K Street Goes Incognito on the Trail

Lobbyists Head to Hot Races but Get Memo to Leave Gucci Loafers at Home

Posted October 18, 2010 at 6:19pm

Lobbyists are every politician’s go-to effigy of all the corruption and ills on Capitol Hill, but that won’t stop K Streeters from fanning out across the country to help their favorite candidates win on Election Day.

With just two weeks until the midterms, campaigns and candidates are particularly sensitive to the appearance of having lobbyists working for them, according to several sources. But most lawmakers aren’t eschewing their presence. They have just made the message clear: Keep the Gucci loafers at home.

“Nobody wants the Brooks Brothers brigade out there campaigning for you,” said Democratic lobbyist and former Hill aide John Michael Gonzalez. “The sad part about that is we’re all lobbyists, but every single lobbyist I know who is door-knocking are former staffers, and they still think of themselves as staffers.”

Gonzalez, who said it is understandable that campaigns might be wary of lobbyists’ help, may head to New York, Illinois or Virginia over the fortnight.

Hundreds of other Democratic and Republican lobbyists are also parachuting into districts across the country leading up to Election Day.

Most lobbyists are trying to remain incognito on the campaign trail, multiple sources said. More than a dozen Democratic and Republican K Streeters interviewed for this article said they planned on hitting the campaign trail, but they declined to say which states they were traveling to, citing the desire to tamp down any unflattering press.

Despite the worry that their presence could cause candidates ire with locals, few lobbyists have called off their plans to support favored candidates.

Blood in the Water

With so many races in play, influence peddlers are going to some of the most crucial states, including Nevada, California, Connecticut, Arkansas and Wisconsin.

“I think people sense the blood in the water on this, so you can’t keep them home,” one Republican lobbyist said. “I’ve definitely seen this circuit of people with target lists in hand, and they are kind of winking and nodding to see who else is doing that.”

That’s a marked change from just a few years ago, when going out on the campaign trail was part of promoting how connected lobbyists were with specific Members, or how grounded they were as they trudged along knocking on doors and stuffing mailers for candidates.

In previous elections, lobbyists played major roles on the campaign trail. Former Quinn Gillespie & Associates lobbyist Bruce Andrews took a leave of absence in 2002 to act as campaign manager for Rep. Tim Holden. Andrews, who is now general counsel on the Senate Commerce Committee, was a legislative director for the Pennsylvania Democrat.

In 2004, several big-name K Streeters, including Robert Wood of BGR Group, also headed to the campaign trail. Wood, who worked for the Bush/Cheney voter-contact program in Milwaukee, said at the time: “It’s a far cry from K Street. You’re back to 20-hour days and living on Diet Cokes and pizza.”

Democrats in particular are in a tough spot accepting K Street help. Several Members have introduced legislation that would tighten the restrictions on lobbyists.

Other Democrats, particularly those elected in 2006 and 2008, have run on campaign pledges to “drain the swamp” of the corrupting influence of downtown lobbyists.

Attracting Political Fire

In at least one instance, a Member has taken flak for ties to a K Street volunteer. Opponents criticized Sen. Blanche Lincoln during her primary for her rapport with Kelly Bingel of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti.

Bingel, a longtime friend and former chief of staff to the Arkansas Democrat, said it didn’t affect the primary race. Lincoln successfully fended off Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in a bruising primary and runoff.

“The race in Arkansas is very much about President Obama and the Obama agenda,” Bingel said. “The hits I took in the blogosphere were unfair characterizations of her votes and my clients.”

Still, Bingel said she doesn’t plan on going back to help her former boss.

“She has such an effective ground game in place … they don’t really need outsiders; there’s enough Arkansans,” Bingel said.

Instead, the Louisiana native said she may go help Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.).

“I think it’s a state-by-state situation,” Bingel said of whether lobbyists are welcomed to Congressional districts.

She pointed out that lobbyists have to do their campaigning on their own time. “Our firm nor any other can pay for someone to go,” Bingel said. “They have to do it with their own vacation time, but I’m hearing folks are going out to Colorado, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Florida.”

While a majority of K Streeters are planning to be outside the Beltway on Election Day, some senior lobbyists say they are taking a break from the campaign trail for business purposes.

“My clients want to know what the heck is going on,” one Democratic lobbyist said. “I can’t afford being out in the field if there is a lot of anxiety. You won’t be in the position to service your clients.”