Off and Running: US Chamber Fires First Salvo


And we’re off… The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is advancing its political and business plan for the 2006 elections by firing an opening $10 million salvo of election ads in the districts of more than 30 of their allies in Congress. Allies that they’d like to see safely reelected, whatever the national mood toward Congress. The ads are slated to run in August, with another wave to follow after Labor Day.

This opening salvo – the biggest in the Chamber’s history – is as sure a barometric reading as you’re likely to find this election year that the nation’s business community is growing nervous about a potential shift in the balance of power in Congress.

It’s still something of a long shot to predict a Democratic takeover in the House, and it’s even less likely in the Senate. But the chance is there and the ones who are most troubled at the prospect are those who’ve fared the best on Capitol Hill in the years that the business-friendly Republicans have been in control. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, representing some of the biggest corporations in America, has been right up there at the head of the line.

What they fear – not without reason – is that this year’s elections for the U.S. House of Representatives may amount to a mid-term referendum on the Bush administration and its allies in Congress.

In sharp contrast to the CEO’s of America’s business community, most ordinary voters have about as dim a view of Congress these days as it’s possible to have. Gas prices, health insurance, the cost of prescription drugs – you name the issue and most Americans are anything but happy with the status quo.

Today’s news of record-breaking profits by the nation’s biggest oil companies is a timely reminder. If you’re a motorist, you’re probably groaning at the news. If you’re an executive with Exxon – or a big investor – you’re grinning, not groaning.

Unfortunately for the Chamber, there’ll be a lot more motorists in the voting booths on Election Day than corporate executives.

But against that broad public disapproval with the performance of Congress, there is a powerful counterforce: inertia and incumbency. Absent an indictment, congressional incumbents almost never lose their reelection bids. Voters routinely draw a sharp distinction between their opinion of Congress as a whole and that of their own representatives – especially in the House of Representatives, the most local of all national offices.

What the Chamber is worried about is that this year’s House elections will effectively become nationalized – with national issues, not local ones, dominating the races, and with voters concerned not just about their local seat in Congress, but about the balance of power in Washington.

That sort of thing does happen in Senate contests if there’s been a sea change in the national mood since the last election, but it rarely happens in the House. The last time it did was in 1994, the year that Newt Gingrich and his friends came up with the Contract with America and pulled off a smashing upset to end the Democrats’ 40-year hold on the House of Representatives.

Could it happen again this year? The Chamber certainly hopes not, but it’s concerned. You don’t spend $10 million on television ads in August unless you are.