There’s an old adage in Washington: It’s not what you know, but who you know.
The sentiment isn’t lost on the nation’s electric utilities, an industry well-known for its lobbying from city hall to Capitol Hill.
Power companies and their trade groups typically prefer to back the winning horse, giving heavily to incumbents in elections across the country. And where there’s a competitive race, utilities often split their contributions between opposing candidates and parties to ensure they’ve shown good faith to both sides.
In 2014, those tendencies led the power sector’s financial contributions to lean slightly Republican, adding to the political momentum that saw the party retake the U.S. Senate from Democrats. But campaign finance experts cautioned that the funding in that election and others represents less of an ideological allegiance with either party than an attempt to curry favor with those in power.
“I think generally—and this seems to be true for utilities—big corporations, especially if they’re publicly traded, or heavily regulated, or if they have consumer identification, they don’t want to be seen as too partisan,” Russ Choma, the money-in-politics reporter at the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), told Utility Dive at the time.
Past data from CRP, which tracks corporate election funding, back up Choma’s point. In the 2008 and 2010 elections, the industry contributed to both parties equally. Going back to the early 1990s, they gave more to Democrats when they held both houses of Congress. In short, the power sector appears to give its backing to the most powerful people that agree with its interests.
Typically, presidential election years are big ones for corporate campaign contributions, but the utility sector’s numbers are up only slightly from 2014. This year, electric utility companies contributed $25.3 million to candidates and outside political groups across the country, ranking 34th among all U.S. industries, according to CRP.
That’s the highest utility industry total since CRP started tracking the data, but it isn’t keeping pace with other industries. In 2014, the utility sector ranked 29th in the U.S. and gave $21.7 million. In both campaigns, about two-thirds of the funding went to Republicans.
Part of the reason utility spending is not higher may be that there’s relative consensus when it comes to the presidential election, at least from the leadership of large companies and trade groups.
While some backed other GOP candidates in the primaries, Democratic Nominee Hillary Clinton has received the most money of any candidate in the 2016 cycle, with nearly $458,000 contributed to her cause. GOP candidate Donald Trump, however, did not even break into the top 20 recipients from the sector.
Utility leadership may be reacting negatively to Trump’s rhetoric and ignorance on energy and environmental issues. Or they may just be reading the polls like everyone else. But the lack of drama at the top of the ticket hasn’t stopped utilities from splashing cash on Congressional races.
Utility money backs a divided Washington
By and large, the big utility players in utility campaign finance are familiar faces from 2014. Large investor-owned utilities like Duke Energy, FirstEnergy and Dominion Resources contribute heavily to powerful Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. From Sen. Lisa Murkowski to Sen. Bernie Sanders, the top 20 list is full of committee chairs, ranking members and party leadership.
A new entrant on the scene this year is NextEra Energy, which more than doubled its 2014 contribution to lead the pack this year with over $3 million spent.
More than a million dollars of that money went to one organization — the Right to Rise PAC, the political action committee for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush, considered a leading presidential contender at the outset of the race, attracted the most corporate support of any GOP candidate but flamed out spectacularly, suspending his campaign in February after failing to attract 10% of the vote in two of the first three primaries.
Backing Jeb may have been a case of betting on the hometown hero for NextEra. The company is Florida’s largest corporation and owns Florida Power & Light, the state's largest electric utility. Bush has aligned himself with the utility before, supporting a contentious rate increase in 2009 in an op-ed in the Tallahassee Democrat.
If NextEra’s election bet represents the riskier side of federal utility contributions, Exelon, the second-largest contributor, represents the more risk-averse. Just as in 2014, the company split its contributions nearly equally between Democrats and Republicans.
Among the top utility spenders, FirstEnergy stands out for its preference for the GOP. The Ohio-based company operates a large fleet of mostly natural gas power plants in addition to its electric utilities and is a staunch supporter of organized electricity markets. While FirstEnergy is not opposing the Clean Power Plan, its contributions for the last three cycles have been heavily Republican.
The National Rural Electric Cooperative is the other GOP-leaning industry organization in the top 20, but much of its campaign spending supports a litany of rural lawmakers across the country, in addition to party leadership funding. In today’s political climate, the lawmakers that represent rural co-op customers are more likely to be Republicans.
If there’s one trend to be drawn from the contributions of the top 20 utilities, it’s that altogether they seem to favor a divided federal government — or at least few utility groups feel strongly enough to try to tip the balance. While Clinton may be the top recipient, utilities gave more to GOP candidates overall, and many also gave to both parties’ Congressional campaign committees. The Edison Electric Institute, the trade group for IOUs, fit the sector trend well with its recipients.
The tacit acceptance of divided government may seem strange, but it may reflect the fact that the electric power sector is largely comfortable with federal policymaking at this point in time. While the Clean Power Plan faces legal challenges, most utilities support the plan and plan to comply, while the extension of renewables tax credits has given the industry investment certainty for the next few years.
Given that — and the fact that an energy policy bill could pass during the lame duck session — legislative gridlock could serve the industry's interests, particularly if a potential President Clinton tries to push more environmental regulations.
If that’s the case, much more utility-specific policymaking will likely happen on the state level, which has seen its fair share of electoral influence from utilities as well. In Florida and Arizona, the solar industry and utilities are squaring off at the ballot box, NV Energy’s monopoly is on the chopping block in Nevada, and in Washington, a carbon tax proposal has power sector support, but has split the political left.
For utilities in those states and others, local politics may well have more of an impact on their bottom line than whoever sits down in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave on January 20.