Dems fire a shot across donors’ bow

Democrats are grumbling at donors they say have tried to hedge their bets on a possible Republican takeover of the House.

With GOP hopes high heading into the midterm campaign season, House Democrats have taken note of business groups that made late contributions to GOP-favored candidates in recent elections, only to see them go down to defeat.

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Democrats say some donors bought into the hype, and with the Republican establishment in Washington now reeling from several high-profile setbacks, the majority party is hoping a sense of “donor remorse” will send the dollars flowing back its way.

“They basically made a bad bet,” said one Democratic leadership aide.

A GOP strategist characterized the Democratic griping as just another play for campaign cash. “It’s pretty clear that PACs [political action committees] are hedging their bets by giving less to Democrats, and with good reason,” the strategist said.

The private jockeying for corporate campaign cash is often at odds with the public political battle between Democrats and Republicans, who frequently highlight contributions from big business as evidence that the opposing party is beholden to moneyed interests.

Gearing up for a push to retain the House, Democrats are particularly peeved that Republicans have snagged big donations from businesses that have a history of favoring the party in power.

In last month’s closely watched House race in Pennsylvania’s 12th district, Republican Tim Burns received a flood of late financial support from business groups representing the energy, insurance and banking industries. He went on to lose the race by 8.5 points to Democrat Mark Critz, a former aide to the late congressman he replaced, Rep. John Murtha (D).

Three GOP House candidates promoted by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) have also lost primary races in recent weeks: Vaughn Ward in Idaho’s 1st district, Jeff Reetz in Kentucky’s 3rd district and Mary Beth Buchanan in Pennsylvania’s 4th district.

Republicans characterized the loss of the Murtha seat as a disappointment, although they downplayed its significance as a harbinger for the fall campaign. But in the days after the GOP defeats, both former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and political prognosticator Charlie Cook backtracked on earlier predictions that Republicans would win back the lower chamber in November.

Democrats have responded with bravado.

“Their hype about running the tables and taking control of the House ran into a brick wall of reality,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). “I’m sure there are a number of people who feel they’ve been sold a bill of goods.”

A member of the Financial Services Committee with close ties to business, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), said donors had told him the Burns loss was a wake-up call.

“People are hedging the other way after the Pennsylvania election,” he told The Hill.

Donors no longer see GOP control of the House as a foregone conclusion, Meeks said.

Meeks recalled that these donors had told him, “ ‘Look, I had given you up for dead. I can’t do that anymore.’ ”

The NRCC, led by Deputy Chairman Greg Walden (Ore.), has been leaning on the business community to pony up more money to its cause.

And the effort, according to media accounts, has produced results. The Washington Post reported last month that many corporate PACs are gambling that Republicans will take back control of Congress.

Republicans say it is Democratic policies that are turning off both donors and voters. “The only bill of goods coming from Washington these days is the Democrats’ laughable argument that a continuation of their job-killing agenda will somehow be beneficial for middle-class families,” NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said.

Among the donations that drew notice from Democrats was a $5,000 check to Burns’s campaign from the UPS Political Action Committee and a $5,000 contribution to Ward by the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America (IIABA).

UPS, which has given to both Democrats and Republicans, has also contributed $30,000 to the NRCC during this cycle while giving $15,000 to the DCCC.

Both the UPS and IIABA contributions came in the last weeks of the Burns and Critz campaigns.

The IIABA has donated about 60 percent of its more than $1.5 million in total contributions to Republicans since 2007. It supported the GOP by a wider margin when Republicans controlled the Congress, but the association favored Democrats during their last years in the House majority during the early 1990s, according to CQ’s MoneyLine database.

The insurance group indicated it would continue giving to both Republicans and Democrats and that its contribution to Ward’s campaign was based solely on its desire to see the incumbent congressman, Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), voted out of office.

Minnick is sponsoring a bill that would shift regulation of insurers from the states to the federal government — a move that IIABA staunchly opposes.

“We support those members of Congress who support the [independent insurance agents and brokers] and oppose those who do not,” IIABA’s vice president of political affairs, Nathan Riedel, said. The bill Minnick is supporting, he said, “benefits Wall Street and large insurance companies over Main Street.”

A spokesman for UPS, Malcolm Berkley, would not comment on its donation to the Burns campaign, but said the company’s PAC “makes its contribution decisions individually.” UPS backs candidates who support “fair competition, global and open trade and free enterprise,” Berkley said.

UPS is working with leading Democrats on Capitol Hill on legislation that calls for some FedEx drivers to fall under the scope of the National Labor Relations Act. FedEx, a main UPS rival, opposes the bill — which would make it easier for workers to form unions at FedEx.