WASHINGTON - Minnesota's major businesses are on track to give more than $20 million to U.S. House and Senate races in the 2012 election cycle, a Star Tribune analysis has found.

Led by heavy hitters Honeywell International, American Crystal Sugar, Wells Fargo, UnitedHealth Group and U.S. Bancorp, corporations with substantial operations in Minnesota have made maximum individual contributions of $10,000 to hundreds of candidates and given four-figure donations to hundreds more across the country. In addition to contributions to individuals, the companies funneled millions to other political action committees that also donate to campaigns.

The 63 companies, cooperatives, trade groups and unions the Star Tribune examined augmented campaign contributions with nearly $100 million for lobbying.

"Political contributions are widely seen as investments in favorable economic outcomes," said Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington. "That's precisely why business money in politics is so troubling. We're talking about buying access and influence."

Business involvement in politics is a delicate subject. With a single exception, Best Buy, requests for interviews about political donations sent to 12 of the state's top companies were met with written statements and references to company websites.

None of the business community's three political favorites -- Minnesota Republican Reps. Erik Paulsen and John Kline and Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar -- made themselves available for interviews when asked by the Star Tribune. Paulsen and Klobuchar issued statements. Kline didn't respond.

Paulsen received more contributions from Minnesota businesses than any other candidate. From Jan. 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, he collected $130,338.

Boston Scientific's political action committee (PAC) gave the maximum $10,000. So did PACs at American Crystal Sugar and General Mills.

As a member of the House Ways and Means and Financial Services committees, Paulsen helps determine all kinds of federal spending. As co-chairman of the House Medical Technology Caucus, he possesses a bully pulpit for complaining about government regulations.

Paulsen has been a friend to business, authoring a bill to kill a medical device tax, pushing for faster approval of new devices, supporting free trade overall and opposing government regulations. He did so as he owned small amounts of stock in Medtronic and McKesson, two companies that could benefit from his legislative efforts. Paulsen sold his shares in June after media reported his ownership.

Paulsen said in a statement that he will always support Minnesota's medical technology industry, its small businesses and free trade, because they account for tens of thousands of jobs in the state.

University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson said Paulsen enjoys "perfect symmetry between industry and constituency." What matters to businesses also matters to his constituents in Minneapolis' western suburbs.

"Constituent connections cannot get lost," she said. "No member of Congress votes against the strongly held views of their constituents just because of money."

Paulsen is hardly alone in attracting business donations. In the first 18 months of the election cycle, Kline, who chairs the House Education Committee, got $120,462. Klobuchar, a member of the Senate's Agriculture, Judiciary, Commerce and Joint Economic committees, received $116,920.

Overall, big Minnesota businesses trended Republican, giving 58 percent of individual contributions to Republicans and 42 percent to Democrats.

They also targeted national players. So Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., got more Minnesota business money than most of the state's congressional delegation, including Sen. Al Franken and Reps. Tim Walz, Collin Peterson, Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, Chip Cravaack and Michele Bachmann.

Franken had only $23,000 in business contributions, because he is not up for re-election. By 2014, experts expect his committee posts to command some business support.

But image can also affect business giving. Bachmann ran for president and is a prolific fundraiser. Yet she got just $8,000 from Minnesota's corporate community.

"I think her ideology plays a role," Pearson said of Bachmann's support for controversial social issues. "She's not out there talking about business. Her votes don't differ dramatically from Erik Paulsen's. But her emphasis is quite distinct."

Invisible giving

Election spending by Minnesota businesses is likely much higher than what must be publicly revealed. The state's businesses give millions of dollars to national groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that funnel tens of millions of dollars into politics.

Also, a 2010 Supreme Court decision lets businesses and unions give unlimited amounts to independent spending committees. These groups, which are pouring hundreds of millions into the 2012 elections, can often keep donors secret.

Several prominent Minnesota businesses, including U.S. Bancorp, Wells Fargo, UnitedHealth, General Mills, Target, Best Buy, Medtronic, 3M and Xcel, either forbid corporate donations to outside political groups or voluntarily reveal contributions to them.

Federal records show just one major public gift from a Minnesota business to the presidential race. In November 2011, St. Paul-based Hubbard Broadcasting Inc. gave $100,000 to American Crossroads, which is set to spend more than $100 million in an attempt to defeat President Obama. Hubbard Broadcasting chairman Stanley S. Hubbard said his company also has given to groups that keep their donor lists secret, but wouldn't name groups or amounts.

"These aren't political contributions; they're educational contributions," Hubbard said.

"A lot of companies won't contribute. They're afraid."

Effects unclear

The volatile question is whether political donations and lobbying reward believers or change philosophies.

"Government decisions should not be made on the basis of whether they benefit a specific business interest who is a political donor," said the Campaign Legal Center's Ryan. "But that often occurs."

Ohio State University law Prof. Donald Tobin, an ex-Senate staff member, disagreed. "My experience is that money follows ideology," he said. "Money doesn't create or change ideology."

Minnesota companies say they donate based on a candidate's existing positions.

A committee determines contributions by Best Buy's political action committee, vice president of government relations Laura Bishop said.

"We look at electability and financial need," she explained. "We look at support of issues that are important to Best Buy. We look at the presence of Best Buy stores or employees in the district. We look at leadership positions, as far as committee assignments. ... And we don't contribute to more than one candidate in a single race."

Businesses and trade groups insist that political donations and lobbying are meant to inform, not buy political favors.

Where the business sector's political investments pay their biggest dividends, according to Tobin, is with issues so complex that neither voters nor elected officials truly grasp their significance.

"You're not worried about whether they have a role," Tobin said. "You're worried about whether their role is so great that it crowds out other important voices."

Often, the public doesn't understand policy details that affect their lives, the U's Pearson said.

Case in point: Through August, American Crystal Sugar, a sugar beet cooperative, had contributed $2.2 million to more than 200 candidates and political action committees. The co-op still had $1.3 million in cash to pass out. It also had spent $2 million lobbying to keep in place a controversial federal price support system.

The sugar program remains in the 2012 farm bill.

"With money comes access," Pearson said. "With access comes persuasion."

Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123