Business groups aiding at-risk Dems

Several business groups are coming to the aid of embattled Democrats at risk of losing their seats in the midterm elections. 

The independent spending has received little attention in an election cycle dominated by talk of unprecedented outside spending on behalf of the GOP. 

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But the help for Democrats could affect a few key races that could spell the difference between slim control of Congress and life in the minority.

In South Dakota, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D) has received a big boost from a Washington-based credit union trade group. Herseth Sandlin is locked in a tight race with Republican Kristi Noem.

The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) dropped $143,000 last week on a 30-second television ad that depicts the three-term congresswoman as a friend of small business, an opponent of Wall Street bailouts and “an independent leader” who stands up to Democratic leaders.

For the credit union group, the TV ad is a chance to help an industry ally weather an election cycle that threatens to wipe out Democratic control of Congress.

“[Herseth Sandlin] has been a friend of credit unions and has a tight race,” said Richard Gose, the association’s senior vice president. “We thought our participation might make a difference.”

The credit union organization is one of a handful of business-oriented trade associations spending big money on campaign fliers and radio and television ads to help Democrats.

So far this cycle, business trade associations have spent $23.8 million on outside “independent expenditures” and other spending that is not coordinated directly with either Democratic or Republican campaigns, according to Federal Election Commission records.

While about $20 million has gone to help Republicans, almost $4 million has gone for Democrats.

Dave Levinthal, communications director at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, said it’s only natural for business groups to back Democrats who share their views, regardless of the broader election climate. 

“If you’re an organization that finds a candidate who is very much in line with your narrow set of issues, then you have an incentive to focus a big chunk of your resources on that particular race,” Levinthal said. 

“You don’t want to lose any players on your team, and if given the opportunity, you want to add people to the roster of people who are likeminded,” he said.

The business-oriented groups spending the most money so far this election cycle are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($16.9 million), National Association of Realtors ($4.1 million), National Federation of Independent Business ($730,000), CUNA ($530,000) and the American Academy of Ophthalmology ($320,000), according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records available as of Monday. 

The Realtors group has spent about $2.5 million to help vulnerable Democratic Reps. Paul Kanjorski (Pa.), John Adler (N.J.), Chet Edwards (Texas), Dennis Cardoza (Calif.) and Bill Foster (Ill.).

In Foster’s race against state Sen. Randy Hultgren, the Realtors have spent close to $800,000 in the last two weeks on direct mail, consulting fees, survey costs and Web ads. The spending is equal to half of the $1.5 million Foster has in cash on hand for the campaign home stretch, according to the latest FEC data.

“We do not choose between Democrats, Republicans, independents or any other party. We support those who have supported us,” said Lucien Salvant, managing director of public affairs at the National Association of Realtors.

Rep. Glenn Nye (D-Va.), who trailed Scott Rigell (R) by six percentage points in a recent Hill midterm election poll, is receiving help from the ophthalmologist association. The group spent close to $65,000 on cable and radio media buys.

Nye was one of 34 Democrats to oppose the Democratic healthcare overhaul. Kevin Walter, communications manager at the ophthalmologist association, declined to comment.

The business groups are also supporting Democratic senators in challenging reelection bids.

The American College of Surgeons Professional Association on Tuesday spent more than $90,000 to support Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-Wash.) reelection bid. 

The credit union group also has spent $152,000 to support Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). 

“It is, frankly, a way to be involved in races that are important to credit unions,” Gose said.