Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks about counterterrorism, Wednesday, March 23, 2016, at the Bechtel Conference Center at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. Carolyn Kaster/AP
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Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has collected more than any other candidate in the 2016 race from employees tied to the 50 largest contractors with the U.S. Department of Defense — at least $454,994 in campaign funds over a 14-month period ending in February.

That amount was roughly a third higher than the sum collected by Clinton’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who, unlike Clinton, has called for steep cuts in defense spending.

After Sanders — who got $310,055 from defense-related workers — the presidential race’s third-leading recipient of defense contractor employee contributions was Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. He received a total of at least $307,995 from the beginning of 2015 through February 2016, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s review of Federal Election Commission data. Cruz has called for large increases in defense spending.

But over this period, employees of the top 50 contractors contributed only about half as much to the Republican presidential candidates still in the race — Cruz, Donald Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — as they did to Clinton and Sanders — a total of at least $357,775 versus at least $765,049 for the two Democrats combined.

The disparity may seem unusual, since Republicans often depict themselves as more supportive of defense spending than their opponents, and historically, more defense-related contributions have gone to Republicans. But Trump, the Republican front-runner, is largely self-funding his campaign, a factor that probably influenced this outcome.

It’s also possible that donors at defense-related companies are betting that a Democrat — either Clinton or Sanders — is more likely to win the White House in the fall than any of the Republicans, which makes them a more useful investment target. The Democrat-targeted donations may also reflect the fact that the party’s highest elected official, President Barack Obama, has called for a $2.4 billion increase in defense spending for fiscal year 2017, and many Democratic lawmakers have said they support that request — even though polls show the public does not agree.

Contributions to presidential candidates from top 50 defense contractors

 Contributions to presidential campaigns. 
 Contributions to presidential super PACs.

Source: Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign finance records downloaded from the Federal Election Commission.

*Lessig previously ran Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, which provided some funding for this project.

G.E. loves Clinton

In total, the Center for Public Integrity examined contribution data filed with the FEC for 22 current and former candidates for president, and compiled a list of the top 50 defense contractors using data released by the General Services Administration for fiscal year 2013.

The data showed that Clinton’s largest batch of defense-related contributors, from the beginning of 2015 through February 2016, were associated with General Electric, which received contracts from the Defense Department totaling $2.2 billion in fiscal 2014 and $2.3 billion in fiscal 2013. G.E., based in Fairfield, Connecticut, manufactures engines for many of the military’s fighter aircraft. Clinton got at least $56,478 from G.E. employees.

Another large group of Clinton contributors was associated with Chicago-based aerospace giant Boeing, whose employees collectively gave Clinton’s campaign at least $34,545; Boeing builds fighter jets, helicopters, radar systems and works on the military’s nuclear missiles.

Contributors who work for Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s largest contractor, gave her at least $28,623. Lockheed Martin is a contractor for numerous defense programs, including the troubled F-35 fighter jet, the most expensive weapons system ever built.

Clinton served on the Senate Armed Services Committee during her final six years in the Senate where she also received defense-industry contributions. Adjusted for inflation, she collected $258,024 from the top contractors for her Senate campaign and leadership political action committee (PAC) during that period — 2003 through 2008 — including $125,351 from contractor PACs. G.E. was also her top contributor among the contractors during that period, giving her $29,235 in adjusted dollars, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Corporations, including defense contractors, are banned from giving money directly to candidates. But they can direct spending towards particular candidates by company-run political action committees that receive donations from their employees, and they are also free to donate funds to so-called super PACs, outside spending groups made possible by a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Although defense contractors rarely give money to super PACs, $2,100 was given to two pro-Cruz super PACs. Also, a super PAC that supported Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — who has withdrawn from the presidential race — got $75,000 from Boeing’s PAC and from a GE manager.

Several of the current and former presidential candidates were also supported by organizations that have filed registrations with the Internal Revenue Service as nonprofits, but those groups aren’t required to disclose their funders, so there is no way to know if they received defense-related contributions.

Pro-defense posture

Clinton hasn’t laid out a clear position on defense spending, and her campaign did not respond to several requests for comment. On her campaign website she has argued for “permanently ending the damaging sequester” — meaning she supports rolling back budget caps that tried to curtail the federal deficit by limiting how much government agencies, including the Department of Defense, can spend.

Clinton, during a speech on the Iran nuclear agreement at the Brookings Institution, said she supports selling Israel the trillion-dollar F-35 aircraft. She has said little about nuclear modernization plans, though she said the possible $1 trillion price tag “doesn’t make sense” during an Iowa campaign event last January. Asked, after the event, if she would oppose spending that amount on new nuclear weapons, she said she was “going to look into that.”

Sanders has taken a different approach. While he has supported the F-35 program, which is slated to station some planes in his home state, he is a co-sponsor of the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures Act, which calls for cutting $100 billion from planned U.S. spending on nuclear weapons.

“We need a strong military, it is a dangerous world. But I think we can make judicious cuts,” Sanders told a U.S. Student Association town meeting at the University of Iowa in February 2015. He added: “There is massive fraud going on in the defense industry. Virtually every major defense contractor has either been convicted of fraud or reached a settlement with the government.” He also told the fourth Democratic debate, on Jan. 17, that the Defense Department’s priorities need “fundamental change.”

Nevertheless, Sanders collected at least $310,055 from defense contractor employees, including at least $45,652 from employees of Boeing and at least $36,624 from employees of Lockheed Martin — more than Clinton received from either group. Two-thirds of Sanders’ total and 95 percent of his individual contributions from employees of defense contractors came in amounts of $250 or less, while Clinton was more reliant on contributions of at least $1,000, including many from company managers. Neither Sanders’ campaign nor Boeing responded to requests for comment.

Cruz stands out among Republicans

During the CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall in Greenville, South Carolina, on Feb. 18, Cruz said that Obama has “weakened and degraded the military,” and that he wants to raise defense spending to 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product — which would amount to a roughly $135 billion increase beyond what Obama has proposed. Cruz’s plan calls for increasing the number of active-duty troops, adding more fighter aircraft and building more ships for the Navy.

Cruz’s top defense-related donor was Lockheed Martin, whose employees gave him at least $44,958, more than they’ve given to any other presidential candidate. Lockheed Martin is a contractor for the Aegis Combat System, which is equipped with ballistic missile defense capabilities, and it was the Missile Defense Agency’s top contractor in fiscal 2014, receiving about $1.8 billion, almost a third of the agency’s awarded spending that year, according to the most recent information available from the federal General Services Administration.

The Cruz campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Coming in second among the remaining Republicans was Kasich, the Ohio governor, who has received at least $39,194 from donors associated with the top contractors. At the outset of his campaign, he highlighted his efforts as a congressman 20 years earlier to cut Pentagon spending, saying “we made things right. We saved money. We improved the system.”

In October, as part of his “Action Plan” for balancing the federal budget, he called for freezing funds that can be spent for non-defense programs, while adding $102 billion to the Pentagon’s spending.

Of the remaining Republican candidates, Trump has received the least in identified contributions from contractor employees: just $10,586. His position on defense spending isn’t clear, and he hasn’t given clear answers when asked about specific weapons issues. But he has called for countries where U.S. troops are deployed, such as South Korea and Japan, to pay more of the costs. “When you look at the kind of money that our country is losing, we can’t afford to do this,” Trump said in an interview with the Washington Post on March 21, referring to the cost of protecting Saudi Arabia in particular.

The amounts given by G.E., Lockheed and Boeing employees to presidential candidates between early 2015 and February 2016 are smaller than what they gave over a comparable period before the 2008 presidential election, the previous one without an incumbent, perhaps because the outcome of the primaries has been too hard to predict.

“It’s so confusing this year, they [the contractors] don’t know who to give to, especially on the Republican side,” said Barry Blechman, a fellow at the nonpartisan Stimson Center. This leaves open the possibility that defense-related campaign giving could ramp up quickly once the party’s choices become clearer.

“G.E. is not backing a presidential candidate. Our employees make their campaign donation decisions individually,” said a G.E. spokesperson in an email. A spokesperson from Lockheed Martin declined to comment and Boeing did not respond to requests for comment.

For now, however, the defense contractors are spending more of their employees’ campaign donations on candidates for Congress who sit on key defense-related committees, who arguably have a larger impact on the fate of specific weapons programs through spending and authorizing bills.

From the beginning of 2015 through February 2016, political action committees overseen by the top 50 defense contractors have donated about $7.5 million to the campaigns and leadership PACs of lawmakers who have served on the Armed Services committees and the Appropriations subcommittees for Defense and for Energy and Water in the current Congress, the Center for Public Integrity calculated, using data downloaded from the FEC on March 28.

Reporter Michael Beckel and news developer Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this story. It was co-published with Politico.

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