Politics

K Street Money Fuels House Challengers to Victory

Primary hopefuls woo lobbyists, some listen

K Street is written above the entrance to an office building in downtown Washington, DC. K Street is the center of the political lobbyist industry in Washington. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Tim Huelskamp alienated business lobbyists during his three House terms as he pushed for government shutdowns and an end to the Export-Import Bank. Lobbyists responded by backing the Kansas Republican’s primary opponent.

Huelskamp lost that contest in Kansas' 1st District last month to Roger Marshall, an OB-GYN, who appears to be a shoo-in for the safe GOP seat.

Marshall isn’t the only primary challenger to woo K Street this election season, either. Of the five challengers who have knocked off incumbents so far, four received donations from lobbyists during the first half of 2016, a Roll Call analysis of congressional lobbying records found. One, Rep. George Holding, faced another incumbent, fellow North Carolina GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers, in a redrawn district.

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Giving political money to challengers in a primary contest can be a risky proposition for lobbyists and those from corporate and trade group political action committees. But with more primaries essentially serving as the general election in districts that are solidly in the camp of one party, K Streeters say they are sometimes willing to take on sitting lawmakers.

“As a general rule, it takes a lot of courage to give to a primary challenger. You’re throwing down the gauntlet,” said Michael Herson, who runs the firm American Defense International and donated money to Marshall. “Obviously the downside, if your guy loses — this is all very public, it’s all disclosed.”

But, he added, there can be a significant upside, beyond just helping give the boot to a nemesis.

“In some cases, you’re doing it because the member is hostile to your issues and you see no way of turning that person around,” Herson said. If the challenger wins, “you're in on the ground floor,” if you’ve helped that person raise money.

Pro-business candidates

Business groups, after facing policy and political challenges from conservative organizations, have retooled their approach to primaries.

"We think it’s important to elect men and women who are going to come to Congress and govern, and not just talk about shutting down the government,” said Scott Reed, senior political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber spent roughly $400,000 in independent expenditures trying to unseat Huelskamp, who was first elected in the 2010 tea party wave. Independent expenditures — spending that is not in coordination with the candidate — are not included in the Roll Call analysis of campaign donations from lobbyists and PACs.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $400,000 to unseat Huelskamp.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $400,000 to unseat Huelskamp.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The chamber, Reed noted, changed its internal policy after the 2012 elections to permit primary involvement. Some of those races have been in support of sitting incumbents, such as backing Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who easily survived a primary challenge last week. But in the Huelskamp vs. Marshall race, it meant taking on a member of Congress — a move that lobbyists say can carry risks of damaging an already frayed connection on the Hill.

In addition to Marshall and Holding, K Street money also went to Dwight Evans, the Pennsylvania Democrat who overtook Rep. Chaka Fattah, and Scott Taylor who beat out Virginia Republican J. Randy Forbes in June, according to semiannual contribution disclosures filed with Congress under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Fattah resigned in June after being convicted of criminal charges. 

Lobbyists and their PACs did not report contributions to Al Lawson, who defeated Rep. Corrine Brown in Florida's 5th District Democratic primary last week. 

Several of the K Street donations are more than just minor tokens.

Sizable checks

Checks worth more than $1,000 comprised about half of all the contributions reported to these challengers, according to a Roll Call analysis of the filings. Evans received the highest average donation — about $2,400 per lobbyist — even more than Holding, who was first elected to the House in 2012. Nineteen of the total 61 donations to Evans were for $5,000.

Holding had the most donations from lobbyists in the first half of 2016: 363 such contributions by the midyear deadline, totaling about $622,000. Taylor received nine donations — for roughly $16,000 — including one from Jay Timmons, who runs the National Association of Manufacturers. The majority of that came before he won his primary in June.

Still, K Street insiders say that donations to primary challengers are likely to remain something of a rarity, particularly in races where incumbents are expected to stay in office.

“There’s a general assumption that contributions against an incumbent who is re-elected will cause that incumbent to be very unhappy with the contributor,” said Robert Kelner, who chairs the election and political law group at Covington and Burling.

It would likely violate House or Senate rules for a lawmaker to seek retribution in such instances. “But it would be just about impossible to prove,” Kelner said.

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