratic charges that the business group is an extension of the Republican Party.
“If you vote with the business community 70 percent of the time then you’re automatically endorsed,” he said, adding that candidates who receive support or opposition are chosen based on an annual scorecard ranking votes on key business-related issues. “We proudly support Democrats when they vote with the chamber.”
In House races, the group’s strategy is more focused on promoting Republicans than attacking Democrats, with the number of positive ads outpacing the number of negative ads, according to CMAG.
With assistance from Jonathan D. Salant in Washington.