Barack Obama and John McCain have been running a tight race among the nation's voters -- and among the country's top corporate lawyers. McCain has a slight lead in total donations from general counsel at Fortune 100 companies. Still, elite GCs are giving significantly more to Obama than they did to Al Gore or John Kerry, the previous two Democratic presidential nominees.
According to a Corporate Counsel review of general counsel contributions, 23 legal chiefs have given McCain $53,250, while 19 have given Obama $47,950. And they're loyal to their favorite -- only one GC gave to both candidates. Another legal chief also gave McCain $2,300 more than allowed by federal law, and that donation will probably be returned.
"It shows that general counsel at large corporations are just like everyone else," says Brett Kappel, an of counsel at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease in Washington, D.C., who specializes in election law. "They're evenly split between the two parties."
For our survey of Fortune 100 GCs, we looked at Federal Election Commission data as compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan research group. At press time the CRP had only posted contributions made through July 31, 2008, before either candidate had received his party's nomination. Our figures include all donations reported by the FEC since the start of the presidential race.
Under federal law, a donor can give up to $2,300 to a single candidate's primary campaign, and another $2,300 for the general election. But if candidates accept public financing for the general election, they can't receive private donations. Because McCain is taking public financing, his donors are now contributing to joint fundraising committees such as a compliance fund that pays his legal bills. (Up to 5 percent of compliance fund donations can be used to pay for advertising.) These restrictions don't apply to Obama, who's the first presidential nominee to opt out of the public financing system since it began in 1976.
A few general counsel have given their favored candidate the maximum donation for both the primary and general election campaigns. Four GCs contributed $4,600 to Obama: Joel Benoliel of Costco Wholesale Corp.; Mark Chandler of Cisco Systems Inc.; Michael Helfer of Citigroup Inc.; and Louise Parent of American Express Co.
McCain also got the max from four general counsel: Rosemary Berkery of Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc.; J. Barclay Collins II of Hess Corp.; Christine Richards of FedEx Corp.; and Mark Treanor of Wachovia Corp. (who retired in June). Richards actually made three $2,300 contributions to McCain. The senator's campaign staff did not return requests for comment, but a CRP researcher says that Richards will likely get one of those donations back.
Almost all of the GCs in our survey gave to only one candidate. The exception is Kim Brunner of State Farm Mutual Automotive Insurance Co., who gave $1,000 to Obama and $1,750 to McCain.
In addition to contributing to McCain's compliance fund, some general counsel are supporting him indirectly by giving to the Republican National Committee. Four GCs have given a total of $52,100 to the RNC, while two legal chiefs have given $9,500 to the Democratic National Committee. (Under federal law, a donor can give up to $28,500 to any one of the political parties' national committees.) "All that money is going to be used in some fashion to support the candidate," says Larry Norton, a former general counsel of the FEC who now heads the political law practice group at Womble Carlyle Sandrich & Rice in Washington, D.C.
Obama has broken records in his overall fundraising, so some lawyers are surprised that he hasn't collected more bucks from general counsel. McCain's lead among GCs "is really striking," says Michael Toner. An outside counsel to McCain's campaign, Toner was chairman of the FEC in 2006 and now leads Bryan Cave's election law group in Washington, D.C.
Toner points out that lawyers generally tend to lean left politically, and according to the CRP, that's true for this presidential election. The center's statistics show that lawyers and lobbyists have donated nearly $57 million to Obama, and just more than $18 million to McCain. However, general counsel may be more conservative because they work for large corporations, Toner says. In 2004 Corporate Counsel looked at campaign donations made by the 50 best-paid general counsel in the country. Twenty-two GCs gave $43,000 to Bush, while four GCs contributed $6,000 to Democratic contender John Kerry. Bush also had a substantial lead in general counsel contributions in the 2000 election.
Obama's strong showing among GCs this year is just an indication of his overall popularity, Norton says: "Everybody likes to ride with the winner. There's nothing new about that."