Street Talk: Lobbyists Focus On Tea Leaves
DLA Piper hosted an elegant two-course breakfast briefing at the Willard InterContinental last week. The audience was a collection of clients, Hill aides, lawyers, diplomats and reporters. The fare was unabashedly political.
And that was the point.
The event featured former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and ex-Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), who work at DLA, analyzing the presidential and Congressional elections with Purple Strategies founders Alex Castellanos and Steve McMahon. It was simply a more polished and public version of what other K Street firms are doing privately for the interests they represent.
Handicapping races and dispensing other political wisdom helps a firm’s clients figure out how to dole out campaign donations and position for legislative victories after Election Day. But it can sometimes put K Streeters in the position of making recommendations that conflict with what their own parties may want.
“I’m trying to give them an unbiased take. It affects my job,” said defense lobbyist Michael Herson, who runs American Defense International. “I can’t look at the Hill with rose-colored glasses.”
Herson, a former Congressional candidate from New Jersey, said he offers clients his political expertise as part of larger, issue-focused PowerPoint presentations.
A briefing from the savviest K Street insider can sometimes be like watching a cable news show just for you. Still, it’s money well-spent, many clients say.
“You’re only one person,” explained Galen Reser, who spent 19 years as PepsiCo’s top lobbyist. “You can’t attend every meeting.”
He relied on his outside consultants from both sides of the aisle to ferry back the latest from their briefings with party committees, candidates and fundraisers.
“Now that I’m on the consulting side of the equation, we spend an enormous amount of time briefing our clients on the political environment — trying to read the tea leaves, trying to figure out what the next Congress is going to be like,” said Reser, now with the C2 Group. “Elections matter.”
And some races, or the fate of a particular Member, matter even more to certain clients.
Thorn Run Partners, for example, has an outpost in Oregon and represents clean-tech companies in the state. Those interests are eager for the latest intelligence on Senate races because they want to know whether Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is likely to be the chairman or ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources panel. “Whether or not the Senate flips is going to be obviously of tremendous importance to them,” explained the firm’s Andy Rosenberg, a Democrat.
Rosenberg and his Republican partner Chris Lamond said they offer their clients the perspectives of both parties when gaming out predictions.
“We’ve had fun, convivial debates about how the races might turn out,”
Lamond said. “It’s not ‘Crossfire.’”
Clients also are watching races to gauge their political investments.
Richard Hunt, who runs the Consumer Bankers Association, said the Senate matchup in Nevada between Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) and Republican incumbent Dean Heller is a big deal for his membership.
“We’re raising money for Heller,” he said. “I think that’s a bellwether race.”
Clients also look to K Street as political prognosticators for help with business decisions. A company looking to locate a facility might find it in its interest to break ground in the district of a lawmaker on a relevant Congressional committee. Herson’s defense clients would want to make sure a particular Member is in good shape election-wise.
“Someone’s committee assignment can influence the decision to move somewhere,” Herson said.
GOP lobbyist Kathryn Lehman, who went practically nowhere during the last campaign cycle without a folded and refolded piece of paper on which she tracked dozens of races, said political predictions are in high demand this time because of redistricting. “If a client has a plant in somebody’s district, they want to know, are they still going to have the same Member of Congress,” she said.
She added that in addition to lobbyists gaining insight into the races from briefings by the party committees for big donors and political action committee players, there’s an intangible advantage that lobbyists have when they meet candidates in person at fundraisers or meet-and-greets.
“You get a good sense of who these people are, how articulate, how much fire in their belly,” Lehman said.
Lobbyists use those assessments to help clients determine whether to cut a check to a particular candidate. But sometimes whom the lobbyists would personally like to see win a seat in Congress and who is better for the client can be in conflict. One GOP business lobbyist said he must grudgingly support Senate Democrats, such as Montana’s Jon Tester, who have voted in line with his clients’ agenda.
Reser puts it this way: “When I was at Pepsi, I would say, ‘I don’t belong to the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. I belong to the Pepsi party.’ I may have my own personal bias, but I have to set that aside.”