President Obama has been trying to score political points by charging, in effect, that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is laundering foreign money to steal the election for Republicans.
Trouble is, the chamber doesn't just support Republicans. It has endorsed several House Democrats, vulnerable freshmen who have been buoyed by the chamber's six-figure ad buys.
Across the Chesapeake Bay, on the Eastern Shore, these chamber ads are hard to miss, celebrating Maryland's Frank Kratovil and Virginia's Glenn Nye -- both Democrats elected in 2008 -- for advancing a "pro-business" agenda. These endorsements undermine the Democrats' "Big Business loves Republicans" message, and they also highlight the tension between the business community and an electorate desperate for economic growth but also distrustful of bailout barons and K Street lobbyists.
Kratovil and Nye both scored 67 percent on the chamber's scorecard last year, which chamber lobbyist Bruce Josten told me was good enough to earn them the backing of the powerful business lobby over Republicans Andy Harris in Maryland's 1st District and Scott Rigell in Virginia's 2nd.
Some of the chamber-favored "pro-business" bills that Kratovil and Nye backed are budget busters: Obama's $800 billion stimulus; the Advanced Vehicle Technology Act, which subsidizes automakers' research and development; the Travel Promotion Act, which turns the U.S. government into an ad agency for the tourism industry; and the Solar Technology Roadmap Act, which gives subsidies to a stubbornly unprofitable technology.
Local conservatives are attuned to this pro-subsidy streak of the chamber. "The Chamber of Commerce has historically been not the best friend of free markets," Stevensville, Md., Realtor Kevin Waterman told me. Waterman is a scion of the region's dominant developer, and his family constantly locks horns with anti-growth conservationists. But he's clear-eyed about the chamber's penchant for corporate welfare. "They choose big business over free markets all the time."
For conservatives and Republicans in these districts, the chamber's endorsement simply magnifies the view that this year's elections pit Beltway elites -- Big Business, K Street, and Big Government -- against regular people, including small business. Harris' chief of staff responded to the chamber endorsement of Kratovil by attacking the business lobby: "An organization like the chamber is obviously out of touch with small businesses in the 1st District."
In Virginia, Rigell, a Ford salesman, touts his record as a small-businessman and an entrepreneur to contrast himself with Nye, a Georgetown alumnus and career Foreign Service officer. In one ad, Rigell's wife speaks of the janitorial business the couple started decades ago. Rigell has made his business background the heart of his candidacy: "To change our Congress we have to change the kind of people we send to Congress." Translation -- fewer lawyers, more businessmen.
So Rigell is running an explicitly pro-business campaign against Nye, a supporter of Barney Frank's financial regulation bill who would re-elect Nancy Pelosi speaker of the House.
So why is the chamber backing Nye? The candidate credits the endorsement to his "proven track record of being pro-business." Nye's concern for business seems sincere. Even when speaking to a small, dispirited rump of College Democrats at Old Dominion University on Wednesday, Nye stressed the need to "keep taxation low on business."
But Rigell says the chamber's endorsement "represents the intersection of big business and big government." Rather than "pro-business," Rigell says, Nye is "pro-Big Business."
The clash between the business lobby and conservatives who oppose regulation and higher taxes is one fruit of the 2008 bailouts. After TARP, Big Business has become even more ambivalent about limited government.
But the electorate seems to have more emphatic views. The stimulus bill is unpopular. Rigell says it hurt small business by adding to the debt and thus increasing uncertainty about taxes and inflation. Harris blasts the $800 billion measure too.
Many locals up and down the Delmarva Peninsula agree. John Munsell of Centreville said he was disappointed by the chamber's support of the Wall Street bailout and the stimulus, which he thinks were aimed at well-connected fat cats. "They didn't help in Queen Anne's County. That was a waste of money."
Democrats have their own anti-Big Business line. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Executive Director Jon Vogel -- whose job is to get guys like Kratovil and Nye re-elected -- said this week, "The chamber has an agenda, and it's aimed at promoting outsourcing of American jobs."
But that line isn't working too well for the Dems, polls show. Meanwhile Rigell's and Harris' anti-chamber play resonates. The result is a win-win for the GOP: even though the chamber mostly backs Republicans, the party may also make gains this year running against Big Business.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.