WASHINGTON — While commercial banks have strongly favored Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in their campaign donations this cycle, they are overwhelmingly backing Republicans in the down-ballot congressional giving.
Roughly 73% of donations from commercial bank political action committees are going to Republicans in this election cycle, the most tilted toward one party by the banking industry in recent memory, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Banking groups insist it's not a partisan choice.
The American Bankers Association's PAC targets policymakers who are "willing to move things forward," said James Ballentine, executive vice president of congressional relations and political affairs at the ABA. "You help those that have shown a willingness to work on regulation that is helpful to you and the communities that banks serve."
But for the ABA and other banking PACs, those candidates considered willing to move things forward are overwhelmingly Republicans. Of the $1.9 million given by ABA's PAC this election cycle, 77% have gone to GOP candidates. Similarly, of the $952,400 given by the Independent Community Bankers of America's PAC, 76% went to GOP candidates.
The same was true for the PACs operated by individual banks, including Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. Wells gave 66% of its $788,200 in contributions to GOP candidates, Citi 67% of its $770,247, B of A 71% of $726,500 and JPMorgan 68% of $698,000.
When giving is broadened to include individual and soft-money donations, the tilt toward Republicans is slightly less pronounced. Of the $28.8 billion given by commercial bank employees, PACs and outside money groups, roughly 70% has gone to the GOP in this election cycle. But PAC money is critical in part because it is entirely controlled by the industry, whereas employee donations also reflect individuals' views, which may not line up with corporate interests.
"It is a little bit more heavily Republican than I was expecting," said a financial services lobbyist who spoke on condition of anonymity.
It's not hard to pin down when commercial banks increased their giving to Republicans: the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. Commercial bank PAC donations were 54% in favor of Republicans in the 2008 cycle, 61% in 2010 and — after Dodd-Frank was enacted — roughly 70% in 2012 and 2014. (Historically speaking, the tilt was around 65% Republican prior to the 2008 cycle.)
Roger Beverage, the president and CEO of the Oklahoma Bankers Association, said many Democratic candidates are unwilling to support needed changes to Dodd-Frank.
"When it comes to down-ticket races and banker support for Republicans, the sad facts are that Democrats in Congress generally don't want to give community banks any kind of regulatory relief," he said. "Some of them talk a good game, but when it comes to action, negotiation or compromise, it's 'my way or the highway.' Not all of them to be sure, but a large percentage of them nevertheless."
Cam Fine, president of the ICBA, said the divide comes down to which party is currently in control and bankers' natural inclination to support incumbents.
Republicans "control the congressional agenda and they hold all the chairmanships, so naturally the lion's share of contributions go to those who control the agenda," he said. "If the Ds controlled both chambers, I am sure that you would see nearly the reverse of what you see now."
Yet it is also notable this year that the donations down-ballot are completely out of sync with the presidential race. Commercial bank PACs and individuals have given $1.5 million to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, compared to a paltry $35,069 to Republican candidate Donald Trump, based on data as of July 21. (Avowed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders received far more than Trump — $276,499 — while even Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who dropped out early in the race, received $37,870.)
By comparison, in 2012 commercial banks gave $4.9 million to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and $1.8 million to President Obama.
Beverage said that to many banks Trump's views are unclear. The candidate has generally endorsed a repeal of Dodd-Frank, but shocked bankers when he added a call to reinstate the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act to the GOP party platform.
"Mr. Trump is an unknown with respect to banking matters that are relevant to states like Oklahoma," Beverage said. "I can find no specific evidence that he supports community banks, even though he has made some suggestions about repealing Dodd-Frank. I don't know what his specifics might be, or how realistic they are. Reinstating Glass-Steagall is not on the realistic list."
Clinton, at least, is a known quantity and has pledged to address regulatory relief for small institutions.
"I don't know how far that goes — does she mean banks under a certain threshold, or does she mean banks that operate as community banks (relationship-based vs. transaction-based) — but at least she says she supports banks like those in OK," Beverage said.
Commercial banks' giving to Republicans contrasts sharply with the credit union industry, which appears to make a concerted effort to give equally to both parties even though it also is seeking changes to Dodd-Frank. Of the $2.3 million given by credit union PACs, roughly 55% went to GOP candidates.
Trey Hawkins, the vice president of political affairs for the Credit Union National Association, which gives 54% of its PAC money to GOP candidates, said it is "one of the most bipartisan PACs."
"We are roughly 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans," he said.
Race for the Senate
With control of the Senate up for grabs, much of banks' cash is going to Republican incumbents. Democrats need just five seats to reclaim control of the chamber, and many bankers fear that progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., could help push through additional burdensome legislation. Additionally, they hope GOP control could help usher in changes to Dodd-Frank.
Banks have given significantly to Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who are both members of the Senate Banking Committee, and other key Senate incumbents, including Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Joe Heck, R-Nev.; Ron Johnson, R-Wis.; and Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
Ballentine said the ABA is supporting candidates like Toomey because he has proven to be a "thoughtful" member who is willing to look at parts of Dodd-Frank and evaluate if they are working. Overall, bank PACs and individuals have given $387,350 to Toomey, who is facing a tough re-election against Democratic candidate Katie McGinty.
The only Senate candidate who has received more bank cash is Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby ($430,671), who is expected to cruise to re-election.
Banks have also given significantly to Portman, who has introduced a bill that calls for more oversight of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Portman has received $234,130 from commercial bank PACs and individuals, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Of the top 10 Senate recipients of commercial banks' largesse, nine were Republicans. All of the top 10 House recipients were GOP lawmakers.
But banks insist they are giving Democratic candidates a fair shot. For example, Friends of Traditional Banking, a bank Super PAC, is considering giving money to former Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who joined the race at the last minute in July. Bayh is viewed as a moderate and has served on the board of Fifth Third Bank since leaving the Senate.
Friends of Traditional Banking has identified six Senate races and four House races as key ones to watch, but will eventually throw its support behind just two candidates.
"These are candidates who have proven to be friends of common-sense financial regulations and an environment where lending and borrowing are supported in growing our economy," said John Boyer, the chairman of the Super PAC and chair of the $200 million-asset Kanza Bank in Kingman, Kan.
Howard Headlee, president of the Utah Bankers Association and treasurer of Friends of Traditional Banking, said it needs to give money "in races that are close. We are not going to spend a lot of time and effort on races that are not on the margin."
Reform groups, meanwhile, are also in the mix, giving money to Democrats in the hopes that if they gain control, they can add additional measures to Dodd-Frank.
"Our view has been that in many ways Dodd-Frank did not go far enough and so it is absolutely vital that not only do we get people who are committed to holding those reforms in place, but fighters who are willing to expand on certain protections for consumers," said Neil Sroka, communications director for the progressive PAC Democracy for America.
Sroka said the PAC is not supporting any Republicans, but will withhold support from certain Democrats if they are not committed to change.
"If we find someone who is soft on financial reform we are not going to get involved in that race," Sroka said.
Rob Blackwell contributed to this article.