Business Donors Drop Frost, Back Sessions

Posted April 28, 2004 at 6:35pm

In a striking reversal, U.S. corporations are funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into a GOP effort to oust Rep. Martin Frost (Texas) — a 13-term lawmaker who once served as a prime money man for House Democrats.

In the two months since Frost announced that he would challenge fellow incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions (D-Texas), companies ranging from Bank of America to Wal-Mart have come out strong for Sessions, giving him nearly $400,000 while handing Frost a paltry $31,000, according to new fundraising reports.

The 13-to-1 advantage for Sessions among business donors stands in sharp contrast to the previous three years, when Frost raised twice as much from corporate America as Sessions did.

The switch stems from the hotly contested Texas Congressional remap of 2003. In the redraw, Republicans upended Frost, a pro-business Democrat, from his familiar Dallas-Fort Worth district, forcing him to challenge Sessions.

The trend in corporate donations could be ominous for Frost, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman who now wields influence over the Congressional agenda as the ranking member on the House Rules Committee.

U.S. businesses are typically wary of choosing sides when incumbent lawmakers square off. By shifting contributions from Frost to Sessions, fundraisers and corporate lobbyists say that companies are placing a high-stakes bet that Sessions will defeat Frost in November.

Several corporate fundraisers attributed donors’ comfort with backing Sessions to a decade-long effort known as the “K Street Project,” in which House Republicans pressure companies to donate to GOP candidates and freeze out Democrats.

In interviews, half a dozen Democratic lobbyists said their companies are wary of contributing to Frost and other Democrats because they don’t want to upset House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) or other Republican leaders.

“There are good reasons to give to Frost, but Republicans have put out the word that they want him gone,” said one Democratic lobbyist.

Through March 31, Sessions drew $396,000 in donations from corporate PACs — $365,000 more than Frost.

Twenty-two corporate PACs wrote checks for $5,000 or more to Sessions during that time, according to finance reports on PoliticalMoneyLine.com. Only Lockheed Martin Corp. gave $5,000 to Frost.

Overall, Frost raked in $688,000 during the first three months of this year, mainly from individuals and labor unions. Sessions hauled in a total of $1.4 million.

In the only other Congressional race pitting two incumbent lawmakers, 26-year veteran Rep. Charlie Stenholm (R-Texas), ranking member of the influential Agriculture Committee, received just $6,000 more from corporations in the first quarter of 2004 than GOP Rep. Randy Neugebauer, who has been a House Member for a single year.

Corporate lobbyists said DeLay and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) are keeping an eye on campaign finance reports to find out where companies are giving their PAC money in close races.

Both DeLay and Reynolds have made it clear that the race between Sessions and Frost is one of the most important of the year. Republicans say that Reynolds and other GOP figures have asked dozens of companies to send campaign checks to Sessions.

DeLay also has a personal stake in defeating Frost. Frost was a key architect of efforts to keep House Democratic incumbents from Texas in office during prior rounds of redistricting. Last year, DeLay was the driving force behind the GOP effort to erase those lines and draw a solidly Republican map.

“We don’t hold anything against anyone,” said Sessions Chief of Staff Guy Harrison. “But we are really focusing on the giving since the race has started.”

However, Harrison and other Republicans said they have not warned corporations against contributing to Frost.

Instead, Republicans say that corporations have chosen to support Sessions because he has a stronger pro-business voting record than Frost does.

For the business community, “you have a stark choice between a pro-business, free-market conservative and a big-government, big-labor Democrat,” said Tony Rudy, a GOP lobbyist and former DeLay aide who is helping round up corporate contributions for Sessions.

Frost has indeed received the majority of donations from labor unions — $302,000 compared with $3,000 for Sessions, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com.

Rudy said that the $31,000 that Frost raised from the business community was “$31,000 too much.”

The shift in business contributions from Frost to Sessions was exemplified by Bank of America.

Last year, the Charlotte, N.C.-based financial services giant deposited five $1,000 checks to Frost’s campaign account and gave three $1,000 donations to Sessions. This year, however, the company has given an additional $7,000 to Sessions — and nothing to Frost.

Likewise, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. gave $2,500 to Frost last year and $4,000 to Sessions this year. Wal-Mart contributed $2,500 to Frost last year and $5,000 to Sessions this year.

Glenn LeMunyon, another lobbyist and fundraiser who used to work for DeLay, said that businesses are not sending money to Frost because they expect him to lose.

Frost supporters disagree. Frost’s spokesman, Justin Kitsch, argues that the Democratic leader has “strong support from the business community and the employee community” and believes that he will “raise the money that he needs.”