By Alina Selyukh
WASHINGTON, May 22 (Reuters) - The U.S Chamber of Commerce, which helped Republicans make big gains in the 2010 congressional elections, is planning its most aggressive push yet to send business-friendly lawmakers to Washington in the Nov. 6 election.
Thomas Donohue, the president and CEO of the powerful business lobby, on Tuesday said the Chamber planned to get involved in 11 or 12 Senate races and 35 to 37 races for the House of Representatives.
"We are planning on having a good year," Donohue told hundreds of members of the U.S. small business community at a meeting in Washington.
"Yesterday, reporters asked me how much money we'll spend," he said, adding that journalists suggested the group spent $50 million in the last election cycle. "It'll be a lot of money," Donohue said, "This is a more important election than the last election."
The group has spent $3.4 million so far on this election cycle, according to its public records.
In 2010, when Republicans took control of the House, the Chamber reported spending $32 million on races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics data. This year, Democrats are hoping to contest scores of House seats and protect their Senate majority in some two dozen highly-contested races.
The business lobby, which has opposed some of the Obama administration's key domestic policies, including the 2010 healthcare restructuring law, historically stays away from the presidential race but hits hard on congressional elections as well as state attorneys general and elected judges races.
"Our strategy is to protect the pro-business majority in the House and advance our interests in the Senate," said Rob Engstrom, the group's national political director.
The Chamber is planning to invest heavily in Senate races it considers critical, including in Massachusetts, Nevada, Nebraska, Montana, Florida, Missouri and North Dakota.
The group, whose donors are kept secret, will "equally invest" in dozens of key House races, such as in California, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Engstrom said.
Although traditionally viewed as a pro-Republican entity, the Chamber does support fiscally conservative Democrats, focusing on votes and policy positions that benefit the business community over party affiliation.
Engstrom said the group, which will announce further endorsements in coming months, has already come out in support of incumbent Democratic Representatives Jim Matheson and John Barrow, of Utah and Georgia respectively.
In what the Chamber called its earliest election engagement ever, the group has already started advertising and advocacy in 31 congressional districts and nine competitive states.
Customized for each race, many of the ads attack candidates who have supported Democratic President Barack Obama's healthcare law. The group also has targeted those siding with Obama in rejecting TransCanada Corp's original full plan to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.
"We will focus our efforts on a number of issues critical to the American recovery," Engstrom said. "These issues include Obamacare, American energy exploration, a common sense approach to government regulation, limiting frivolous lawsuits, travel and tourism and investments in transportation and infrastructure so our economy can move."
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33 out of 100 seats are up for election. 51 are needed for a majority.
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* Includes two independent senators expected to caucus with the Democrats: Angus King (Maine) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.).
All 435 seats are up for election. 218 are needed for a majority.