In the jet-set world of the country’s biggest political donors, K Street can seem puny.
Individual lobbyists typically do not reach into the highest levels of personal campaign contributions; that’s an echelon billionaires dominate.
But K Street’s elite mini-mega donors have blown beyond the former federal “max out” limitation of $123,200 that the Supreme Court threw out this spring in its McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision.
Now that lobbyists — and anyone else — can give to all congressional candidates, as well as to party coffers and political action committees, K Street’s biggest donors have to search for new ways of saying “no.” And sometimes that translates into a simple “yes.”
“With me, it’s always a matter of the good causes that come along that may make you do one more,” said former Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., a senior adviser with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. With the Senate in play and races likely to tighten up as the midterm elections approach, Fazio said it isn’t easy to say no.
“A time may come, in October, where I will be incommunicado,” Fazio said, half jokingly. “Out of phone range.”
Sarah Bryner, the research director at the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations and lobbying activities, said even though K Street denizens don’t each give millions in donations every cycle, candidates and party committees view lobbyists as a reliable source of campaign cash.
“Lobbyists tend to give to a lot of different members of Congress,” Bryner said. Among their top targets: incumbents, especially those in leadership slots.
So far this election cycle, the top K Street donors hail from contract lobby shops where they represent multiple clients. “A lobbyist with a large portfolio of lobbying clients will want to be able to easily set up meetings with a variety of members’ offices,” Bryner added.
Lobbyists who give their after-tax personal money say they do it for business contacts but, more importantly, because they believe in their party or have personal ties to members of Congress they’ve known over the years.
“I believe in progressive ideals, so I give to my friends who support that,” said Democrat Steve Elmendorf. His partner in Elmendorf | Ryan, Jimmy Ryan, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, is also among K Street’s biggest donors.
Elmendorf said he has no problem saying no, even without the former “I’m maxed out” excuse now gone. He said his budget for political giving didn’t change because of the McCutcheon ruling, but he is reallocating some money previously earmarked for state races and progressive groups to federal candidates.
Republican Pat Raffaniello said the lifting of the cap on overall federal political donations won’t affect most lobbyists much since they were unlikely to max out anyway. But he said that even after exceeding what would have been this cycle’s limit, it’s hard to keep his money on the sidelines. “What it comes down to is: This really is going to be a seminal election,” he said.
The top tier of K Street donors is also dominated by men. Only one woman, Heather Podesta of Heather Podesta + Partners, is in the top 10 so far this election cycle.
Another top K Street donor, moderate Democrat Kelly Bingel, said that as more women have become partners in lobbying firms, more will become big donors. She has already donated more than $120,000 and is likely to continue giving through the fall.
“There are five southern women I believe can win, and I can certainly see myself trying to help them more as the election gets closer,” said Bingel, a partner with Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen Bingel & Thomas Inc.
Some of the top donors, though they may not be able to max out, say they feel tapped out — and they are bracing for a rush of inside-the-Beltway fundraising in the few legislative days of September.
“I’ve basically gotten to where I can’t give anymore unless they show up at my office and ask,” quipped Ken Kies of the Federal Policy Group.
Of course, he won’t be in the office come August.
He’ll be hiding out at his summer home on a Massachusetts island — where he plans to hold at least one fundraiser during the recess.
Kate Ackley is a staff writer at CQ Roll Call who keeps tabs on the influence industry.