Skip to content

K Street Follows Lawmakers Outside the Beltway

When Members of Congress left town to campaign last week, they weren’t alone. Lobbyists and advocacy groups followed the lawmakers home to ramp up their own messaging, lest Congress forget about them during the fall campaign season.

The final leg of a campaign cycle offers a prime opportunity for lobbyists to frame their issues to voters and to mobilize grass-roots networks. Groups representing the coal industry, retailers, environmentalists and senior citizens, among others, are heading for pivotal states in hope of getting their priorities highlighted in candidate talking points, debates, advertisements and stump speeches.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, for example, has dispatched an 18-wheel “mobile classroom” to promote its cause to voters in such swing states as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

“States that are target states for the presidential [election] are also states that are highly dependent on coal,” said Lisa Miller, a spokeswoman for the group.

It was not a surprise when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney ran advertisements earlier this year touting his coal-friendly energy agenda, but when the Obama campaign responded in kind last week the group celebrated, Miller said.

The group has beefed up its social media presence and now has 277,000 Facebook “likes,” up from 40,000 at the beginning of the year, in hope that online buzz will force candidates to address new Environmental Protection Agency regulations in the upcoming presidential and vice presidential debates.

On the other side, the National Resources Defense Council sent about 25 policy staffers to Michigan, where voters will weigh in on a ballot initiative that would require 25 percent of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2025. The group is also working on behalf of Democrats in Ohio’s 16th district and the New Mexico Senate race.

“You have to explain issues in such a more heartfelt, passionate way I think what it does for our policy staff is it reminds them why they came to this issue,” said Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the NRDC Action Fund. “Next time, we need to shut down the [Washington] office in October and just push ballot initiatives.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce isn’t shutting down its D.C. headquarters, but it will have a presence in the states. The big business lobby has pledged that this year, its 100th anniversary, will mark its largest and most aggressive voter education campaign, said spokeswoman Blair Latoff. In 2010, the chamber spent about $50 million on its voter education campaign.

The group’s political ads are airing in seven states: Ohio, Maine, New Mexico, Hawaii, Virginia and Wisconsin. The Virginia ad says that Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine has a poor business record when it comes to energy exploration. Other issues highlighted include health care, regulations and taxes.

The chamber also is working to get out the vote among its network of small businesses and grass-roots activists.

Other lobbying groups are working to get their signature causes more attention from candidates. AARP, for example, wants Social Security and Medicare to factor prominently in the upcoming presidential debates. The seniors’ lobby is sponsoring events at those debates, as well as at gubernatorial and House and Senate debates in states including Florida, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia.

AARP, which is not endorsing any candidates, also is running TV and web ads to spread its message.

“Our members have told us how important Social Security, Medicare and financial security are to them,” AARP Senior Vice President John Hishta wrote in an email. “Between now and the election AARP is headed around the country with our ‘You’ve Earned a Say’ Tour to speak with voters about the issues Americans 50 and over care about and how they relate to this election.”

The National Retail Federation will distribute voter guides that highlight candidates’ stances on its signature issues, including swipe fee, sales tax and corporate tax reform, said David French, the group’s chief lobbyist.

But not all K Streeters buy into the idea of taking a client’s message on the trail – at least when it comes to pricey advertising.

Jack Howard, a GOP lobbyist with Wexler Walker Public Policy Associates, said that with the airwaves already crowded with political messaging, many clients wouldn’t get much bang for their buck. But some have found simpler ways of getting their message to politicians.

Howard, a Romney supporter, said that some clients have asked him to pass along their policy positions on various issues such as tax policy or energy to the candidate’s aides. “So I forward stuff up to their policy people,” he said.

Likewise, many clients quietly are plotting their strategy for the lame-duck session and the next Congress.

“We have several trade association clients who are spending time now to hit the ground running in early 2013,” said Story Partners’ Amos Snead.

One of Snead’s clients, the Coalition for Credit Union Access, has continued to push for a priority bill – the Capital Access for Small Businesses and Jobs Act – in meetings with Congressional aides and is doing media outreach in key states.

Howard, too, said he has client meetings today with Senate committee staffers whose pace is a little less frantic than when Congress is in session.

“A lot of people are wondering why I’m wearing a tie,” Howard quipped. “I’m a big advocate of seeing people in their downtime. You can have a much more productive meeting when it’s a little more relaxed.”