By Kevin Bogardus - 11/06/12 10:00 AM EST
Business groups and unions have spent millions of dollars during the 2012 election cycle in a proxy war for control of the Senate.
Trade associations and labor groups have opened their war chests in an attempt to sway Senate contests in presidential battlegrounds like Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records on independent expenditures.
Control of the Senate is seen as vital to the legislative agendas on both sides, regardless of whether President Obama or Mitt Romney takes the oath of office in January.
“Not only is it a potential firewall, but who’s going to control the agenda going forward in the United States Senate?” said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “Who’s going to control the Senate Finance Committee? Who’s going to control the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which is very important to us firefighters?”
Business groups see a similar imperative to flip the Senate into GOP hands.
“Not knowing what is going to happen with the White House and with the House likely to stay in Republican hands, it would just be a huge help for our agenda to have some more pro-business people in the Senate,” said Lisa Goeas, a vice president at the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).
Much of the business and union spending has centered on Senate races that are considered toss-ups.
The International Association of Fire Fighters, for example, spent more than $150,000 on television ads opposing Republican Senate candidate George Allen in Virginia. That was the most the union spent on a congressional candidate so far in the 2012 cycle.
“For us, it’s an all-in area for us to keep the Senate majority. … Virginia is key to that. They are all key to that,” Schaitberger said.
Other big-name unions have attacked Allen as well. The National Education Association has spent about $696,000 on television advertising opposing Allen, while the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has spent roughly $905,000 on direct mail, television and radio advertising against him.
The business community has rallied with equal fervor to help Allen defeat Democrat Tim Kaine.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent more than $4.4 million on television advertising against Kaine, while the NFIB has spent about $335,000 in support of Allen with direct mail and online and radio ads.
Another battleground for business and labor is the Ohio Senate race between Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) and Josh Mandel (R).
The Chamber has spent more than $4.3 million on the race targeting Brown, while unions have spent big to defend him. SEIU has shelled out more than
$1 million in support of Brown through its political action committee and its super-PAC, while NEA has spent $1 million opposing Mandel.
“Keeping the United State Senate in pro-public-education hands is critical to students and educators across the country,” said Karen White, NEA’s national political director.
NFIB has spent more than $1 million in support of Mandel, and says flipping the seat would put the group one step closer to two major goals.
“We know he would be another vote to repeal ObamaCare. We know he would be a vote to lower taxes on small businesses,” Goeas said, referring to Mandel.
Wisconsin’s Senate race has become another magnet for outside spending.
The Chamber has spent more than $2.8 million on television ads opposing the Democrat in the race, Rep. Tammy Baldwin. Unions have weighed in as well, with SEIU spending almost $1.1 million in support of Baldwin and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) disbursing about $1.7 million against her GOP opponent, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.
“Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia have been big targets for the Chamber because we believe the stakes of this election are so high. America needs a pro-business majority in the Senate to get the economy growing again,” said Blair Latoff, a Chamber spokeswoman.
The super-PAC for the AFL-CIO has been particularly active in the Ohio and Wisconsin Senate races. Michael Podhorzer, the political director for the labor federation, said supporting Baldwin and Sherrod Brown is part of a strategy to ensure the next Senate has a liberal bent.
“I think the most important thing is making sure it’s a progressive Democratic Senate. That’s why Brown and Baldwin are so high up on our list,” Podhorzer said.
With so many close races in the Senate, labor has sometimes spent its resources elsewhere in a bid to expand Democrat control. AFSCME has spent more than $1.9 million opposing Republican Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada, and another $1.2 million against Republican Rep. Jeff Flake in Arizona.
“Obviously, control of the Senate is a big deal this cycle. … It has been a year where the large Senate landscape has given us the opportunities to invest where we need to get that outcome,” said Seth Johnson, AFSCME’s assistant political director, referring to Democrats holding the upper chamber.
The Chamber has spent $489,000 in support of Heller, according to FEC records.
When it comes to overall spending by business and labor groups, the Chamber and SEIU have led the pack, according to a tally by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Chamber has spent more than $32 million on independent expenditures in the 2012 cycle, while SEIU has spent more $29 million, according to FEC records.
Not everyone is focusing on the Senate. The National Association of Realtors has stuck mostly to House races, spending more than $2 million in support of Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) and roughly $1.5 million for Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), among others.
Jamie Gregory, the Realtors’ deputy chief lobbyist, said the trade group felt that its million-dollar expenditures would have little effect in close Senate races
“That’s a drop in the bucket to what these other groups are spending. I’m not quite sure what kind of impact it would have had,” Gregory said. “It was a call we made early on that we could help our friends in the House more than in the Senate.”