The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in its first effort to become a substantial financial presence in congressional elections--and facing an aggressive campaign effort by organized labor--has raised almost $3 million of the $8 million it says it needs for pro-business candidates in some close races this year.

Chamber officials say the nation's largest business organization has made only modest campaign contributions in the past. But if business wants a friendlier Congress to lobby on such issues as supporting permanent normal trading status for China, reducing regulatory burdens on business, modernizing the nation's aviation infrastructure and reducing or eliminating certain taxes, chamber officials say they're going to have to ensure business-friendly lawmakers are elected.

"How could we not? If we want to be serious people, how can we" not help the campaigns of candidates who support business's issues, chamber President Thomas J. Donohue told reporters yesterday in a briefing on the group's political and legislative agenda for 2000.

The chamber is targeting 35 to 40 House races and 10 to 12 Senate campaigns for its largess; $100,000 for each of those House races--in direct contributions and "soft money" help--and $200,000 for each of the Senate races. The races must be very close--"right on the zipper," Donohue said.

Both Republicans and Democrats will be supported, but look for Republicans to be the more frequent beneficiaries. Donohue said the chamber hasn't decided who the lucky candidates will be. Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), however, is one of the likely favored few. "It doesn't take a Houdini to know we'll be in Michigan," Donohue said.

Raising $8 million won't be easy. But Donohue is hoping that after spending close to $5 million on the targeted races, the chamber will still have a goodly amount in its war chest to help in tight spots in the last few weeks before the election.

"We'll have some change in our jeans. We'll make a difference," he said.

The chamber's executive vice president, R. Bruce Josten, said the group also is going to work on organizing, getting out the vote and other "ground war" activities. "This is where we're lousy in elections," Josten said in an interview. "We're going to have to do some of this fundamental stuff."

'Campaign-Style' Capabilities

Ketchum Washington, a public relations and public affairs shop, has added four veteran political operatives--two Republican and two Democratic--as senior "councilors/consultants": Scott Reed, formerly Robert J. Dole's presidential campaign manager and executive director of the Republican National Committee; Craig Smith, formerly Vice President Gore's presidential campaign manager; Rich Galen, former press secretary to Vice President Dan Quayle and Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.); and Katie Whelan, former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association.

"More and more, client solutions entail a campaign-style approach, with direct lobbying, public relations and grass-roots all working cooperatively, and this group significantly augments our existing capabilities," Mark Schannon, partner/director of Ketchum Washington, said in a statement.

Entertainment Issues

Jennifer L. Bendall, senior vice president for government affairs at the Recording Industry Association of America and before that an aide to Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), is signing on with the Joseph E. Seagram & Sons governmental relations office, effective Jan. 31. She will be the company's senior federal lobbyist, focusing on issues related to Seagram's entertainment interests. Seagram Co.'s entertainment side includes the Universal Music Group and Universal Studios Group.

Changing Firms, Keeping Client

John Alexander Schmidt, political field coordinator for President George Bush's 1992 campaign and most recently a vice president for Ketchum Public Relations Worldwide, has moved over to Edelman Public Relations Worldwide as senior vice president in the D.C. office's health care and science practice.

At Ketchum, Schmidt was responsible for handling the communications contract for the Medicare campaign for the American Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facilities. He'll be reunited with the client at Edelman, which won the account.

Michael Hardiman, formerly policy director for Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), has established Hardiman Consulting. Hardiman says he has already signed up to lobby on behalf of the American Land Rights Association.

Media Matters

Sandy Gilmour, a veteran White House and foreign correspondent for NBC News, and Tanya J. "T'Jae" Gibson, formerly chief of the Air Force Media Training Branch, have joined the media and crisis division of Shandwick Public Affairs, consulting on media strategy and conducting media training for clients. Gilmour signs on as a vice president and Gibson as a group director.

Correction

The correct answer in last week's multiple-choice spelling test on the name of the new managing vice president of GPC/O'Neill & Associates' Washington office was Peter Halpin.

News or leaks about Washington influence? Send to Special Interests by e-mail to fedpage@washpost.com