Midterm messages

DC communicators from a wide variety of organizations are placing their bets as election season rolls around.

DC communicators from a wide variety of organizations are placing their bets as election season rolls around.

Forget Republicans and Democrats. All trade organizations, corporations, advocacy groups, and the lobbyists who represent them really want from this or any future US Congress is for their needs to be met.

Consider VP of PR and communications for the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC) Guillermo Meneses' careful reply to a question about how potential results from the upcoming midterm elections can put his organization's efforts in a better position to succeed: "Our job is to advocate on behalf of our 200 chambers and the 2 million Hispanic-owned businesses in the country," he says. "As such, we certainly understand how important it is to reach out to all sides."

Maybe there are some particular candidates he or his organization hopes will win this November, but like all other advocacy groups, Meneses takes care not to say that the USHCC's goals are Republican or Democrat, or that its success depends on one party or another holding an advantage in Congress. What success depends on, Meneses says, is the power and influence of his group's members.

"We are issues-based," he says. "Our concern is to make sure that the issues at the top of the Hispanic agenda are being reflected and given serious attention, not only on Capitol Hill, but also in state houses and local governments across the country."

Indeed, not all policy goals by national trade associations like the USHCC solely involve congressional legislation. Whether related to immigration, telecommunications, tax policy, healthcare, or other top issues for the Hispanic business community, public policy goals may vary from state to state, Meneses says, and the input of the local chambers shapes what the USHCC's national goals are.

In the area of trade relations, for example, local USHCC chambers and Hispanic businesses today look not only to win contracts from US government agencies or corporations, but do business in other countries from where business owners may have emigrated or where they still have family ties.

"Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, local chambers or businesses would have asked us, 'How can I do business with corporations in the US?'" Meneses says. "What businesses are telling us now is, 'How can I do more business in the Dominican Republic, Central America, Chile, Peru, Argentina?'"

As a result, continued focus by the USHCC on free-trade agreements will certainly be part of the group's agenda next year, following the midterm elections. Meneses says that exactly what goals his group will set in working with the next Congress will depend in part on a review of how well the USHCC did with past issues.

For example, the USHCC was a leader in driving passage of the CAFTA-DR free-trade measure in 2005. The idea is to focus on five or six issues on which the group can be sure it will make an impact, rather than try to achieve every imaginable piece of legislation that would benefit Hispanic businesses.

Certainly, proposed legislation regarding immigration this past year drew millions of Hispanics to the streets in protest and showed the impact of Hispanic businesses seeking to influence public policy. Political observers note that the issue did not strictly follow party lines. In fact, the veering away from President Bush by House Republicans exemplified a trend that may, if some predictions are correct, mean a Democratic victory in the House this November.

Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, notes that Republicans in the House have overall been far more hard-line on immigration issues related to the US-Mexico border than the Bush administration has. In the first few years of the Bush administration, the House and Senate moved in virtual lockstep with the White House; today, the Republican party has splintered.

"If you think back to when the Democrats controlled things, they disagreed all the time," Pinkham says. "So you're just noticing a difference from when there was the unbelievable discipline of the House, Senate, and White House all saying the same things."

If issues like immigration indicate schism within the Republican party and bode well for Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, what then will be the public affairs issues likely to generate a lot of attention in the next Congress?

To begin with, expect a lot of hearings related to the Bush administration. Terry Holt, former campaign spokesman for the Bush 2004 presidential campaign and founder of the PR firm Holt Strategies, notes that Democratic congressional leaders have promised to investigate the administration regarding just about every issue under the sun. The traditionally activist, regulatory agenda of Democrats means lots of new work for PR and public affairs agencies, whichever side of an issue they may be hired to represent.

"With the potential chairmanship of a Henry Waxman (D-CA) at the government reform and oversight committee, hundreds of corporate CEOs could find themselves dragged in front of a congressional committee next year," Holt says. "For those of us who are familiar with how to prepare for and defend during those very high-stakes situations, there could be quite a lot of work out there."

Friends in high places

MWW Group SVP Neil Dhillon says that in the past three months, public affairs agencies have been hiring Democrats off Capitol Hill at a dramatic rate, seeking to gain the connections that such people have to lawmakers and congressional staffers who would wield more power over legislation should the midterm elections go the Democrats' way - at least in the House, as some political polls are beginning to indicate more strongly.

Particular committees of interest include Energy, Commerce, Ways and Means, and Armed Services - all of which deal with large budgets that corporations covet.

Regardless of whether Democrats take control of the House, or, what's considered much less likely, that the Democrats take control of the Senate, far more legislation will be taken up in the next Congress compared with the existing, stagnant Congress, says Rob Mathias, Ogilvy PR MD. Change, whatever it may be, is a good thing for public affairs and government relations lobbying, Mathias says, because each new initiative comes with its own sets of advocates and opponents, each of which will need new representation.

"An active political agenda, regardless of whose agenda, is good for the advocacy business," he says.

Exactly what the next Congress' agenda will be may depend in large part on what issues raise a lot of attention during the midterm election campaigns. For example, Pinkham notes, exit polls were widely used by the political parties in 2004 to verify if the issues that candidates campaigned on were the ones voters really cared about.

Security first

Andrew Rice, founding partner of Cuestamar Associates, whose clients include DP World, the Dubai-based port operator at the center of the highly politicized hearings regarding foreign ownership of US ports, says he believes several of the politicians that raised objections to DP World's ownership of US ports this past year were fostering a "security-first" image for constituents. During election season, political posturing often takes precedence over serious policymaking, making life more difficult for the public affairs pros advocating positions or issues that don't jibe with popular prejudice.

"Anyone who has spent time in Washington has had the experience of having a very reasonable and nuanced and informed conversation with politicians where you think, 'Wow, they really understand the issue,'" Rice says. "Then they step out in public and say something completely contradictory to what they've just been indicating, for the purpose of a political position."

But not all organizations believe the existing Congress is completely distracted by the upcoming elections. The Business Roundtable, for instance, an association of 160 US CEOs, says it has a number of issues it hopes to discuss with Congress in September, and to gain some attention, it will launch an effort called "Back to School, Back to Congress," in which the group will distribute lunch boxes to lawmakers' offices that contain information on issues near and dear to the hearts of Business Roundtable members, including healthcare, information technology, and trade.

The goal, says Tita Freeman, the Business Roundtable's director of communications, is to get favored legislation passed before a new Congress comes into power and takes up a new slate of issues.

Thinking ahead

Torod Neptune, head of Waggener Edstrom's US public affairs practice, says most associations or other advocacy groups don't have the same kind of clout as the Business Roundtable and so won't bother to try to get anything done in September. Most organizations seeking to win influence instead are thinking ahead to next year and how they can get themselves heard by lawmakers when their issue may not be very highly rated.

Their best bet, Neptune says, is somehow framing their message as part of the big political issues of the day. For instance, legislative items related to healthcare, tax regulation, and telecommunications by themselves may seem a bit arcane, but all had connections to broader business concerns of the Hispanic community, as USHCC's Meneses notes, and again are not strictly Republican or Democratic.

For public affairs pros, the party lines are often not as marked as many casual political observers might assume, say Holt. Policymakers often come from the same demographic, live in the same neighborhoods, drive the same types of cars, and work together on the same issues. In Washington, whatever the issue or voter group being targeted, the influencers often are very similar, regardless of their party affiliation.

"I work with guys that are Republican and guys that are Democrats in the PR world," Holt says. "We want to put lead on the target for our clients, and it doesn't matter what party the target is in. Our specialty is working with the one party that never loses power: the media, the opinion makers, the elites that are around in Washington no matter who's in power."

What midterms mean

Q&A with Sheila Krumholz, acting director, Center for Responsive Politics

With the possibility that Democrats will retake the House, are you seeing more contributions by corporations to Democrats?

I've looked at this and didn't find anything that appears to mimic the kind of changing political fortunes of the GOP. I was expecting perhaps to see a recent shift toward the Democrats, but did not see that in the corporate money. That may not be surprising, given that corporate political action committees kind of like to play it safe. They won't lead the charge toward the Democrats if the polls are down this week or this month. They will wait to see what other people are doing.

So there hasn't necessarily been a shift?

No. In fact, what we saw in May and June among corporate PACs is that there was a larger amount going to Republicans, and that perhaps reflects those most ideologically allied with the GOP hunkering down.

Do corporations split contributions fairly evenly between the parties?

Probably half or most of industries  do hedge their bets and give 50-50, or it parallels the split in Congress, which is what you'd expect. However, there are outliers: associations or companies that are historically and strongly ideologically allied one way or the other. Some of those corporations and associations give a lot of money and can actually skew trends one way or another if they're making a major push.

Will contributions reflect big legislative issues under consideration?

We track that to a degree. We did a money politics alert on net neutrality on June 23, for example. If it's an issue that the voters are not paying close attention to or is deemed arcane or difficult to follow, they're not going to be as involved, and that's prime turf for the industries to battle it out and for Congress to rake in the money, meanwhile, from both sides. So the more protracted the debate, the more money they can rake in.

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