You may be wondering where the National Federation of Independent Business has been hiding this election cycle. Normally, the small business lobby is a player in a couple dozen House races and eight or ten Senate races, spending $1-2 million on direct mail and radio advertising. This year, you're likely to miss all that -- unless you live in a handful of states. The NFIB has opted to weigh in on just the Senate races in Minnesota and Maine, as well as four House contests.
"We sort of figured we would really hone in on a handful of races that were really important and crucial to NFIB -- people that had been there, supporting our members, or districts where we wanted to make sure we were visible," says Lisa Goeas, the NFIB's vice president, political. And despite the narrow focus, the group is laying down some serious money -- $1.6 million (which also includes some radio and print ads) -- and those voters will surely turn off their TVs impressed at the organization's gift at political persuasion.
The House ads, which began airing last week and will run through Friday, are aimed at shoring up three incumbent Republicans in danger of losing their seats -- of Robin Hayes of North Carolina, of Jon Porter of Nevada, and of David Reichert of Washington -- and beating back a strong Democratic challenge to an open Republican seat in Ohio. The first three ads are nearly identical in their praise for the Congressmen on keeping taxes low -- in fact, they are nearly identical, period. Only the candidate's name has been changed, and the visuals of colonial-style houses with black shutters and a red-brick, white-trimmed New England general store might seem out of place in the desert suburbs of Las Vegas or the Cascade Mountains. (Newfields General Store in fact resides on Main Street in Newfields, New Hampshire.) Because these are so-called "issue advocacy" ads, meaning that technically speaking, they argue on behalf of an issue rather than a candidate*, they end with a plea: "Call [insert Congressman's name here] and thank him for protecting small businesses and families against higher taxes."
The fourth 30-secon spot is a blistering attack on Mary Jo Kilroy, a Democrat who stands a good chance of taking Ohio's 15th District from the GOP. This time the issue is so-called card-check legislation, which would allow a union to organize upon obtaining signatures from half the shop. "Kilroy would take away a worker's right to private voting in the workplace," intones the narrator, as storm clouds threaten the Capitol. "Call Mary Jo Kilroy, and tell her to oppose card check."
More pungent -- but more cleverly executed -- are the three Senate ads, which ran through early this week. The NFIB is supporting Republicans Norm Coleman and Susan Collins -- or rather, it's opposing their Democratic rivals, Al Franken and Rep. Tom Allen -- with identical ads. The card-check spot is called "CIA," but it takes its cues from the TV show "24": pulsing music, split screens against a black background, and a digital time code as spooks track a working man as he enters a building and steps into an elevator. Says the narrator: "after receiving a fortune in contributions from organized labor, Tom Allen voted for a law that strips Maine workers of their right to vote in private when deciding whether to unionize." When our everyman arrives at his destination, a union fat cat is there to great him. "Jack!" -- ha! -- "We've been waiting for you," the union official says. "We're here to monitor your vote!" Then the narrator sums it up: "Tom Allen: Give him enough money, and American freedoms go right out the window!" It's a non-sequitur, but brilliantly done.
Another good one is a spot that seems tailor-made for Franken. Called "Reality Bites", it begins with elevator doors opening on a guy dressed in a shiny sport coat over a dark T-shirt, spinning around on an office chair. Like Franken, he's a funnyman, but his message is a downer. "Hey, I'm glad you're here!" he snaps. "Just how expensive would life be with Al Franken in the Senate? C'mon, let me show you." The funnyman appears in a hospital room to tell new parents to say "goodbye to half of the per-child tax credit!" ("Say cheese!" he says as he takes their picture.) Rolling down a bustling shopping street sidewalk on a Segway, the funnyman calls out: "Small business owners! Franken wants your taxes to go way up. You better start thinking now about which employees you're laying off." From off camera, we hear a crash. "I'm all right," he says. Then the funnyman crashes a wedding -- "Franken wants to raise the marriage penalty tax!" Franken, when we see him, is grinning his Joker's grin, looking perfectly maniacal.
Unfortunately for the NFIB, Minnesotans didn't get to see the ad for very long. Shortly after it began airing, Coleman announced that he was suspending his negative ads, the NFIB pulled this one down in support. (The card-check spot and a third ad, sarcastically called "Happy Days," continued in rotation.) The organization shifted "Reality Bites" to Maine, but it doesn't seem like it would be nearly as effective against a popular congressman as against a comedian.
And it also raises an interesting question: why is the NFIB spending $430,000 -- roughly a quarter of its total election advertising budget -- in Maine, of all places. The Coleman-Franken race is a toss-up, but the latest polls show Collins ahead by anywhere from 11 to 21 points. Wouldn't that money be better spent defending, say, Saxby Chambliss, the Georgia Republican who may be all that stands between the Democrats and filibuster-proof Senate majority?
The answer is that federal election law makes it difficult for the NFIB, at least, to be very nimble. Unlike the House ads, the Senate ads were "independent expenditures," specifically taking a stand on a candidate in an election, and governed by all sorts of limitations and reporting requirements. "There were a lot of legal things we had to do, in terms of a lot of people signing paperwork here and creating the proper firewalls," says Goeas. "And it had to be done early, so that it was clear that I was not in any way coordinating with the Collins campaign." The organization had to make a decision in January, "and at the time, even though we were hopeful, she didn't look as good as she does now. Unfortunately now some of our other friends look like they could use the money more."
On the other hand, Goeas has no regrets "What we hope for every cycle is to have one candidate that's so great for our issues that we're just going to go out there and make sure that they understand we're supporting them," she says. Collins "loves NFIB -- she's one of those members that's always concerned about her rating. She has a lifetime 98 percent key vote voting record with NFIB, and she says it everywhere she is, whether or not she's speaking to a small business crowd."
Of course, these spots are not the NFIB's sole campaign activity. By November 4th, the organization will have endorsed 236 candidates, in 207 House, 22 Senate, and seven governor contests. Most of its choices, naturally, are Republicans. The NFIB will try and actively guide its membership in about 50 of those races. "We're going to communicate with our members," says Goeas. "We're going to make sure they know who NFIB endorsed."
*a distinction that seems impossibly fine in these instances, but which allows the NFIB to raise unlimited, and unreported, sums of soft money from member businesses