WASHINGTON If a bank charged off four of its top five loans, it would be in serious trouble.
And that is the kind of failure rate the banking industry suffered on its largest bets in Senate races this year. Of the five Senate candidates to whom commercial banks gave most generously, the only winner was Senate Banking Committee member Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who got $107,565 from banks.
And their poor handicapping leads to a double hit for bankers because they will have to start making a new round of donations to curry favor with the victors they had slighted. Though lawmakers will not be sworn in until January, senators-elect can expect to see industry support right away.
Everybody is now going to get to give to the people who won, said James J. Butera, a partner in the Butera & Andrews law firm here who specializes in financial services matters and has been raising money for politicians since 1972. Thats just the nature of it. We deal with incumbents, and now these are the incumbents.
Most of the House races of importance to the industry were laughers in its favor, but campaign contribution tallies through Oct. 1 by the Center for Responsive Politics show return on bankers investment was poor in the much tighter Senate contests.
The No. 1 recipient of commercial bank donations, New York Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, a member of the House Banking Committee, got $256,041 from the industry for his unsuccessful run for the states open Senate seat. The winner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, got $71,125 from the industry.
Florida Republican Rep. Bill McCollum, a senior House Banking member and No. 2 donee, took in $150,450 of bank donations but lost to Democratic Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson. Banks gave Mr. Nelson $43,350.
The No. 3 recipient, Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich. got $135,300 from banks; his victorious opponent, Rep. Debbie Stabenow, got just $10,250. Sen. Abraham is on the Commerce Committee and was a key sponsor of the new digital signature law.
Sen. Santorum got the fourth-most money from the industry, and Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., was No. 5, with $81,400 of bank donations. The latter lost a bizarre race against Gov. Mel Carnahan, who was killed in a plane crash shortly before Election Day but whose name remained on the ballot as required by state law. Bankers had given Gov. Carnahan $52,978.
Also defeated was Senate Banking member Rod Grams, R-Minn., a longtime industry advocate who got the industrys seventh-largest donation, $75,050. Sen. Grams was defeated by Democrat Mark Dayton, who financed much of his campaign with his department store fortune and did not accept political action committee gifts.
Against this backdrop, the banking industry has some catch-up ball to play, said Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Community Bankers of America. Its particularly important since the margins of control in the Senate have shrunk.
With Republicans facing a possible tie or, at best, a two-seat majority in the Senate depending on the outcome of the tight presidential and Washington Senate races the party ratios on committees could narrow, leaving the GOP with one-seat majorities on each panel.
If Bill Nelson is appointed to the Senate Banking Committee, the rest of the industry is going to have to put some money on the table, Mr. Guenther said. The same holds true for Hillary Rodham Clinton. If she is appointed to the Banking Committee, the industry is going to have to work with her.
Longtime Washington watchers, though, do not expect the new senators to give bankers a cold shoulder.
Contributors may get their phone calls returned earlier, but I dont see any senator who won not reaching out to the entire universe of potential contributors in the industry, Mr. Butera said. Everybody is in the money chase. People are going to be open to the industry, whether they are Democrats or Republicans.
Sometimes, donors feel they have no choice but to support an underdog. Contributions are made with an eye to the past as much as to the future.
You just dont walk away from a friend, said a financial services industry lobbyist who did not want to be named. Its not good politics nor very ethical to play the game and not support your friend who has been supportive of you. If somebody has supported the industry, there is an obligation to support that person.
Steve Bartlett, president of the Financial Services Roundtable and a former Republican congressman from Texas, said it is wrong to look at the fund-raising game as though it were like a stock purchase or a trip to the racetrack. Bankers, he said, must support pro-business candidates who will help the industry.
Our contribution criterion was not whether they would win but whether we wanted them to win, Mr. Bartlett said. We werent trying to make an investment or trying to bet on winners.
But backing winners makes life easier.
The ICBA, which was one of the few industry groups to give Mr. Nelson the maximum contribution of $10,000, favored the Democrat because of his support of community banks when he was on the House Banking Committee in the late 1980s. The group also opposed Mr. McCollum, Mr. Guenther said, because he had reportedly sought a large deposit insurance premium rebate for a large bank and opposed the legal separation of banking and commercial activities.
On key issues, McCollum was not with community banks, Mr. Guenther said. We had major winners and major losers. Our investment in Florida went the right way.
Though they did not put as much into the tight Senate races in New Jersey, Delaware, and Virginia, bankers did back the winners in those states.
In New Jersey former Goldman Sachs Group co-chairman Jon Corzine took in $23,000 from commercial banks for his mostly self-financed winning campaign. The industry gave $13,500 to his Republican opponent, Rep. Bob Franks.
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