Agriculture now donates more to Dems amid farm-bill rewrite

House and Senate Democrats writing a new farm bill this year are beginning to see the advantage of being in the majority, as large contributions to their party roll in from agricultural political action committees.

Republicans have been receiving about twice as much from agriculture political action committees (PACs) as Democrats since 1994. But in the first quarter of 2007, such PACs gave more to Democrats than Republicans for the first time since the GOP secured control of the House after decades in the minority.

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Democrats have received $599,990 from agriculture PACs so far this year, compared to $474,274 for Republicans. While the figures represent only initial contributions, they indicate a significant shift from the 2005–06 cycle, when farm PACs gave Republicans $12 million and Democrats $6 million, according to filings compiled by PoliticalMoneyline.com.

“I don’t think there’s anything surprising about the current numbers,” said former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), who was the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee when the last farm bill was written in 2002.

Stenholm, who now advises clients on the farm bill at Olsson, Frank and Weeda, said farm groups, like other special interests in Washington, make political contributions to gain access — and Democrats are now in power. “If you want to have access, that’s what you have to do, and there’s nothing inherently evil or wrong about that,” Stenholm said.

Democrats also are winning more contributions from most other categories in which they previously trailed far behind Republicans, including real estate, defense, finance and insurance and healthcare.

Stenholm doubts the shift will affect the farm bill’s content, which he said is generally driven more by regional interests than divisions between the political parties.

Stenholm said increased contributions from agricultural PACs to rural Democratic lawmakers absolutely would be helpful in reelection bids. At the same time, he noted that he raised the most in contributions from agriculture and other groups for his 2004 reelection bid, but still lost because of a redistricting plan engineered by former GOP leader Tom DeLay (Texas).

Democrats likely will see their advantage in political contributions grow if they remain in the majority, one veteran farm bill lobbyist said. “I think Democrats are in for some good times,” the lobbyist said, although he questioned whether Democrats would achieve the two-to-one advantage Republicans enjoyed almost immediately.

Some agriculture PACs are giving a majority of their money to Republicans while increasing contributions to Democrats. For example, tobacco PACs gave more than three times as much to Republicans in the last cycle, but so far this year have given $107,500 to Democrats compared to $143,000 to Republicans.

Another group seen as leaning toward Republicans, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, gave more than twice as much to Republicans as Democrats last year, but has given four times as much to Democrats so far in the current cycle.

PACs representing sugar producers, among the most generous benefactors in agriculture, traditionally have given more to Democrats, and are giving more still with Democrats in the majority. In the last cycle, sugar producers gave $1.57 million to Democrats, compared to a little more than $1 million to Republicans. So far in 2007, sugar PACs have given more than twice as much to Democrats.

PACs representing U.S. dairy farmers, also historically generous in their contributions, gave $1.5 million to Republicans in 2005–06, more than twice what they donated to Democrats. So far in 2007, they have given $70,000 to Democrats and $41,500 to Republicans.

Some dairy groups are giving more to Democratic leaders. For example, the PAC representing the Dean Foods dairy group in California gave $5,000 to Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Caucus. Dean Foods gave Emanuel $1,000 in the last cycle, and has increased its contributions to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).