Lobbyists Are Making a Political Comeback

Despite the unpopularity of their profession, several influential D.C. insiders are looking to get elected on their own.

 Democrat Terry McAuliffe celebrates winning the Virginia governorship at an election-night party at the Sheraton Premiere Hotel November 5, 2013 in Tysons Corner, Virginia.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Jan. 13, 2014, midnight

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.” 

Amer­ic­ans don’t think much of lob­by­ists. But mem­bers of Amer­ica’s least pop­u­lar pro­fes­sion have de­cided the pub­lic will vote them in­to of­fice any­way. Of late, lob­by­ists-turned-can­did­ates have taken star­ring roles in key Sen­ate, gubernat­ori­al and Con­gres­sion­al 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 Old Domin­ion in just the last year, after Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe ran and won the state’s gubernat­ori­al seat in 2013. And in Flor­ida, where both parties are scram­bling to re­place 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 seek of­fice be­cause they’re closely linked to the coun­try’s dys­func­tion­al and un­pop­u­lar polit­ics. Polls show the pub­lic holds their pro­fes­sion in par­tic­u­lar con­tempt: Lob­by­ing ranked the least trust­worthy and hon­est of any 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 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 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, co-founder of the prom­in­ent DC 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 in­cum­bent Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor, Ron­nie Mus­grove. Demo­crats ran against Bar­bour’s lob­by­ing back­ground in at­tack ads. “He got hammered with neg­at­ive ads. Just hammered,” said Henry Bar­bour, Haley’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 once in Wash­ing­ton. 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 re-elec­tion eas­ily. Op­er­at­ives say the can­did­ate’s 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 Re­pub­lic­an Ken Cuc­cinelli’s, whom voters per­ceived as a con­ser­vat­ive ideo­logue. Jolly and Gillespie are hop­ing to be­ne­fit from Amer­ic­an 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, 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,” said Henry Bar­bour. “You have a little more weight on your horse if you’re run­ning. It does make it harder, no ques­tion about it.” Amer­ic­ans don’t think much of lob­by­ists. But mem­bers of Amer­ica’s least pop­u­lar pro­fes­sion have de­cided the pub­lic will vote them in­to of­fice any­way.Of late, lob­by­ists-turned-can­did­ates have taken star­ring roles in key Sen­ate, gubernat­ori­al and Con­gres­sion­al 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 Old Domin­ion in just the last year, after Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe ran and won the state’s gubernat­ori­al seat in 2013.And in Flor­ida, where both parties are scram­bling to re­place 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 seek of­fice be­cause they’re closely linked to the coun­try’s dys­func­tion­al and un­pop­u­lar polit­ics. Polls show the pub­lic holds their pro­fes­sion in par­tic­u­lar con­tempt: Lob­by­ing ranked the least trust­worthy and hon­est of any 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 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 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, co-founder of the prom­in­ent DC 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 in­cum­bent Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor, Ron­nie Mus­grove. Demo­crats ran against Bar­bour’s lob­by­ing back­ground in at­tack ads.”He got hammered with neg­at­ive ads. Just hammered,” said Henry Bar­bour, Haley’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 once in Wash­ing­ton. 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 re-elec­tion eas­ily.Op­er­at­ives say the can­did­ate’s 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 Re­pub­lic­an Ken Cuc­cinelli’s, whom voters per­ceived as a con­ser­vat­ive ideo­logue. Jolly and Gillespie are hop­ing to be­ne­fit from Amer­ic­an 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, 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,” said Henry Bar­bour. “You have a little more weight on your horse if you’re run­ning. It does make it harder, no ques­tion about it.”
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