Jason Kander, the Democratic challenger in Missouri’s Senate race, can already count some K Street lobbyists among his political confidants.
That’s because lobbyists don’t wait until after Election Day to begin courting next year's freshman class. Influencers are already reaching out to prospective senators and House members, hosting fundraisers and meet-and-greets at which they can provide connections and help swell candidates' campaign coffers.
Networking with candidates like Kander who are not favored to win could be seen as a waste of time and money. But the payoff could be significant if the politician beats the odds and benefits from the early overtures.
“They do remember folks that were supportive of them early on, so they appreciate it a great deal,” said Cristina Antelo, whose firm, the Podesta Group, held an early event with Kander. “It’s a good way to start off a friendship over time.”
The relationships don't guarantee access once the lawmaker takes office. But they have provided outlets for lobbyists to offer advice on potential staff hires or help newly settled lawmakers and aides find their way around town.
Paul Bock, a Democratic lobbyist with Holland & Knight, said he was an early supporter of Chris Coons’ 2010 bid to win the Delaware Senate race, at a time when most Washington insiders figured Rep. Mike Castle, a former Republican governor of the state, would win. Castle wound up losing his primary to tea party-backed Christine O’Donnell, whom Coons then defeated.
“The early events, they’re usually really small, like six people in a conference room,” Bock said. Referring to Coons, he added, “Every time he sees me, he remembers me. I think being genuinely helpful early on, that is always remembered and it gives you a positive framework for your relationships.”
Within a week of Kander’s February announcement that he was vying for the seat of GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, Bock said he organized an informal meeting with colleagues and the new candidate. The same thing happened at the Podesta Group, where Antelo said she was sold on Kander’s military service.
“We need to have that perspective up there in Congress when they’re deciding what we’re going to do about ISIS,” said Antelo, who has since donated money to Kander’s campaign, along with Bock.
Networking is mutually beneficial for candidates in search of lobbyists who can help them raise money. In deciding whom to back financially, lobbyists take their cues from sitting members of Congress and the party committees
“It’s important for them to get the validation of an existing member or group because you can’t support everybody. You can’t get to know everybody,” said Andy Rosenberg, a partner with Thorn Run Partners.
“The same way that somebody is betting on five ponies at the races, you want to take some longshots too,” added Rosenberg, a Democrat. “You want to be able to support some candidates that are not necessarily considered likely to win but if things go their way, they’re more likely to remember you if it was less of a sure thing.”
Kathryn Lehman, a former House GOP aide turned lobbyist, has her eye on a number of candidates, including Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL and Iraq War veteran who is running as a Republican in Virginia’s 2nd congressional district. Taylor beat Rep. J. Randy Forbes in a June primary; the incumbent Scott Rigell, a Republican, is retiring.
“This is an impressive guy,” Lehman said. “He’s probably going to win.”
Lobbyists like Lehman not only donate money but can foster connections with other party insiders on and off Capitol Hill. Corporate political action committees, by contrast, typically hold back support until after a candidate has won the office.
The wannabes “really appreciate the attention and support when most people won’t give them the time of day until they’re actually elected,” Lehman said.
Even though challengers are likely to be shut out of the PAC scene, they often will hire D.C.-based fundraisers.
“Lobbyists have relationships with fundraisers who are representing a challenger or someone in an open seat, and they’ll say, ‘I’ve got a great candidate. Would you like to come by, get a cup of coffee?’” explains Marc Lampkin, a Republican lobbyist with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. “We’ve done that a number of times this cycle.”
Lampkin and his colleagues introduced challenger Denise Gitsham, a Republican running for California’s 52nd congressional district currently held by Democratic Rep. Scott Peters, to other lobbyists during the Republican National Convention last month in Cleveland. Lampkin first got to know Gitsham when she was an intern on the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush.
Late last year, Lampkin helped organize a meet-and-greet for Gitsham and help her network at the recent convention.
“She’s a good friend, a great candidate and it’s a great potential takeover opportunity,” Lampkin said. “We wanted to make sure clients and other lobbyists understood.”
The networking will continue after Election Day.
The firm K&L Gates is gearing up for its decades-long program of meeting the new members of Congress, said lobbyist Tim Peckinpaugh.
The effort began in earnest after the 1994 elections flipped control of the House to Republicans. “The next morning, we’re all sitting around, shocked, saying ‘Who are these people coming to town?’” he recalled.
Peckinpaugh is planning an average of two meet-and-greets per week for the first few months of 2017 as colleagues and clients seek introductions to the newly elected. The interactions could also help freshmen build an inner circle.
“It can help them in terms of learning about key issues, they might get advice about committee assignments, might get chief of staff candidates,” Peckinpaugh said. “And it can help down the road with fundraising.”