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Eyes on Menendez and K Street

As Sen. Bob Menendez officially steps into his role as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman, expectations are high among Democratic lobbyists that the New Jersey lawmaker will not only meet his fundraising targets but also turn the tide of Republican dominance on K Street.

Menendez, who served as outgoing DSCC Chairman Charles Schumer’s (N.Y.) top lieutenant during the 2008 cycle, is seen as a natural to continue Schumer’s legacy of taking a hard line against Republicans.

While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hasn’t officially tasked Menendez with working over the business community, the role wouldn’t be a surprise for a prolific and aggressive fundraiser with solid ties to downtown. In fact, Menendez could have greater success bringing about change on K Street than electing new Democrats to the Senate in 2010.

Menendez hasn’t wasted any time hitting up lobbyists for campaign contributions.

Just days into his new job, the New Jersey Democrat kicked off a series of informal meetings with K Street and business leaders. One Democrat described the sessions as part of the settling-in process that comes along with being the new DSCC chairman.

The meetings were designed “to get to know him, to introduce himself,” the Democratic source said, adding that the party’s long-standing frustrations with the makeup of K Street shops and their tendency to support Republicans in legislative fights were not expected to be on the agenda.

According to Democrats, while there may be some hope that Menendez can further the party’s position in the lobbying world, it is not part of his official duties. Indeed, a Democrat close to Reid said that at this point, there isn’t necessarily one single person whom the Majority Leader has tapped to take the lead on K Street issues.

However, several Democrats did say Reid is expected to continue to use his leadership team to target K Street on occasion, as he did last year when he pressured a number of trade associations to better reflect the new power structure on Capitol Hill in their lobbying teams.

Formally or not, many Democrats see Menendez as Reid’s most obvious heavyweight when it comes to shaking down K Street for contributions and improving ties with what’s long been a GOP stronghold.

As a Member of the House, Menendez witnessed firsthand the tyranny of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who systematically, and effectively, hand-picked Republicans for top corporate and trade association positions.

While Democratic lobbyists are quick to say they don’t expect Senate Democrats to implement a similar style “K Street Project,” Menendez is seen as someone who could forcibly put the business community on notice.

Even if Menendez were to try to strong-arm lobbyists downtown as Democratic lobbyists hope, he would likely use subtler tactics given the sensitivity Democratic lawmakers have about being seen as too cozy with influence peddlers.

“There’s no way Democrats are going to try to replicate or do anything similar [to the K Street Project], but he’s aware,” one Democratic lobbyist said. “There’s a difference between replicating it and Democrats no longer being shut out of every job.”

Menendez’s allies insist the new DSCC chairman is solely focused on raising money and campaigning for 2010 candidates, not forcing corporations to hire Democrats downtown.

“Our job at the DSCC is to raise the money so we can run successful campaigns, and that’s the extent of it,” DSCC spokesman Matthew Miller said.

Menendez’s chief of staff, Danny O’Brien, agreed.

“He is just drinking water from a fire hydrant,” said O’Brien, referring to the unexpected Senate seats opening up, including Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who announced he wasn’t running for re-election; President-elect Barack Obama, who is leaving his seat in Illinois; and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.), who are headed for the Obama Cabinet.

“Beyond recruitment, we’re making sure the politics are right and setting out to put in place a successful and aggressive fundraising system,” O’Brien said.

Unlike the sometimes-prickly Schumer, Menendez is expected to use his less abrasive style to his advantage.

“He’ll have a softer touch, but a deeper touch,” Moses Mercado of Ogilvy Government Relations said of Menendez’s K Street reach.

Yet Menendez is certainly no pushover, either. Long a prolific fundraiser, Menendez has shown his prowess at getting businesses to open their pocketbooks since he was elected to the House in 1992. His rise as Democratic Caucus chairman in that chamber coincided with raking in large amounts of campaign cash, $1 million for House Democrats for the 2000 election and $3 million for the 2002 cycle.

“He’s always played it fair, and he’s not one to shy away from industry or business because he’s a Democrat,” said Mark Magana, a former Menendez senior policy adviser who is now at Hispanic Strategy Group.

“He has a long record of reaching out and being accessible and open to business,” O’Brien said. “It’s clear that he does not see business and grass-roots Democratic interests as mutually exclusive.”

What’s more, Menendez has a cadre of former staffers turned lobbyists likely to help ease his fundraising burden.

He has a large network of K Street confidants, including former Chief of Staff Michael Hutton of Hutton Strategies, former Press Secretary Andrew Kauders of the Podesta Group, former Chief of Staff Ivan Zapien and former House Democratic Caucus Executive Director Jim Datri, head of the American Advertising Federation.

Menendez also has moved to beef up his staff for his new role by bringing in O’Brien, Vice President-elect Joseph Biden’s former chief of staff.

While staff changes at the DSCC are still in flux, Menendez also has retained several political hands to help ensure his success. J.B. Poersch will remain as DSCC executive director, as will Martha McKenna as political director and Matt McNally as research director.

Menendez also will use his broad reach beyond Wall Street to aid in his task to raise more than $100 million this cycle. He has solid ties to the pharmaceutical and medical-device industry, most of which is based in New Jersey, and the Cuban-American lawmaker is also likely to have a strong fundraising show in the South and Southwest, particularly in Arizona, Florida, New Mexico and California.

“He has deep reach in the Hispanic community and beyond that pretty broad based support,” Kauders said. “He’s created great relationships around the country. I’m certain he will add to the depth of the pool of possible supporters.”

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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