Lobbying Groups Shifting Donations to Va. Democrats

"The lobbyists are smart people," Sen. Richard L. Saslaw says. With Democrats looking for General Assembly gains, "they know what's going on." (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

RICHMOND -- In 2003, one of every three campaign dollars contributed by the Apartment & Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington to legislative races in Virginia went to Democratic candidates. So far this year, the proportion given to Democrats by the Washington-based group has more than doubled.

The organization is just one of dozens of trade associations, companies and law firms that lobby the General Assembly and have contributed to a boost in campaign cash for Democrats this year as they look to increase access and support for their causes after Election Day.

With all 140 House and Senate seats up for grabs Nov. 6, many special interest groups are taking more of an interest in Democrats, who could make significant gains this year. The minority party could take control of the Senate for the first time since 1999 and make inroads in the House of Delegates.

"It wouldn't be shocking that folks are hedging their bets," said Keith Hare, director of governmental affairs for the Medical Society of Virginia, which has slightly increased contributions to Democrats.

The trend in Virginia mirrors one last year on the federal level, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in campaigns. Democrats running for Congress increased their share of donations by five percentage points in the weeks before the November election, when many analysts accurately predicted that the party would gain seats in Congress.

In Virginia this year, 90 of 127 groups have stepped up the portion of their contributions going to Democrats -- about 50 of them by 10 percentage points or more -- for the period ending Aug. 31, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, a Richmond group that analyzes campaign spending. Democrats' total share of the giving by these groups has increased 6.3 percentage points, rising from 31.4 percent in 2003 to 37.7 percent this year.

The shift is even more significant because special interest groups generally avoid taking risks with their campaign contributions and, in Virginia, have generally donated to incumbent Republican lawmakers.

In 1999, when the two parties shared power in the Senate and the Democrats controlled the House, the same special interest groups gave 53 percent of their campaign contributions to Democrats. After Democrats lost both chambers that year, their portion of donations fell to 31 percent by 2003.

"The lobbyists are smart people," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (Fairfax), who as Senate minority leader is trying to help Democrats get elected to the Senate. "They know what's going on."

Lawmakers, political observers and some lobbyists said the interest groups are donating because of an assumption that Democrats will gain seats even if they do not win control of either chamber.

But many of the dozen or so groups contacted say they have boosted contributions in response to Democrats, who are being more aggressive in their fundraising this year than in 2003, the last time the entire General Assembly was up for election. Some say Democrats began asking for donations right after the legislative session in the spring, as opposed to waiting for the more traditional date of Aug. 1 that both parties have used in the past.

"It's night and day," said Doug Gray, executive director of the Virginia Association of Health Plans. "What you see is Democrats ramping up their fundraising. They've asked for more, and they've received more."

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