If former Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin runs in South Dakota's open-seat Senate race, she'll no doubt have to fend off attacks about her time at a Washington lobbying firm. Following her 2010 reelection defeat, the Democrat joined Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz PC, before returning to South Dakota in May 2012 to work for Raven Industries. The National Republican Senatorial Committee isn't holding its attacks until she joins the race, noting her past work on K St. as part of a new Web video.
"Politician" is a dirty word, but "lobbyist" may carry even more negative connotations, and it usually serves as a post-congressional career, when officials no longer have to face voters. But winning a Senate seat after lobbying is not unprecedented, nor is the trip from statewide office to K Street and back. Herseth Sandlin may have little in common with Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., when it comes to ideology, gender and age, but his 2010 election to the Senate could offer parallels if she hopes to run in 2014.
Herseth Sandlin would obviously face a different electorate and political climate than Coats did in his return bid to the Senate, but she will have the same challenge: neutralizing attacks on her lobbying past. A former Coats campaign staffer spoke with Hotline On Call on condition of anonymity about the challenges and strategies behind running as a former lobbyist.
The first step, said the staffer, is being open about the issue and addressing it upfront, rather than allowing the opponent to make it a "drip-drip" perpetual back-and-forth. "It's better to get your side out and lay out the facts -- all of them -- at the outset," he said. In 2010, Coats sat down for "two or three hours" with an Indianapolis Star reporter, poring over disclosure reports at an Applebee's and explaining any documents that raised eyebrows.
That explanation proved important, the operative said, because the reports "tend to be very broad for legal purposes. They tend to not get into the weeds of what an individual did. It will say they lobbied for the budget, but it won't say what part of the budget they lobbied on. ... It allows the opponent to fill those holes."
In other instances, he said, Coats' name was attached to accounts he never worked on, simply because his reputation could add weight to the client's efforts. He also drew attacks for other clients of the firm, despite the fact he had not represented them. "It's guilt by association," the operative said. "We were able to piece the puzzle together, with Dan's recollection and others -- if you don't cross every 'T' and dot every 'I' ... it gives them an opportunity to call into question everything else."
After the initial disclosures, the staffer said, it's useless to expect the issue to fade into the background, because the opponent won't let that happen. Instead, Coats tried to focus on instances his lobbying had helped produced legislation beneficial for Hoosiers. "We weren't hiding from it. If he was asked a question, he answered it," the operative said. Despite the fact that his responses often took time away from talking about the issues, the campaign determined it was more important to avoid any perception it was dodging questions about lobbying.
In addition to defending Coats' record, the campaign also had to deal with suggestions that he could use a position in the Senate to further his old lobbying interests. Coats' response to that was simple, comparing himself to a Little League parent called on to umpire. That parent, he said, gives his child the tightest strike zone because he knows everyone is watching, suspecting favoritism is at play.
Coats effectively argued that "he's going to want to make sure that there's nothing that could be perceived as giving special favor to anyone," the operative said. While his campaign proved successful, the Coats staffer emphasized that it's not easy to make the jump from K St. to Congress. "The ambiguity is there, and it's not cut and dried, and the only record that exists is these [vague] forms," he said. "It does lend itself to these easy political attacks."
If Coats' election doesn't provide enough examples, Herseth Sandlin has to look no further than the South Dakotan she may seek to join in the upper chamber: GOP Sen. John Thune, who lobbied for a railroad company between his 2002 loss to Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and his win over then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle two years later. Thune, too, held statewide office before his lobbying career, serving as the state's at-large U.S. representative.