The only place in Washington, D.C., where Republicans still constitute a majority is on K Street.
But as they struggle to stay relevant on Capitol Hill, the heavy-hitting, partisan GOP lobbyists who were so coveted just last year are hitting all the wrong notes.
Newly empowered Democratic aides say many Republican lobbyists are using GOP-approved talking points, dismissing their Members’ substantive concerns and alienating them with hardball political tactics.
“It’s the legacy of the K Street Project,” noted one senior Senate Democratic aide, referring to the GOP-led push over the past decade to create an airtight lock between Republicans on and off the Hill. The project cajoled trade associations and corporate offices into replacing Democrats with Republicans in plum slots downtown, often threatening legislative reprisals if business interests fell out of line.
Democrats insist they are not trying to create a Democratic-leaning K Street Project to bully private interests into hiring their own. Indeed, they blasted the project on the campaign trail as evidence the GOP was too close to its lobbying allies. And Democratic lobbying reform proposals adopted by both chambers this year explicitly ban any similar effort.
Democratic lobbyists said their GOP brethren, slow to recognize the power shift, are stumbling in meetings with the new majority.
“If you haven’t grown up in the Democratic party and you haven’t worked a Democratic staff, you aren’t always sensitive to the right buttons to push,” said Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist and one-time chief of staff to former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.), whose young outfit has seen explosive growth thanks to clients eager to build ties to the new leadership.
Several Democratic and Republican lobbyists agreed GOP consultants often get it wrong with Democrats because their corporate pitch is such an easy sell in Republican offices, which already are ideologically sympathetic to businesses’ concerns.
Meeting with Democrats, some Republicans neglect to factor in a much wider array of constituencies that hold sway with the new majority, including labor, environmental and consumer groups.
“Republican lobbyists are used to walking into an office and just saying, ‘I’d like you to do this,’” said one Republican operative who regularly lobbies across the aisle. “With Democrats, you really have to hone your arguments, and you really have to sell them on policy.”
Now that the tables are turned, some Democrats are even questioning whether business clients are being adequately served by their Republican representatives.
They pointed to overt partisans advising business lobbying coalitions. Two senior House Democratic aides who work closely with the business community said trade association members of the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace — which opposed a union-backed bill that would make it easier to organize workers — were ill-served by certain lobbyists hired by the coalition.
The coalition — advised by Navigators, an all-GOP lobbying and consulting shop — ran several ads against vulnerable Democrats for supporting the “card check” bill. The ads, said one of the senior House aides, “really alienated a number of Democrats that would have been willing to work with the business community on other issues.”
In retaliation for the spots, Democrats began calling certain coalition members, such as the American Hospital Association and the National Restaurant Association, and asked them to pressure the coalition to pull the ads.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.