Money from trial lawyers groups flowing to Democrats

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, is attracting attention for something he likely wishes would go away. At a Texas gathering of trial lawyers, the U.S. Senate candidate compared himself with Iowa’s Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, whom he dubbed a "farmer who never went to law school."

By contrast, Braley said he was "someone who's literally been fighting tort reform for 30 years in a visible and public way."

Braley has since apologized, but the remark has sparked a broader discussion about the growing influence trial lawyers as a group are having in the current political climate.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2014, 97 percent of political contributions from the nation's leader trial lawyers association went to Democrats.

Mike Papantonio, former president of the National Trial Lawyers organization, says, "The reason you're seeing the money flow to the Democrats, not just for trial lawyers but from anybody who thinks progressively in this country, is the GOP has become utterly dysfunctional."

There are skeptics who think all those political donations are about something else: blocking tort reform.

Supporters of that concept say it's about discouraging frivolous lawsuits and oversized verdicts. Critics of the move say it's about protecting corporations and insurance companies at the expense of individuals.

Lisa Rickard, president of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, calls the trial lawyers lobby "very powerful," adding, "They are big political players, and they do overwhelmingly support Democrats."

Rickard, who advocates for tort reform, says the lobby has a single issue: supporting those who would oppose the judicial makeover. Rickard notes the amount of money the group specifically funnels almost exclusively to Democrats and says, "what that translates into is a lot of difficulty in getting a tort reform agenda passed."

Papantonio says it's only "natural" that Democrats would so directly benefit from trial lawyers' donations because they see tort reform the same way, "It's designed to protect Wall Street, insurance companies ... multinational corporations ... hospitals, business corporations," Papantonio says, adding, "I think the American public kind of understands that right now."

Rickard thinks the average American sees the situation much differently. "If you walk down the street and ask most people, 'Is our legal system a little out of whack, and do people have jackpot justice mentality that they can really hit the jackpot if they file a lawsuit?' I think most people will say our system's out of control."

As the underlying debate continues, the political contributions from this increasingly powerful lobby will also continue - though it appears they aren't getting the same level of scrutiny as major GOP donors.