WASHINGTON – 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 Barack Obama was sworn into office and Democrats took control of Congress. 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, only 48 percent of the contributions from big business are going to the Democrats.

The shift in political giving represents a calculated bet that Republicans may regain control, GOP fundraisers and political consultants say. It also breaks a pattern in which lobbyists and executives overseeing corporate largess gave more to the party in power.

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, following the Democratic rout in the 1994 midterms. This time, corporations have switched sides before the election.

The change comes as top Republicans 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 of Oregon, 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 at the time, especially then-House Whip Tom Delay, 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 last week 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 Washington Post analysis used campaign finance data from the Federal Election Commission and an industry breakdown from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Under campaign finance law, corporations are not allowed to give directly to candidates, but they may create a fund to channel donations from their employees. The corporations’ top executives and lobbyists control the direction of the money and often use it to attend fundraisers with lawmakers.

In March, Walden met with 80 corporate PAC leaders at the Capitol Hill Club to appeal for more money. In this pitch and others, Walden said he makes no threats for failing to donate but candidly explains that “we’re evaluating giving patterns.” He said he showcases the GOP’s industry-friendly candidates and urges PAC leaders to cut back on their giving to Democrats by spreading the wealth to GOP contenders.

“I tell them, ‘I understand you have to give money to Democrats. But I want to be back in the majority,’ ” Walden explains. “You don’t have to give (this Democrat) $5,000. Give them $2,000. You can give $3,000 elsewhere. Now let me show you some open seats where you can make an investment in a Republican candidate you will like.”

The change comes as top Republicans 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.


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