Reporting from Washington — The nation's largest business organization launched a multimillion-dollar advertising attack in California on Wednesday night on U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, part of a nationwide effort targeting vulnerable Democrats.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce began running ads in San Diego, Bakersfield, Fresno and Sacramento, where Boxer's Republican rival Carly Fiorina has shown strength. The first round of ads castigates Boxer's record on jobs and the environment.
The Chamber would not say exactly how much it plans to spend on the race. But the ads, which will be combined with a major push to identify and contact business-friendly voters, reflect the aggressive political strategy that the nonprofit business lobbying group will employ this year in an effort to stymie what it considers the anti-business thrust of the Obama administration.
The chamber has set aside about $75 million for political spending nationwide this year. It has already run ads against Democrats in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and plans to begin ads in Florida soon.
The California ad buy represents a first in this Senate race for the national and state Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has not been active in U.S. Senate races in California in the past because the state was seen as heavily Democratic. But Boxer faces one of the tightest reelection races of her career. On Wednesday, a CNN/Time Magazine/Opinion Research Corp. survey showed Boxer holding a 48% to 44% margin over Fiorina, within the margin of error.
At the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the staff expressed frustration that outside groups were advertising so heavily on behalf of Fiorina and against Boxer. Eric Schultz, communications director for the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, complained that the chamber was one of several "secret groups with undisclosed, unregulated, unlimited donations" that are raising "serious questions on who is attempting to buy these seats."
With the Senate race in dead heat, the chamber's ad campaign could provide a substantial boost to Fiorina, who has trailed Boxer in fundraising. After the six-week reporting period that ended June 30, Boxer had nearly 12 times more cash on hand than Fiorina, who had approximately $1 million. Boxer, who did not have any significant primary opposition, had spent $5.8 million by the end of June to Fiorina's $9.7 million. Neither candidate has aired television ads during the general election phase of the campaign.
"Barbara Boxer has been hostile to the business community," said Bill Miller, the U.S. chamber's political director. "Our decision shows that we believe she is vulnerable and that there is a viable alternative who will advocate on behalf of those who create jobs."
The first 30-second spot alleged that Boxer's decisions on water policy saved a small fish species at the expense of the Central Valley economy.
"Without water, the Central Valley can't work," says a voice-over on the ad, citing Boxer's support of legislation that "voted to cut water to the Central Valley, killing jobs and driving unemployment as high as 40%."
Fiorina has accused Boxer of allying herself with "extreme environmentalists" while praising California's senior senator, Democrat Diane Feinstein, who drafted but then backed away from legislation that would have eased some endangered species protections to send more water to San Joaquin Valley farms.
At times, Fiorina has used the issue to deflect Boxer's attacks on her record as head of Hewlett-Packard, where she laid off more than 30,000 workers.
Asked in June in Beverly Hills about Boxer's criticism of her record at HP, Fiorina pivoted to the Central Valley: "Forty-six thousand people lost their jobs because Barbara Boxer believed that a fish was more important than those 46,000 people and their families," she replied.
Boxer's campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, said the chamber ad was misleading. "This is yet another example of special interests pouring money into the Senate race to distort Barbara Boxer's record. The truth is that Sen. Boxer has been working to help save and create California jobs, while Carly Fiorina has opposed every major job creation bill in the Senate — even the Recovery Act, which included funding for infrastructure to improve the flexibility of water transfers for California farms."
While the opening salvo focused on jobs and water, other ad buys totaling several million dollars and dealing with other economic issues are expected elsewhere in the state in coming weeks.
The chamber's ad is the second in recent weeks from a private Washington-based group attacking Boxer. Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit founded by conservative political strategist Karl Rove and others, purchased a $1-million ad campaign in Los Angeles attacking Boxer for her record on healthcare reform.
In Illinois, the chamber has attacked Democratic Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias. Citing his record as a banker, the ads say "Illinois cannot afford his record of economic failure."
In that state, as in other battlegrounds, the chamber will also attempt to deploy a sophisticated on-the-ground effort.
In addition, local and state chambers are being mobilized in ways that they have not previously. The California Chamber of Commerce does not officially endorse federal candidates. But, says Rob Lapsley, the organization's vice president of public affairs:
"For the first time we will be stepping out to tell voters which Senate candidate will be best at bringing back the economy." The California chamber, he said, will be reaching out to 1 million workers, employed by member companies, to educate them about candidates up and down the ballot.
Times staff writer Maeve Reston in Los Angeles contributed to this report.