Americans don't think lawyers are particularly trustworthy, and just about everyone knows a good lawyer joke. But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has taken a notably vocal stance against Republican personal-injury lawyers this year, investing in TV ads bashing three of them who are running against chamber-supported candidates.
In GOP primaries for a Mississippi Senate seat, the North Carolina race for retiring Rep. Mike McIntyre's seat, and GOP Rep. Mike Simpson's bid for reelection in Idaho, the chamber has run ads criticizing candidates with backgrounds as personal-injury lawyers, spending a total of $1.4 million in those races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The tactic is simply in response to an unusual situation, said Rob Engstrom, the chamber's political director. There usually aren't many personal-injury lawyers running for Congress as Republicans, he said. The party has generally supported tort reform, including limits to rewards for on-the-job injuries. And as a pro-business conservative organization, the U.S. chamber's interests align against lawyers who have sued companies for millions of dollars.
"It just so happens we have the opportunity to point out in these races that personal-injury lawyers are not conservative," Engstrom said. "They spend their careers suing our members."
The most dramatic opportunity came in North Carolina, when the chamber ran a TV ad comparing Woody White, a Republican, to former Democratic Sen. and vice-presidential nominee John Edwards. Edwards shares little in common with the conservative White—but both are personal-injury lawyers. Edwards was indicted in 2011 on charges relating to alleged campaign finance violations and conspiracy when he covered up an extramarital affair.
"It's called jackpot justice, and we've seen it before with trial lawyers like John Edwards," the ad's narrator says. "In search of big paydays, their lawsuits hurt businesses and destroy jobs.... The last thing Congress needs is another trial lawyer like Woody White."
The ad prompted a rebuke of the national chamber from the Wilmington, N.C., Chamber of Commerce, which said, "Endorsements should be based on a fair representation of the candidate and not perpetuate the pervasive negativity in politics today."
White lost the nomination on Tuesday to former state Sen. David Rouzer, whose campaign also chimed in on the lawyer theme. Rouzer ran another TV ad saying lawyers like White "argue so much and do so little." With the help of those ads, Rouzer is now very likely to join Congress in 2015, having won the Republican primary in a very conservative-leaning district.
The other anti-trial-lawyer ads hit on policy substance, hammering two other candidates for opposing tort reform. In Mississippi's Senate race, the U.S. chamber accused state Sen. Chris McDaniel of arguing against the state's 2004 tort-reform legislation that capped injury payments at $1 million, citing a 2012 case in which he asked for a $36 million award. McDaniel is running a primary campaign against Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. McDaniel's campaign responded with a statement saying he has "fought tirelessly for tort reform in the legislature."
The U.S. chamber's ad in Idaho took a similar approach, touting Simpson's support of the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act and saying that challenger (and lawyer) Bryan Smith "stood in the way when conservatives tried to end junk lawsuits in Idaho."
Engstrom said the focus on personal-injury lawyers doesn't necessarily reflect a change in voters' views on lawyers or lawsuits, just that the issue has come up in three races and that he "can't recall a cycle where it's been as prevalent."
"The idea that personal-injury lawyers are conservative is like a bird flying backwards," Engstrom said.
This article appears in the May 8, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.