‘Specials’ Merit Special Attention From Lobbyists

Posted May 2, 2008 at 5:07pm

As if lobbyists didn’t already get enough pressure from Members to donate to their thirsty campaign coffers, this year, in a Congress marked by resignations and deaths, candidates in special elections are mining the pockets of K Street as well.

With such fierce competition for cash in a presidential election year, it can be a hard sell to get lobbyists to pony up in the specials. But donations to these often obscure candidates can represent the ultimate opportunity for K Streeters to sign on early with potential rising stars and to score points with party leaders, who desperately want victories in the runup to the November contests.

“People are always skeptical about candidates they don’t know, especially in special elections when it’s out of the ordinary,” said Gordon Taylor, a lobbyist with Ogilvy Government Relations who recently co-hosted a D.C. fundraiser for Don Cazayoux, the Democratic contender in a special election held Saturday in Louisiana against Republican Woody Jenkins.

“Everyone’s focused on the fall elections, so the specials require additional emphasis,” added Taylor, who served as chief of staff to then-Rep. Chris John (D-La.). “Leadership is telling everybody they’re important because they’re the only true barometer of how Democrats are competitive at this stage. In terms of morale, the specials are important.”

Another reason many lobbyists are reluctant to jump into the specials is that even when candidates win a special election, they still have to face voters again in November, if not before.

Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.), who won a special contest in March to succeed his grandmother, the late Rep. Julia Carson (D), already is facing voters in his district Tuesday in a primary. More than two dozen federal lobbyists have written personal checks to his campaign, which has also collected checks from such corporate political action committees as AT&T, American Association for Justice and Goldman Sachs. PACs, which give almost exclusively to incumbents, typically shy away from such races.

Lobbyists said that Carson has drawn the attention of K Street with the help of Democratic leaders, including Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), whom lobbyists said has made personal pleas on Carson’s behalf. Clyburn spokeswoman Kristie Greco said her boss has been helping to raise money for every Democrat in a special election.

Sources said Carson is also generating buzz because of loyalty to his grandmother and because he is viewed as a potential rising star.

“When we have very talented African-American males who display the highest level of leadership qualities, all of us, no matter our ethnic background, should do whatever we can to encourage and support them,” said Anita Estell, a partner with Polsinelli Shalton Flanigan Suelthaus, who contributed to Carson. “There is a lot of energy for André out here. He’s 33. He’s energetic and been groomed by a really incredible lady.”

Paul Brathwaite, a former executive director for the Congressional Black Caucus and now a lobbyist with the Podesta Group, helped organize a fundraiser for Carson last month.

“He is interested in learning and interested in having an open-door policy,” Brathwaite said. “He’s willing to listen to business, listen to labor, and other groups of individuals and causes because as he said, he wants to learn about the issues, not just vote on them. He wants to be informed.”

Brathwaite said he sees Carson as part of a new generation of Members. “I think people are looking at this long term and saying I want to have a relationship with someone who’s going to be a star in the Democratic Party,” he said.

Other lobbyists who have donated to Carson include Paul Thornell of Citigroup, Nicole Venable of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Cassidy & Associates’ Greg Gill.

Gill said he ran into Carson at a fundraiser for someone else. “We had a chat,” Gill said. “He seemed like a nice enough guy, and I thought he might have a leg up because of his name recognition. I decided, ‘What the heck. I’ll take a chance.’”

Another closely watched special election will be held on May 13 in Mississippi to replace Rep. turned Sen. Roger Wicker (R). Republican Greg Davis will face Democrat Travis Childers. According to FEC records, Childers has received little support from K Street, while Davis has drawn donations from Bret Boyles of the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group, Ogilvy’s John Green and Andrew Shore, a principal in Black Swan.

Shore said that he donated to Davis at the suggestion of a former colleague, Ted Prill, who is now working for the Davis campaign. Prill worked for Shore when Shore was chief of staff to the House Republican Conference.

“We had a long talk about Greg Davis and his positions,” Shore said. “I decided to support him.”

Of course, K Street support does not guarantee a victory. When Republican Jim Oberweis faced Democrat Bill Foster in March for the seat of former Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Oberweis boasted considerable support from inside-the-Beltway lobbyists. His contributors included Constance Tipton, president of the International Dairy Foods Association; Mitch Glazier, an executive vice president at the Recording Industry Association of America; the McManus Group’s John McManus; Tim Rupli of Rupli & Associates; and Mattoon & Associates’ Dan Mattoon.

Foster’s K Street donors were much fewer and included Steve Elmendorf, president of Elmendorf Strategies.

Mattoon said he not only contributed to Oberweis, but volunteered for the campaign, too. He said it can be difficult to get lobbyists to tune in to these special races.

“It’s because you deal with the Members, incumbent Members and their staffs, that’s who you’re lobbying, that’s your priority,” said Mattoon, who routinely donates the legal maximum amount each campaign cycle.

“Open seats and challengers, they are really kind of several tiers below, but us junkies get more involved in those races.”