For the 2019-2020 election cycle, construction companies and trade organizations have donated a combined $144.1 million to federal candidates, parties and committees as of Oct. 23, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That already exceeds the sector’s final 2020 total of $137.7 million spent during the 2015-16 cycle, the last one that included a presidential race.

Dissatisfaction with politics drove down numbers of some groups, while others increased contributions because of the help offered by Congress during the pandemic, they say.

Associated Builders and Contractors’ 2020 fundraising for federal candidates took off with a strong start, bringing in more than $500,000 in donations for its political action committee in the first three months of the year. ABC was on a pace to raise a record amount for its PAC, says Melanie Pfeiffenberger, vice president for political affairs. But then the pandemic arose. “The world shut down on March 15,” she says.

As a result, ABC and other construction associations put months-long holds on their solicitations, cancelled in-person events that brought in donations and instead held virtual meetings. Officials at several groups say that partly due to the coronavirus outbreak, their donations are somewhat lower than levels reached in the 2016-2016 cycle.

Construction unions, on the other hand, already have seen their federal campaign spending vault well above the levels of four years ago. Building trades' expenditures totaled $54.2 million through Oct. 16, the Center for Responsive Politics reports. With weeks yet to go before final 2020 numbers are recorded, that already is 29% above the $42.1 million that construction unions spent in the last full cycle.

But union officials say the pandemic has had an impact on their political activities this year, too. They report that their extensive voter-outreach efforts have moved away from in-person rallies to more phone and digital activity, for example.

Top officials at several engineering and construction organizations report that donations have bounced back in recent weeks. Some are optimistic that when the final campaign-finance tallies are in at the end of the year, they may exceed those achieved in the 2016 cycle.

"Obviously, COVID made it a challenge to raise money," says Marco Giamberardino, the National Electrical Contractors Association's vice president for government and public affairs. NECA put in place a fundraising pause that ran from about late March through August. "We held back out of respect for our members this year," he says. But with the hold now lifted, Giamberardino says PAC disbursements are expected to be "just shy" of $1.1 million by Election Day. That would be a slight increase over the 2016 figure.

ABC has raised about $1.36 million as of Oct. 22, down about $279,000 from where things stood at this point in the 2016 cycle, says Kristen Swearingen, vice president for legislative and political affairs. She acknowledges that ABC won't match 2016 donations by this Election Day.

"But we're not too far off," Swearingen says. "We were doing a lot of thinking outside the box and a lot of virtual fundraising."

The Associated General Contractors of America's federal campaign expenditures were about $877,500 as of Oct. 21, down about $50,000 from the last presidential election cycle, says David Ashinoff, director of political affairs. He says AGC will come "pretty close" to the 2015-2016 number when final totals are in.

But he says another factor behind the lower level of donations is the present political environment. “A lot of folks are dissatisfied with Washington, D.C.," Asinoff says. "They don’t see either party being the solution, [but] at times, being the problem.”

At the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, Michele Stanley, vice president for government and regulatory affairs, says by the end of the 2019-20 cycle, "We will have raised significantly more than we did in the 2016 cycle.” As of Sept. 30, the group had raised slightly more than $1.3 million this cycle for its political action committee, ROCKPAC, according to Federal Election Commission data.

Stanley said via email, "Our receipts for 2020 are down a little from 2019 due to the pandemic, because we were not able to have our in-person fundraiser where people are generally more motivated to contribute..."

Steve Hall, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Council of Engineering Cos.,  expects that its final fundraising total will exceed the 2016 level. “In fact, we’re almost there already," with nearly $1.8 million, he said in an Oct. 22 interview.

Unlike other engineering and construction organizations, ACEC did not put a temporary hold on solicitations, although it considered doing so, says Linda Bauer Darr, president and CEO.

She said that the reason can be traced to the increased importance this year of financial help from legislation being negotiated by Congress and the Trump administration.

Darr says ACEC members "stayed active and some became more active because of the pandemic." She adds, "This pandemic hit us very early on and they were in survival mode." Members realized that the new federal aid programs, especially Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans, would provide "necessary stability to their operations at a time where everything was so uncertain."

“When it comes down to survival,” Darr says, “I think people understand the necessity to kind of pony up and get active.”

Among the building trades unions, the carpenters’ union has been, by far, the most generous political donor in recent years. This election cycle is no exception. The carpenters continue to rank first among the building trades in campaign spending, and this cycle's total has more than doubled from four years earlier, to $28 million, including $25.8 million in soft money.

Kyle Makarios, political director at the union, whose full name is the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, says that the union continues to donate to both Republican and Democratic candidates, but he would not comment on specifics about its strategy.

Although the industry is weathering a pandemic, Makarios says contributions from the union’s members haven’t suffered. “We have a strong base of continually contributing members and haven’t seen a significant drop,” he says, noting that the vast majority of its donors make contributions through regular automatic withdrawals. “We’re not out there pounding jobsites for donations,” Makarios says.

The pandemic has had an effect on the union's election activities in moving from traditional person-to-person contacts to virtual ones, including digital sessions, phone calls and text banking. “Our volunteer activities have really shifted,” Makarios says. “There are way fewer rallies and in-person political volunteer events, where members would be personally engaged.”

The Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), which ranks second among construction unions in campaign expenditures, also has altered its strategy to adapt to uring COVID-19 constraints. “The pandemic has changed some of the ways we are mobilizing," says Terry O'Sullivan, LIUNA general president. "But we have ramped up our mail and digital outreach in addition to hosting virtual meetings and doing job site visits,”

LIUNA has endorsed former Vice-President Joe Biden for president. O'Sullivan says, “Members are working the phones aggressively, talking to fellow members about voting for Joe and worker-friendly candidates at every level.”

Jay Lederer, communications director for the International Union of Operating Engineers, says the move to digital was already underway, when the pandemic hit and forced in-person efforts to be put on hold. "With the demographics of membership skewing younger, you’ve got to reach them where they are at,” he says.

Overall, construction companies and associations tend to favor Republicans. In the current cycle, 65% of their donations have gone to the GOP and 35% to Democrats.

But some associations lean more heavily Republican. ABC, for example directed 99.8% of its contributions to Republicans and AGC sent 90.5% of its dollars to the GOP.

Others have a narrower gap between the parties. For example, NECA's split is 61.7% to Republicans and 38.3% to Democrats. That compares with a 75.1%/24.9$% split in the 2015-16 cycle, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.

Giamberardino says one reason for Democrats' increased share this cycle is the increase in House Democrats since 2018. "With more Democrats in town, we've seen an uptick of Democratic candidates who we're able to work with [and who have] a good chance of being around for a while."

Construction unions tend to favor Democrats. This cycle, 86% of the building trades dollars are going to Democrats and 14% to the GOP.

The percentages vary somewhat from union to union. The carpenters' union devoted 78.8% of its dollars to Democrats. For the laborers' union, Democrats' share is 83% and for the bricklayers' union, the share is 99.8%.

Story updated on 10/30/20 with more recent campaign spending totals.