If you follow the money in the 2014 election — if you look past the audacious nine figures of liberal billionaire Tom Steyer, and past the well-heeled tentacles of the Kochtopus, and past Karl Rove and Harry Reid — you will find a little-noted major player in the battle to control the U.S. Senate: trial lawyers.
Lawyers and law firms have given more money to House and Senate candidates and party committees than any other industry, with an overwhelming majority going to Democrats.
Lawyers are top donors in all of the most competitive Senate races. The top lawyer lobby in Washington is a leading bundler and PAC donor for the Democrats’ official and unofficial campaign committees.
Ironically, despite all these tens of millions in lawyer dollars trying to keep the Senate in friendly hands, it could be the industry’s unpopularity that hands the U.S. Senate to Republicans.
Trial lawyers love Democrats because Democrats advance policies that help trial lawyers make money. More regulation and more legislation often means more litigation. Democrats oppose tort reform, while Republicans — encouraged by the business lobby — support tort reform. Democrats push laws such as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that create all sorts of legal ambiguities and liabilities, which yields profits for lawyers.
Trial lawyers point out that they are necessary and, for many people, helpful. If a business or landlord rips you off or injures you, it’s the trial lawyers that bring you justice. This is true. We need trial lawyers. But we also need oil companies, airplane manufacturers, and drug makers. These industries are clearly special interests. We study their influence in elections closely, and we are suspicious of them. Trial lawyers deserve the same scrutiny.
The focus of lawyer money this year is control of the U.S. Senate. The Democratic candidates in the 15 most competitive Senate races have raised $11 million from trial lawyers for the 2014 election.
The industry’s main lobby is the American Association for Justice — formerly known as the American Trial Lawyers Association. AAJ is an officially registered lobbyist bundler for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, raising $122,800, according to a September filing, and directly contributing $60,000 to the DSCC.
AAJ’s PAC has given the maximum $10,000 to the PACs of the competitive Senate races, supplementing those gifts with $5,000 to the state parties where the tightest Senate races are being fought.
In each of the eight most competitive Senate races, the industry providing the most money is trial lawyers.
In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu’s top source of money is lawyers, giving $1.3 million. Sen. Mark Pryor, the endangered Arkansas Democrat, has also raised $1.3 million from lawyers, more than any industry. Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado has been oddly obsessed with birth control, but the drug industry takes a backseat to lawyers in his fundraising to lawyers, the only industry to have given him more than $1 million.
Sen. Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Gary Peters in Michigan, Michelle Nunn in Georgia, and Greg Orman in Kansas all have raised more from lawyers than from any industry — and more than their Republican opponents have raised from any industry.
In no race, however, do the lawyers play a greater role than in the open-seat Senate race in Iowa. Bruce Braley is a trial lawyer and a former member of AAJ’s board of governors. A lawyer at the AAJ’s October event in Washington spotted a sign imploring members to donate to Braley.
Braley’s lawyer haul of $1.25 million is more than what he brought in from the next 34 industries combined. AAJ knows that Braley would be their man in the U.S. Senate.
Buckets of cash and wholehearted support from a special interest is never without its negatives, and Braley’s love affair with trial lawyers is a prime example.
Braley spoke to a group of trial lawyers at a cozy fundraiser over the summer. He explained to them the stakes in the election.
“If you help me win this race,” Braley told his trial lawyer donors, “you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice — someone who’s been literally fighting tort reform for 30 years, in a visible or public way, on the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
That was an enticing promise enough, but then he got to the threat: “Or, you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Because, if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
The horror! Iowa voters could end up handing a gavel to a “farmer from Iowa.”
The “farmer from Iowa” video knocked Braley down in the polls — as did his threat of a lawsuit against a neighbor’s chickens. If Braley loses a close race, trial lawyers — the biggest industry in the 2014 election — could cost Democrats the majority in the Senate.Timothy P. Carney, the Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.