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PACs’ New World

Donations Shift to Democrats

After years of rock-solid allegiance to Republican majorities, corporations are rapidly shifting sides, directing most of their political money to Democrats.

For the first two months of the year, the 50 largest corporate political action committees directed 55 percent of their total contributions — or more than $2.1 million collectively — to Democrats, according to a Roll Call analysis of Federal Election Commission records. The Democratic take represents a 20 percent leap over their share of corporate money from the previous election cycle.

“The corporate guys want to get in there first,” one Democratic fundraiser said. “The business community is treating Democrats the same way they treated Republicans.”

Lobbyists with top companies downplayed the results, insisting not enough money has gone out the door yet to draw firm conclusions about a dynamic still very much in flux. But others conceded privately that years of lopsided giving to the GOP has left much of the downtown community scrambling to make new friends across the aisle, and quickly.

Democratic lawmakers have recognized their moment and are packing lobbyists’ schedules with fundraising events — and the pace has only intensified this month in the sprint toward the first-quarter FEC filing deadline for candidates.

While the drug and energy sectors widely are thought to be the most exposed under the new Democratic regime, results for the top 50 corporate PACs show companies from traditionally balanced industries also have executed sharp pivots.

Several financial services giants, for example, goosed their giving to Democrats in the opening months of the year. The Credit Union National Association has directed 54 percent of its money to Democrats so far, up 8 percent over last year. Banks are following suit, with HSBC up to 63 percent from 37 percent, and UBS cutting Democrats 88 percent of its checks, more than doubling their share from last year.

Manufacturers, retailers, technology companies, health care providers and government contractors are all falling in line.

Honeywell International, the technology and manufacturing company, is typical of the trend. So far Honeywell has given Democrats $115,000, or 70 percent of its money. That marks a turnaround from the previous cycle, when the company gave Democrats 39 percent of its political cash, and from several previous cycles, during which Democrats’ share hovered below 35 percent.

Honeywell’s Tim Keating, a former aide to former President Bill Clinton and one of the few Democrats leading a corporate office, said the company doesn’t “view that we’re making up for anything. Honeywell has always been fair and balanced and we tend to support people who are supporting the company.”

He said Democrats’ share is high now because the majority party has been staging more fundraising events. Keating expects their stake with Democrats to settle closer to 60 percent.

The giving patterns this year track with a subtle shifts that began in the middle of the fall as it became clear Democrats were poised to make up significant ground in both chambers, if not reclaim control.

For years, corporate PACs roughly split their money between the parties, but as Republicans solidified their grip on power after the 1994 elections, they stepped up pressure on businesses to contribute an ever-greater share of their money to the GOP.

With the midterm wave in sight last year, some companies tried to get back toward parity. Republicans still took home $170 million in PAC money in the previous cycle — 55 percent of the total. But their share dropped 1 percent, according to CQ PoliticalMoneyLine.

Many corporate and trade association lobbyists said their PACs begin each cycle with a blank slate, awarding checks to those who prove supportive as the session wears on. Joe Stanton of the National Association of Homebuilders said it’s too early in the year to draw conclusions about how helpful certain lawmakers will be. (His group already has doled out $180,000, splitting it evenly between the parties, after giving Republicans 74 percent of its contributions in the previous cycle).

However, most lobbyists in charge of PACs are mindful of their partisan ratio, and try, at a minimum, to keep it within a predetermined range. When Republicans were in control, they kept close track of company giving and let people know when their numbers fell out of line. There already has been some indication Democrats are picking up where the GOP left off: House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (Mich.) this month told a room of about 50 lobbyists he would be watching PAC contributions and expects giving to Democrats to rise.

Some Democrats are especially well- positioned to take advantage of the new trend. On top of the new committee chairmen, the business-friendly Blue Dog Coalition is attracting notable new attention from corporate PACs, several observers said. “We’re having a pretty good year so far,” an aide to a Blue Dog member said.

Bruce Burton, political director for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, whose donations long have favored the Democrats, said he’s getting used to making elbowroom for business lobbyists at fundraisers.

“That’s the biggest sea change I’ve seen,” he said.

Marnette Federis and Andrea Kemp contributed to this report.

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