McCain Defies Business, Attracts Lobbyists

Posted February 4, 2008 at 6:47pm

Mavericks usually don’t make friends on K Street.

But just try telling that to Sen. John McCain.


The Arizona Republican has made a Senatorial career of bucking the interests of big business. From taking on government contractors such as Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. to fundamentally changing the role of money in politics, McCain has a history of veering left, while downtown is urging him to go right.


Yet K Street has hardly given McCain the cold shoulder in his most recent bid to become president. Indeed, McCain’s lengthy career — he was elected to the Senate in 1986 — and his half-dozen years as chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee have put him directly in contact with some of the nation’s most powerful monied interests.


The list of lobbyists raising money for McCain and advising him on his campaign reads like a Who’s Who among heavyweight veteran Republican operatives.


They include former Congressman and now lobbyist Tom Loeffler (R-Texas) of The Loeffler Group, who is serving as McCain’s finance chairman; Wayne Berman, managing director of Ogilvy Government Relations, who is his finance vice chairman; and Charlie Black, head of BKSH & Associates, who has been traveling with and advising McCain.


Even some of McCain’s biggest critics from the far right, such as David Keene of the American Conservative Union and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, have started to curb their critical approach to McCain, opting for a more deferential tone, as he moves closer and closer to becoming the presumptive Republican nominee.


“When it started, his campaign didn’t have a very strong tax position,” Norquist said of McCain’s decision to vote against President Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. But Norquist says the McCain camp steadily has changed its position.


“His tax policy is exactly what we are trying to do over the next several years,” said Norquist, who wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent.


Still, a McCain presidency isn’t likely to be an instant friend to K Street. Far from it.


“He’s been tough on lobbyists,” said one Republican lobbyist who is supporting McCain. “He cracked down on Abramoff and had those hearings. He’s not viewed as a friend of lobbyists.”


Adds one GOP trade association executive:


“Obviously McCain kind of calls things as McCain sees them. He tends to see them in very graphic, very bold and very assertive terms. And from time to time various industries or practices have gotten onto his list of things that he does not like.” The executive added, “He’s not subtle about it. For certain industries I would guess they look at a McCain administration with trepidation.”


Many lobbyists, including McCain supporters, say that if he ultimately is successful in winning the presidency, it’s uncertain how he would treat industries with which he has had an adversarial relationship in the past, including pharmaceutical companies, whose high profit margins he has questioned.


McCain has earned a reputation as being skeptical of big government defense contractors as well. In 2003, for example, he sank a tainted tanker deal Boeing had with the Air Force.


That uneasy relationship is apparent in McCain’s most recent fundraising numbers. As of Feb. 1, the defense industry had contributed less than $160,000 to his presidential campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.


“He’s not incredibly friendly to the defense industrial base,” said one defense lobbyist. “Industry absorbs a lot of risk to do this work and I don’t think he balances that with his desire to save the taxpayer every dollar.”


Lobbyists who specialize in earmarks are likely to find an even stronger aversion to them in a McCain White House.


But there also would be some bright spots for the lobbying industry.


A McCain administration likely would refocus in other areas, bringing more work on immigration reform, more attention to American Indian issues and a push for more transparency in government, lobbyists say.


“Change is always good for the lobbying business,” said one longtime Republican lobbyist. “There will be a flurry of activity to try and influence what he’s about, a whole new Cabinet.”


“Will he be as business-friendly? No, I don’t think so, he’s skeptical.”


McCain supporter Jim Pitts of DC Navigators agrees.


“I won’t say it’ll be business as usual, but people have to get used to a different way of doing things,” Pitts said of the likelihood of McCain pushing for more sunshine in the lobbying world.


Yet while McCain has been a strong advocate of campaign finance reform, he appears to realize the practical role lobbyists can play in the legislative process.


“He gives a great meeting,” Pitts said. “He either genuinely [cares] or acts like he cares about what you bring the client in for. He always asks, ‘what can I do,’ or will tell you ‘I can’t help,’” added Pitts, who worked in the first Bush and Reagan administrations.


As ranking member of the Armed Services Committee and the former Commerce chairman, McCain has amassed a large number of former staffers turned lobbyists as well as close K Street confidants.


Those include John Timmons of the Cormac Group, who served as senior counsel to McCain on the Commerce Committee; Rob Chamberlin of McBee Strategic Consulting, who served as chief counsel to McCain on the Commerce Committee; Carl Smith of McGovern & Smith; and Sonya Sotak of Eli Lilly & Co., who served as legislative assistant to McCain.


There also has been a concerted effort to get former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s supporters to join the McCain camp.


“I think there was a lot of overlap in appeal for Rudy and Sen. McCain, particularly in the area of national security and fighting global terrorism,” said Craig Brightup, a lobbyist at the National Roofing Contractors Association who switched to the McCain camp after Giuliani dropped out of the race.