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K Street Files: Is That a Lobbyist Knocking on Your Door?

Lobbyists are hitting the campaign trail this fall, including for Senator Thad Cochran, R-Miss. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With the midterm elections one week away, K Street lobbyists are taking their powers of persuasion to the campaign trail. Their target audience: voters.  

Though they may be more accustomed to trolling the halls of the Capitol or getting stuck on client conference calls discussing legislative strategy, over the next few days, lobbyists plan to employ a different set of skills that include walking door-to-door, holding campaign signs or driving voters to the pools in major contests around the country.  

"I’m ready not to sleep and to wear very comfortable shoes and go wherever they need me," said Dawn Levy O’Donnell, who runs the firm D Squared Tax Strategies.  

O’Donnell is heading to Colorado to help the campaign of Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat who is in a tough race against GOP Rep. Cory Gardner. She went to college at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus and considers the state a home.  

Lobbyists from both parties hit the campaign trail to help their former bosses or other people in their personal and professional networks. Others are returning to their roots or are trying to make a difference for their political party. Plus, it’s a good place to connect with lawmakers and their aides, who have decamped for the campaign trail . Like those congressional staffers, lobbyists, too, must use personal time, vacation or unpaid leave when helping a campaign.  

On the other side of the aisle, Josh Holly, a former senior aide on the House Armed Services Committee, is taking time off from his job at the Podesta Group to return to the state where he was born — Kentucky. Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Republican from the state, could well become Majority Leader if his party wins control of the chamber and if he defeats Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.  

“I’ll be doing get-out-the-vote activities: knocking on doors, holding signs,” said Holly, who plans to spend most of his campaigning in the Lexington, Ky., area. “When I was on the House Armed Services Committee, I would take personal time to volunteer on campaigns. It’s important to the process. I encourage younger staff — Capitol Hill or private sector — to volunteer on campaigns.”  

Holly said being on the campaign trail can offer a Washington insider a deeper sense of connection to outside-the-Beltway voters and to what’s important to them. That can translate into a better perspective back on Capitol Hill and K Street.  

“It’s a good way to get the pulse of the electorate and the community that helps drive policies on Capitol Hill,” he said.  

Some of Holly’s Podesta Group co-workers are also on the trail, including Jaime Harrison, who serves as chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, and Rachelle Johnson, who is helping her former boss Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.  

Though Cochran’s path back to the Senate seems smooth after a grueling primary fight, Johnson said the senator’s team won’t take anyone’s vote for granted.  

“In politics, you don’t ever want to say that things are locked up,” said Johnson, who plans to spend the next few days on vacation around Jackson, Miss., where her family lives. “I think there’s a lot you can do in the final days.”  

Kristen Hawn, who is now with the communications and advocacy firm Granite Integrated Strategy, is heading down to Arkansas to help the gubernatorial campaign of her former Hill boss, ex-Rep. Mike Ross, a Democrat, who is in a contest with another former congressman, Republican Asa Hutchinson.  

“Once a staffer, always a staffer,” Hawn said.  

Unlike most federal lobbyists who have to travel to help on campaigns, Lynn Cutler, who is based in Holland & Knight’s Chicago office, has been helping the campaign of Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., on her home turf.  

“We’ve been friends since 1982 when we were both running for the House; he was here, and I was in Iowa,” said Cutler, a former senior aide on then-President Bill Clinton’s intergovernmental affairs team. Durbin's seat is rated safe by Roll Call . Additionally, she said, she has been helping Democratic candidates from around the country, especially women, raise money in Chicago.  

Of course, traveling for a campaign can have its perks, too.  

In addition to helping McConnell, Holly has a more personal order of business in the state.  

“As long as I can get a piece of cheesecake from Ramsey’s Diner, then it’ll all be worth it,” he said.  

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