Every four years, a new mix of politicians assembles to compete for the opportunity to run for president. While the candidates’ names and faces change, the lawyers stay the same. Attorney Michael Toner began his presidential-campaign legal career in 1996 working for Republican nominee Bob Dole. He worked for George W. Bush in 2000. In 2008, his first client was former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson before signing with party nominee Arizona Senator John McCain. Democrat Bob Bauer worked for former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign in 2000, his law partner represented Massachusetts Senator John Kerry in 2004, and Bauer landed then-Senator Barack Obama of Illinois in 2008. Republican Ben Ginsberg cut his teeth in 1996 working for then-California Governor Pete Wilson’s White House run before joining Bush in 2000 and 2004. Four years later, he landed a new client, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and he’s still representing him today.
At the presidential level, “you go to people who aren’t going to learn on the job,” said U.S. Court of Appeals Senior Judge Ralph K. Winter Jr., who taught election law at Yale University in Connecticut and is still an adjunct professor there. Or, as Toner put it, you go to the “fraternity,” a tight- knit pool of campaign finance and election-law specialists who spend much of their time in between presidential contests either helping to write new laws or blowing up the ones already on the books. Either outcome is good for business.
The five law firms specializing in presidential campaigns have been paid $50 million since 1999 by candidates, political parties and political action committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks campaign spending. As candidates forgo taxpayer campaign financing, which imposes spending limits, and dedicate unlimited sums to their races, the rate of payment is accelerating. The five firms’ earnings from candidates, PACs, and party committees increased four times to more than $10 million through June 2012, up from $2.5 million for all of the 2000 campaign.