Americans don’t think much of lobbyists. But members of America’s least popular profession have decided that the public will vote them into office anyway.
Of late, lobbyists-turned-candidates have taken starring roles in key Senate, gubernatorial, and House campaigns. The latest is former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who is planning to run for the Senate against Mark Warner in Virginia. He’d be the second lobbyist to seek major office in the Old Dominion in just the last year, after Democrat Terry McAuliffe sought and won the state’s gubernatorial seat in 2013.
And in Florida, where both parties are scrambling to succeed the late Rep. Bill Young in a special election, Republicans are expected to nominate lobbyist David Jolly. He’s the front-runner in this week’s GOP primary despite serving as Young’s general counsel in Washington before his death.
It’s odd timing for lobbyists to be seeking office, because they’re closely linked to the country’s dysfunctional and unpopular politics. Polls show that the public holds their profession in particular contempt: Lobbying ranked as the least trustworthy and honest profession in the country, according to a December Gallup survey. Even members of Congress rated higher.
“Here’s the thing: Most of them got involved in it not because they want to get a career. They got involved because they wanted to make a difference,” said Jamie Miller, a Republican consultant in Florida who is watching Jolly’s race closely. “So you make a difference at whatever level you can. And at some point, you take the next step and run for office.”
All three candidates are following the political lead of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, cofounder of the prominent D.C. lobby shop BGR. He worked with Gillespie and is friendly with McAuliffe. Barbour was one of the capital’s most influential insiders before deciding in 2003 to run against Mississippi’s Democratic governor, Ronnie Musgrove. Democrats used Barbour’s lobbying background in attack ads.
“He got hammered with negative ads. Just hammered,” said Henry Barbour, Haley Barbour’s nephew and campaign manager. “Clearly, the other side thought all they had to do is make him unacceptable.”
Henry Barbour explained that the key for his uncle then was persuading the electorate that he could deliver results. That’s a message with particular resonance now, with a public dissatisfied with the lack of results from both parties.
“Haley certainly made the point, ‘My lobbying career prepared me to be a more effective governor,’” Henry said. “I think people heard that in 2003, I don’t know how much it resonated it or not.”
He added, however, that nearly all voters came to believe it in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the governor was able to leverage his Washington influence into federal aid for his constituents. In 2007, he won reelection easily.
Operatives say the candidates' lobbying background won’t alone determine their fate. Voters might not like it, but they care about other factors. McAuliffe, for instance, wasn’t personally popular. But his background was more amenable than that of Republican Ken Cuccinelli, whom voters perceived as a conservative ideologue. Jolly and Gillespie are hoping to benefit from Americans' dissatisfaction with President Obama’s health care law.
“If Gillespie can distance himself from his lobbying, he can probably be a formidable candidate,” said Dick Cranwell, former chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party. “Everybody has some obstacles they have to overcome.”
Of course, everything else being equal, a lobbying career is rarely a good place from which to launch a campaign. Barbour won his gubernatorial races, but his presidential campaign was scuttled before it every really began, in part because of his history. If Jolly wins the Republican primary in Florida, he’ll start his race an underdog against Democrat Alex Sink. And Gillespie still faces long odds against Warner, who boasts strong personal favorability in the Old Dominion.
“Being a lobbyist—it’s like in horse racing,” Henry Barbour said. “You have a little more weight on your horse if you’re running. It does make it harder, no question about it.”