Corporate PACs betting on Republicans to regain control of Congress

By T.W. Farnam and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010

Corporate America is gambling on the minority in its political giving this year, assuming that Republicans will win big in the November midterm elections, an analysis of campaign finance reports shows.

The pattern represents a distinct change from a year ago, when President Obama was sworn into office. Back then, corporate political action committees made a shift to the Democrats, giving 58 percent of their donations to the party. So far this year, 48 percent of the contributions from big business are going to the Democrats.

The shift in political giving represents a calculated gamble by lobbyists and executives overseeing corporate largesse that the Republican Party may regain control of Congress, say GOP fundraisers and political consultants.

Many other political winds have shifted behind Republicans in recent months, but the swing in money from corporate PACs is unusual. Corporations often give campaign contributions while seeking access and favor with incumbent lawmakers in position to shape legislation -- meaning they gravitate to the party in power.

The last time corporate PACs made such a dramatic shift to the Republicans was in 1995, after the GOP's rout of the Democrats in the 1994 midterms. This time, corporations have switched sides before the election.

The change comes as top Republican lawmakers appeal more directly to business leaders, putting them on notice that the GOP is keeping track of the corporate donations ledger and will remember who stood by the party.

As part of an effort dubbed "Sell the Fight," House Republican leaders have met privately with corporate executives and lobbyists to argue that their giving has tilted too far toward Democrats and that they need to steer more money to industry-friendly GOP candidates in key races in 2010.

"These corporate leaders and lobbyists have got interests and clients they need to look out for, and they are reading the tea leaves just like everyone else," said Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the deputy chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, who has made several private pitches to corporate PAC leaders. "They see what's happening . . . and they don't want to get cut short."

The fundraising efforts of Republican lawmakers mirror those used after the party gained control of both houses of Congress in the 1994 Republican Revolution. Party leaders, especially then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.), used their new positions in power to pull in corporate checks. DeLay kept a list of lobbyists categorized as "friendly" and "unfriendly," based on campaign contributions.

Democrats have lost ground in several fundraising categories this year, after dominating in 2009. In key Senate and House races and among the political party committees, first-quarter results showed Republicans gaining steam. Corporate PACs represent a small piece of overall political fundraising but often the one most closely associated with special interests.

The money boost for the GOP follows a similar shift in enthusiasm among voters. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released May 13 found voters evenly split on which party they preferred to have running Congress. But among those who said they were very interested in the midterm elections, 56 percent said they supported Republicans, while 36 percent chose Democrats.

The health industry is the most striking example of the corporate shift to the GOP. Last year, the PACS of health and medical companies gave Democrats 61 percent of their $31.5 million in political contributions. But in the first quarter of this year, they gave $3.9 million to each party. This came just as the fate of health-care legislation appeared uncertain because of Republican opposition and the surprise loss of the Democrats' Massachusetts Senate seat. The law was approved March 21 in a dramatic House vote on a Senate bill.

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