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Lawyers Shell Out Record $160M for Midterms, Fatten Dem Coffers

Nov. 5, 2018, 11:31 AM

Nearly 80 percent of a record $160 million in estimated lawyer and law firm-connected donations to campaigns and parties ahead of congressional midterms went to Democrats, a Bloomberg Law analysis shows.

The review of public contribution records through mid-October shows the legal community digging especially deep for Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and other Democratic senators in tough fights, and for candidates in a number of tight House races with Democrats in strong position to take control of the chamber. Many Democratic candidates are women and veterans.

Contributions for the cycle that kicked off in January 2017 are overall running far ahead of the last midterm, a development that reflects partisan tumult, and the high stakes election. President Donald Trump’s sagging approval rating also is a drag on Republicans, according to Bloomberg Government.

The average American lawyer’s political stance is “close to the ideology of Bill Clinton,” Adam Chilton, a University of Chicago professor who has studied the role of lawyers in American politics, wrote with other researchers in a 2015 report.

“Lawyers are incredibly politically active and donate at a much higher rate than you might expect from even other professional groups,” he told Bloomberg Law.

The Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks campaign finance, projects that all spending on this election cycle by candidates, parties, political action committees, and other groups will top $5.2 billion—the most expensive midterm in history.

The Big Picture

Bloomberg Law analyzed public campaign finance data maintained by the CRP and the Federal Election Commission to arrive at legal industry donation figures and identify trends.

The results show:

  • Estimated lawyer and firm-related donations reached nearly $160 million to federal candidates, parties and outside groups—a record for midterm elections. The group contributed $120 million in the 2014 cycle.
  • Nearly 80 percent of money this cycle went to Democrats. Attorneys at major law firms, known as Big Law, also preferred Democrats, but skewed slightly to the right of lawyers as a whole, according to the Center for Responsive Politics database. The plaintiffs bar also contributed heavily to fight Republicans on tort reform.
  • Contributions by political action committees at certain law firms split the difference between the two major political parties.
  • McCaskill tops the lawyer list for contributions. Attorneys also gave heavily to Senate Democratic challenger Rep. Beto O’Rourke in Texas, and key House races in New York, New Jersey and the Lone Star State.
  • Totals are estimates and don’t include all lawyers. Data includes contributions coded specifically as coming from lawyers and law firms, so it includes donations by law firm staff who aren’t lawyers, and may not include lawyers who work in-house and are coded by their company’s industry. The overall total also includes trade groups that push legislation.

Big Firms, PACs

Partners and employees at Paul Weiss are among the biggest political spenders overall in Big Law along with those at Kirkland & Ellis, Akin Gump, and Sullivan & Cromwell. Estimated donations relating to their firms were a fraction of the total and ranged from between $1 million to nearly $2.5 million per firm, records show.

Firm management doesn’t necessarily control these contributions directly.

The industry contributions also include spending by law firm political action committees, which are typically run by partners and used to maintain relationships with elected officials. Not all Big Law firms have PACs and lobbying can be a part of the mix for those that do.

Law firm and lawyer PACs in the 2018 cycle donated approximately $11.5 million to federal candidates, according to CRP and FEC data. That money was split 54 percent to Democratic candidates and 46 percent to Republicans.

Big Law PACs contributed slightly more to the GOP, which reflects an incumbency bias of those funding mechanisms.

“We’re trying in most instances to support members in districts where we have a physical presence,” said Rich Gold, the leader of Holland & Knight’s public policy & regulation group. “The nature of the beast is those people are incumbents.”

“We have always taken the position that we will pretty much reflect whatever the existing split is in Congress between Democrats and Republicans,” Gold said.

Derek T. Muller, a professor who teaches election law at Pepperdine University, says PAC activity is more likely to be motivated by business concerns than ideology.

Senate Spending

Democrats in the 100-member Senate are fighting a pitched battle to hold on to their seats this year in a narrowly divided chamber. A third of them are in play on Tuesday.

McCaskill’s campaign was the single-biggest recipient of legal industry donations for candidates at approximately $4.8 million, records show. She’s a former prosecutor seeking a third term, and is in a neck-and-neck race with Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley.

Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania got nearly $4 million, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, nearly $3 million; and Bill Nelson of Florida, $2.5 million. O’Rourke, a darling of the political left who is hoping to unseat Republican Ted Cruz in Texas, has raised $3 million from lawyers.

Top recipients of lawyer money in races for all 435 House seats are Democrats hoping to replace Republicans, records show. They include Antonio Delgado of New York, who’s received $982,333; Mikie Sherril of New Jersey, who’s gotten $654,890, and Lizzie Fletcher of Texas who’s received $642,110.

With assistance from Rebekah Mintzer

To contact the reporter responsible for this story: Stephanie Russell-Kraft at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at; John Crawley at; Jessie Kokrda Kamens at