Despite common perceptions, business -- especially big business -- has never been monolithically Republican. Executives have been far too pragmatic for that. They have long used campaign giving to buy their way into the offices of both Republicans and Democrats.
More than any time I can remember, business interests have decided to choose sides in this presidential election year. And the result will likely be a boon to President Bush and his fellow Republicans.
The shift hasn't been absolute, of course -- nothing in politics is. But everywhere you look, there are signs that corporate America is growing less and less evenhanded, and more and more Republican.
Take the National Restaurant Association. Four years ago, it held a huge party for participants in the Democratic National Convention at the Santa Monica pier. This year, it focused all its lobbying events on the Republican National Convention in New York and skipped the Democratic convention in Boston completely.
"A lot of business groups didn't go to Boston," say Steven C. Anderson, president of the restaurant group. "We're not finding a very sympathetic audience for our public policy from Democrats."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business organization, is also complaining about the Democratic ticket in a way that it had never dared before. Sure, the chamber has worked to defeat Democrat-sponsored legislation and has tried to elect pro-business (read: primarily Republican) candidates to Congress. But it had shied away from presidential politics.
Now, however, it has donated $500,000 to an independent group called the November Fund that intends to portray Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), the Democrats' vice presidential candidate, as one of the many trial lawyers whose litigiousness has vastly increased the cost of doing business. The chamber has also started to air TV commercials that attack Senate Democratic Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) for being so close to trial lawyers that he killed legislation that would have reined in medical malpractice lawsuits.
"When voters go to the polls," Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue says, "they need to know [that] lawsuit abuse destroys jobs, drives doctors out of business and forces companies into bankruptcy. We're going to be very aggressive."
He insists he isn't being a Republican lackey. Then again, of the two presidential nominating conventions this summer, Donohue attended only one of them -- and I bet you can guess which one. He also says the chamber will keep giving to the November Fund (another $500,000) and will pour millions of dollars into its own campaign against trial lawyers and Edwards.
In its defense, John F. Kerry's presidential campaign has released an extensive list of chief executives who support the senator's campaign, but a far longer list of corporate chieftains are backing Bush.
The business lobby's devotion to the Republican Party doesn't stop at the top of the ticket. Donations from corporate political action committees -- the main vehicles for candidate contributions from executives -- have been veering more toward the Republicans -- and less to the Democrats -- in recent years, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com. In five major industry categories, PAC giving to Democrats so far this election cycle has been only 33 percent of total contributions. As small as that is, it's below the 35 percent that went to Democrats during the election two years ago. In elections past, that number was closer to 40 percent.
Worse yet for Democrats, corporate PACs are raising more money than ever. Wal-Mart, Pfizer, Lockheed Martin, Koch Industries, Comcast and UBS are among many companies whose PACs have ballooned in the past two years and still have lots of money to give away before Election Day. "The corporate PAC community is sitting on an unusually large hoard of cash and that could move at any moment," says Kent Cooper of PoliticalMoneyLine.com. "If I were a Democratic money man, I'd be concerned."
Corporate leaders are also beginning to fork over huge amounts of cash to independent political organizations known as 527s. Until recently, Democrats had led the way by swelling the coffers of such anti-Bush groups as Moveon.org, America Coming Together and the Media Fund. But now, Republican heavy-weights from the business world are trying to catch up with their own anti-Kerry organizations such as the Progress for America Voter Fund and the November Fund.
"Corporate America was nervous" about giving money to any 527s, says Vin Weber, a former congressman and now a Republican lobbyist. But "belatedly," he says, "a lot of money is going" into these groups and "it'll have an impact."
The Internet is providing a more subtle advance for the Republicans. More than 480 corporations and trade associations, including a majority of the nation's 100 largest companies, are urging their workers to go to the polls and pointing them to pro-business candidates through a Web-based program called the Prosperity Project. Two years ago, barely 180 companies and associations participated in the system, which was designed by the Business Industry Political Action Committee, or BIPAC.
"Our program has just sort of mushroomed," says BIPAC President Gregory S. Casey. "This year we should be able to reach 20 million workers."
Experts offer several reasons for businesses' extra tilt toward Republicans. Kenneth Duberstein, a Republican lobbyist, suggests the most likely cause: "With the House, the Senate and the White House all in the party's hands," he says, "there's a tendency to genuflect a little more." In addition, political analysts are pretty confident that the House and the Senate will remain in Republican hands after the election no matter what happens in the race for president.
Conservative activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, has two other theories. When Kerry picked a trial lawyer as a running mate, Norquist says, he inflamed the business community against him. Norquist also says that an increasingly Republican K Street lobbying community has been urging its corporate clients to put more effort -- and money -- into GOP election efforts. Apparently, that advice has been heeded.
But whatever the reason, R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber, says, "I do think it is fair to say that the business community is united behind Bush and increasingly concerned with a potential Kerry-Edwards administration."
That won't determine the outcome on Nov. 2. But the lopsided support of Bush by business interests is sure to make a difference.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address is email@example.com.