Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that the American Action Network is an affiliate of both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the political advocacy group American Crossroads. It is an affiliate of American Crossroads.

Political ads are tough sell for image-conscious corporations

The Supreme Court ruled that corporations may spend as freely as they like to support or oppose candidates for president and Congress, easing decades-old limits on business efforts to influence federal campaigns.
By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

All over the country, corporate CEOs and trade groups are asking their lawyers the same question: How can we get our companies involved in this political election season without leaving tracks?

After a landmark Supreme Court ruling this year freed executives to spend unlimited corporate cash on campaigns, some predicted that businesses would flood television airwaves with pro-industry political ads -- but that just hasn't happened yet. Image-sensitive corporations are still trying to make sure that, if they jump into 2010 politicking, they do so as anonymously as possible, according to Republican political operatives and trade group leaders.

Many corporate executives don't want to wade into partisan political campaigns. But other companies have told their advisers and GOP fundraisers that they are interested in helping finance ads to spotlight proposed regulations and lawmakers they don't like. These companies include firms on Wall Street and in the energy sector opposed to stricter regulations as well as fast-food franchise owners fearful of being forced to unionize their shops.

They just don't want to be singled out -- or have their corporate logo attached.

Some fear the rules on corporate election activities could change, leaving their company exposed; a White House-supported bill likely to be voted on by the House after the Memorial Day recess would require calling out by name the corporations that fund campaign ads. Republicans, who generally rely more heavily on donations from big-business executives, say that Democrats are trying to silence the political speech of corporations with the bill.

Corporate executives "recognize they have this newfound freedom. They want to exercise it, but not in a way that will antagonize members of Congress or customers or employees," said Stefan Passantino, a campaign finance law expert at McKenna Long & Aldridge. These firms are considering giving advertising money to business coalitions and conservative political groups "that are going to fight their battles for them and not come back to them."

Big corporations are the new whipping boys in the wake of taxpayer-financed bailouts, Republican operatives argue. They say chief executives can't take to the public square to share their unpopular views on legislation without being personally attacked or -- worse -- dismissed.

"You want to speak your peace without political retribution," said David N. Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United, whose fight to air its video critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton led to the Supreme Court's ruling.

Corporations are being urged by fundraisers to use the shared megaphone of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads, a political action group founded this year by former Bush White House deputy Karl Rove. Together, the two groups and an affiliate of American Crossroads, the American Action Network, have pledged to raise $127 million, most of it from business interests, to elect GOP candidates in 2010.

President Obama dispatched his aides to work with Congress to tighten the rules after the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Obama and Democratic leaders, who rely more heavily on unions for campaign donations, say the public deserves to know which specific corporations are bankrolling an ad that may conceal its goal and twist the facts.

"What we are facing is no less than a potential corporate takeover of our elections," Obama warned last month. "What is at stake is no less than the integrity of our democracy."

Putting a face to the name

The Democrats' Disclose Act proposal, released in early May, would require chief executives to appear for a few seconds in campaign ads they finance, saying they personally endorse the message. Umbrella groups would have to list the top five corporate donors for an ad.

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