The Democrats’ Blind Spots


Let’s start with a premise: money buys blind spots.

The money I’m referring to is the mountain of campaign contributions – at last count, nearly $1.3 billion – that flowed this election year to candidates for Congress.

The bulk of that money found its way to winners, and those winners – the members of the incoming 110th Congress – are certainly grateful. More to the point, they’d like to ensure that future donations will continue to flow their way in 2008 and beyond. And every incumbent understands that every vote they take, every amendment they introduce, is duly noted – and scored – by a galaxy of interest groups and PAC directors.

If they can, they’d like to stay on the good side of the donors.

Certainly no one will compromise core principles. Even a $10,000 campaign contribution isn’t going to change anybody’s vote on an issue like abortion or gun control. Likewise, Democrats who railed in their stump speeches against the pharmaceutical companies or Big Oil are not likely now to reverse themselves. For one thing, they know the voters will be watching.

But who’s the audience when the issue is some narrow sliver of telecommunications policy or securities regulations or Medicare reimbursement rules? The only ones watching issues like those are the industries themselves, and their arguments may have less to do with truth, justice and the American way than with looking at the issue from their particular perspective as opposed to somebody else’s.

That’s where the blind spots come in. If there’s a split in the industry, or a fight between two competing interests, the lobbyists from all sides can be counted on to present compelling arguments. But whose are you likely to find the more persuasive – the side that helped you out in your last campaign or the one that didn’t?

Members of Congress, after all, are human beings just like the rest of us. They’re just as capable of expressing gratitude as the next guy – if not more so, since their livelihood depends on it.

So where are the Democrats’ likely blind spots? Let’s take a look at the support they got from the top 20 industries contributing in their 2006 campaigns, as compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The chart below shows what portion of the industries’ dollars went to Democratic candidates.

If you wanted to convert this from a bar chart to a friends and enemies list, I’d suggest drawing dotted lines at around the 60% and 40% lines. North of 60% is friendly territory, south of 40 – and especially south of 35 – is predictably hostile.

The unions – historically, the strongest and most reliable of Democratic allies – are at the top of the thank-you list for the incoming regime. Many union priorities, like a hike in the minimum wage, will be among the Democrats’ top priorities too.

Lawyers, particularly trial lawyers, should get a very warm reception in most Democratic offices – especially when the issue pits them against Republican-leaning manufacturers.

Oil companies are at the bottom of the heap and will have the most to fear from a Democratic Congress – as they’ve already been put on notice. Pharmaceutical companies are not that far behind and will also be a high-profile target.

The cluster of industries straddling the middle – especially the securities industry and the high tech community – have a history of bending easily as political winds shift. That strategy should serve them well in the coming Congress.

To me, the most interesting bloc to watch in the coming two years will be the ones bunched together just south of the middle ground: commercial banks, health professionals, maybe the insurance industry.

These powerful groups have been giving roughly two thirds of their campaign dollars to Republicans over the last decade – but it wasn’t always so. Before the GOP took over Congress in the 1994 elections, those industries had split their money much more evenly between the parties. The Democrats, always in need of money, will do their best to coax at least some of that largesse back to their side of the aisle.

They know that won’t happen unless they listen more attentively to the arguments of the industries’ lobbyists – which is why those industries are currently scrambling to hire as many new Democrats for their Washington lobby shops as they can.

Could this be the start of a beautiful friendship, and perhaps a few more blind spots toward those industries than the Democrats have shown in recent years? I’d keep an eye on the patterns in post-election campaign contributions for an early signal.