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The Kaine of Torts

VA Democrat Tim Kaine relies heavily on out of state money, trial lawyers, and lobbyists

• May 22, 2012 5:00 am

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The senate candidacy of former Democratic Virginia governor Tim Kaine draws a majority of contributions from out-of-state and relies heavily on lawyers and lobbyists who are unrepresentative of the Virginia economy, a review of campaign finance reports shows.

Fifty-five percent of Kaine’s $7.4 million in campaign contributions comes from out-of-state sources, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The majority of Kaine’s top contributors hail from the legal and lobbyist fields.

To date, he has received $761,061 from lawyers and law firms, Influence Explorer reports. That is nearly double the amount from the next largest sector of contributors—the retired—who have donated $409,587. Third on the list is $318,950 from the securities and investment field. Together, lawyers and lobbyists have contributed over $1 million to Kaine.

"It’s certainly no mystery that Democrats receive the overwhelming bulk of campaign contributions from the plaintiff’s bar," said Darren McKinney, a spokesman for the American Tort Reform Association. "I just don’t think it’s as influential as some doomsayers would have us believe."

John Taylor, president of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy, agreed.

"That’s sort of where the Democrat Party gets its money, isn’t it?" Taylor said.

Yet a Kaine win could prove devastating for voters, said Jay Cost, author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Public.

Kaine would "be responsive" to his lawyer donors once elected, Cost said.

"I will bet you dollars to donuts that if a tort reform bill comes up in a committee that Kaine’s on, he will vote no—and not only vote no, but do it sanctimoniously. He’ll rail against big business and special interests while he does it," Cost said. "But the trial lawyers have bought their way into the Democrat coalition."

Kaine’s largest donors have out of the mainstream views that could pose a challenge for the candidate in a tight race.

Covington & Burling, a business and corporate law firm that has sent $28,750 Kaine’s way so far, is known for its pro bono representation of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Firm attorney Bill Livingston "filed habeas corpus petitions challenging the imprisonment of seven Yemeni men" at Gitmo. One of those men was released to Yemen over even the objections of the Obama administration, which had placed a moratorium on detainees’ release.

The firm has also performed free work defending same-sex marriage, successfully "squashing a legal challenge to same-sex marriage in Washington [state]."

Three other top Kaine contributors—Akin Gump international law firm, DLA Piper global law firm, and Kirkland & Ellis international law and lobby firm—have topped donor lists to plenty of Democratic campaigns and causes for years.

DLA in particular has boosted its federal lobbying presence, increasing expenditures in this area alone to $450,000 in 2009, OpenSecrets reports.

Akin Gump has handled several notable class action suits, recently taking on antitrust, securities, and environmental and toxic tort cases, as well as unfair competition suits, according to its site.

Kirkland has a blossoming class action business. The firm served as national trial counsel for the states, foreign countries, unions, and insurance companies against the tobacco industry, "seeking recovery of medical and economic costs allegedly due to smoking," the firm reports.

Another Kaine donor, Skadden, with $23,750, has a reputation for closeness to the Democratic Party.  The firm is "perhaps best known politically in the United States for its lobbying arm, and as a clearinghouse for donors to the Democratic Party … and it’s the firm’s individual employees, as well as their immediate family members, who come out in droves for Democrats," according to OpenSecrets.

Top contributors to Kaine’s campaign not aligned with legal and lobbying fields are often out-of-state.

For instance, Kaine has received $23,000 from Westmed Medical Group, a physician-owned medical practice based in wealthy Westchester County, N.Y. He has received $36,068 from the League of Conservation Voters, a national nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that has formally endorsed Obama for reelection, as well as Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren for Senate, and at the same time denounced Mitt Romney as "in the tank for big oil." Kaine also received $25,250 from the Washington-based Microsoft, one of the largest employers lobbyists.

Meanwhile, Republican candidate George Allen has raised most of his campaign funds from Virginians and has a broader donor base.

Sixty-six percent of Allen’s contributions come from in state, while top donors hail from a variety of industries. Of his $6.14 million in campaign donations, retirees—with $547,875—are the single largest source of donations, the Center for Responsive Politics reports. Next in line is real estate, with $302,400, followed by lawyers and law firms at $266,509—significantly less than Kaine.

Looking at Allen’s donations by sector reveals even greater differences between the candidates. His top donors include Altria and Lorillard, both tobacco farming and sales companies; Norfolk Southern, a transportation company; Dominion Resources, in energy and power; and Boeing, the airplane manufacturer.

Allen’s donors, unlike Kaine’s, mirror Virginia’s top businesses and employers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists Virginia’s biggest employers as government, the professional and business services, trade, transportation, and utilities, education and health services, and leisure and hospitality.

Professional and business services, by BLS definition, do include legal workers—but also managers, accountants, architects, computer designers, researchers, and advertisers, among others.

Farming is a top Virginia business, boosted in part by tobacco and winery trades. "Agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry by far, with nothing else coming a close second … [providing] more than 357,000 jobs," says the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Kaine’s campaign did not return telephone and email messages requesting comment.

Allen’s campaign spokeswoman, Emily Davis, declined to address specific questions about donations, and instead issued a blanket statement expressing Allen’s gratefulness "for the strong support he’s receiving from Virginia families and job creators."

Allen’s broader base of support suggests a wider appeal among Virginia voters, experts say.

"It would show first of all that the person has a wide base of people, and the more people who contribute to a campaign, it demonstrates more support," said Brendan Glavin, data manager at the Campaign Finance Institute.

However, looking at Kaine’s campaign donations and drawing the conclusion that he would be beholden to attorneys over other constituents, or to out-of-state residents rather than in-state residents, would not be fair, Glavin added.

"Democrats have long relied on outside state sources of support—whether it be mega-rich foundations, labor union coalitions, or, as in this case of Kaine—special interest groups, to swing races in their favor," said Jacob Laksin, who co-authored with David Horowitz the forthcoming book, The New Leviathan: How the Left-Wing Money-Machine Shapes American Politics and Threatens America’s Future.

Polls of a Kaine-Allen matchup continue to indicate a statistical dead heat.

"We have Virginia as one of seven toss-ups nationally," said Kyle Kondik, political analyst for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "We believe that the race will ultimately come down to coattails from the presidential race."

Cheryl K. Chumley is a journalist in Northern Virginia.