Erskine Bowles may be running for the Senate 3,000 miles away, but that hasn’t deterred lawyers in the Golden State’s biggest law firms from sending help.

Bowles, a Democrat and former chief of staff to President Clinton, is in a tight race for a Senate seat in North Carolina against Elizabeth Dole, the Republican former transportation secretary and wife of 1996 presidential candidate Robert Dole.

Bowles’ campaign coffers are $15,850 richer thanks to an influx of donations from lawyers at California’s largest corporate law firms. In fact, he’s the No. 1 beneficiary of their campaign largesse in the 2002 federal election cycle, according to campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

But he’s not the only candidate in a tough contest getting help. With partisan balance of the House and Senate at stake and congressional seats at play across the country, attorneys at the 40 largest corporate law firms in California have kicked more than $742,000 into the campaign kitty this election cycle. Democrats like Bowles have received the lion’s share of the contributions — not surprising in a state where Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans in partisan registration.

But the top political players among the state’s biggest law firms are also giving the GOP a substantial cut. The largest checks, in fact, have been written to Republican accounts, according to FEC data. Thelen Reid & Priest gave two $25,000 checks to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in May and November 2001.

Thelen’s contributions aren’t that surprising: The former managing partner of the firm’s Washington, D.C., office, Stephan Minikes, is a Washington insider with close ties to the Bush White House. Minikes raised enough money for the George W. Bush presidential campaign to become a Bush “pioneer,” or someone who raised at least $100,000. He left Thelen in December 2001 for Vienna, Austria, where he now serves as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a regional security organization.

Thelen’s contributions were substantial, but Los Angeles’ Manatt Phelps & Phillips topped the donor list among firms with $129,000 to candidates and party committees.

Again, Manatt is a firm with deep political connections. Name partner Charles Manatt co-chaired the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992, is the ex-Democratic National Committee chairman, and served two years as Clinton’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

Not surprisingly, two-thirds, or $93,000, of the firm’s contributions went to Democrats. But the firm hasn’t completely left the Republicans in the cold. GOP candidates and party committees received $36,000.

In the remaining weeks before the election, Manatt’s PAC is planning to spread its remaining contributions evenly between the two parties, said Stephen Ryan, a partner in the firm’s Washington, D.C., office who heads up their PAC. “As a firm, we give pretty much on an equal basis,” he said. “Essentially, when the Congress is in balance we give in balance.

“We find people in each party who support the principles and issues we’re concerned about,” he added. “We watch how members vote on policy issues and try to determine whether they’re good people. We’re much more likely to give contributions to people who aren’t bomb throwers and who have taken positions of importance on committees and subcommittees.”

At O’Melveny & Myers — home of former Clinton Secretary of State Warren Christopher and the ex-White House Counsel to Ronald Reagan, Arthur Culvahouse Jr. — giving was a bit lighter. The Democrats received $29,876, and the GOP notched $14,250 from the firm and individual attorneys.

Despite the sterling political connections of some of the firm’s brass, Donald Bliss Jr., treasurer of O’Melveny’s PAC, said the decisions to give to candidates are primarily driven by clients.

“Most PAC contributions are made at the behest of partners whose clients have asked for funds,” said Bliss, a partner in the firm’s Washington, D.C., outpost. “Generally the purpose of our PAC is to provide a resource for when our clients ask partners to participate in fund-raising. It gives us resources as a firm so we don’t unfairly put all the [fund raising] on certain partners who get the bulk of demands.”

Giving political contributions in response to a high-paying client’s request is just good business, according to Peter Zeughauser, a law firm management consultant. “It’s part of the world of practicing law. I think [firms] view it as client relations driven — they have clients who send them millions a year and call and ask them to buy a table at a fund-raiser.”

With political control of the House and Senate up for grabs, contributions have filled coffers of Democratic candidates in key congressional races nationwide — particularly the contests in battlegrounds like South Dakota, Georgia and New Hampshire.

In South Dakota, where both the House and Senate races are too close to call, Tim Johnson, the incumbent Senate Democrat, received $3,250, and Democratic House candidate Stephanie Herseth pulled in $3,500 from firms and individual lawyers. Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., received $6,750 in his fight with Republican Rep. Saxby Chambliss. Three-term GOP congressman John Sununu, R-N.H., is running against Jeanne Shaheen, a three-term Democratic governor. Shaheen received $3,600 compared to a paltry $500 to Sununu.

But the firms aren’t placing all their bets on the 2002 contests. In fact, some of the biggest winners this election cycle are the Democrats who are the pick of most pundits for a presidential bid in 2004 or who hold top leadership roles in the congressional caucuses.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s political action committee, Responsibility Opportunity and Community (ROCPAC), took in $11,500 — an amount that could help fuel the Connecticut Democrat’s White House ambitions in two years. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, another potential presidential wannabe, scored $17,500 for his Citizen Soldier’s Fund. And Al Gore got a bit of the green as well: The former vice president’s Leadership ’02 PAC nabbed $6,500.

Related charts:
By the Numbers

The Candidates

Big Spenders