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K Street may mostly skip political conventions this year

Schedule changes, coronavirus and the political environment are factors

Balloons drop as Donald Trump accepts the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
Balloons drop as Donald Trump accepts the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lobbyists from K Street’s biggest firms and associations may end up skipping this year’s political conventions, as they grapple with fears of the coronavirus and fallout from related location and date changes.

Discombobulated from all the uncertainty, the influence sector’s plans, with conventions set to begin in about two months, are totally in flux.

Typically, this close to the nominating conventions, lobbyists would have booked hotel rooms, arranged for event spaces to host receptions and scored passes to attend high-profile speeches, including those of the party nominees.

Not this year.

Republicans announced plans to move part of their convention — including a “celebration” with President Donald Trump — from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, amid squabbles with the Tar Heel State’s Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper over the number of people who would be in an indoor venue. Democrats, meanwhile, postponed their Milwaukee convention from July to the week of Aug. 17 because of the pandemic.

K Street’s biggest shops, including Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and the BGR Group, are among those with undetermined plans. Ditto, so far, for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Realtors, the two biggest-spending lobbying groups. 

“We had planned to be on the ground in Charlotte and Milwaukee and actively involved,” Shannon McGahn, senior vice president of government affairs for the Realtors’ lobby, said in an email sent through a spokesman. “However, we realize the situation is fluid, and we are monitoring events and looking for new ways to participate. No decision has been made.”

McGahn noted that her group had recently held a “very successful” virtual legislative meeting with more than 30,000 real estate agents participating. “We will continue to innovate in this way to keep our members connected to the decision-makers in Washington,” she said. 

Even with the decision to move the main highlights of the GOP convention, Republicans organizing the quadrennial event said they were working with K Streeters and their clients on possible events. 

“We’re excited for the convention celebration in Jacksonville and continue to engage businesses and trade associations on opportunities for their involvement with events, activations and key sponsorship opportunities,” Tatum Gibson, the 2020 Republican National Convention’s national press secretary, said in an email to CQ Roll Call. 

The music plays on?

Jeffrey J. Kimbell, a longtime lobbyist who runs Jeffrey J. Kimbell and Associates, Inc., said his Magnum Entertainment Group, which has produced live music events at every GOP convention since 2004 was looking at its options in Jacksonville, after previously having booked in North Carolina.

“We have been very impressed by the city [of Jacksonville], the leadership of the convention and the team in place on the ground,” Kimbell said.  

Still, the logistics pose a conundrum for K Street interests — and anyone else considering whether to attend in-person activities at either convention. 

“With dates moving and locations changing, that makes it hard to plan,” said Christopher DeLacy, who leads the political law group at Holland & Knight. “Everyone’s waiting to see what the final decisions will be, with regard to these conventions.”

It’s possible that organizers will shift to more virtual conventions, especially Democrats who have taken a more cautious approach to concerns over COVID-19 than Trump, who held an indoor rally this past weekend in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Branded by politics

The virus isn’t the only thing weighing on corporate lobbying interests either. Even before COVID-19 upended Americans’ lives, many corporations — worried about associating their brands overtly in politics — had been assessing whether the large investments would be worth it.   

“In the current environment, companies are particularly cautious about alienating employees and customers by sounding like they are closely aligned with either party,” Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, said back in January

That sentiment is even more true now, as Black Lives Matter demonstrations have led to a nationwide reckoning on racial matters and infused even more volatility into the already deeply charged partisan environment. 

Scheduling, interrupted

Even longtime lobbyists and political denizens, who have attended numerous conventions over the years, aren’t sure how to pull this one off. 

“I’m still trying to figure it out,” said John Feehery, a former GOP congressional aide who is a partner in the lobby firm EFB Advocacy. “I’ve been to every convention since ’92, and I’d like to go to this one, but this is such an odd time. … I’m actually glad I didn’t put any money down on Charlotte.” 

Retired lobbyist David Norcross, who served as chairman of the 2004 Republican convention in New York City and has gone to every one of his party’s conventions since 1976, said this year’s situation was “completely and totally” unprecedented, unlike anything he’d ever seen. But it’s not the first time conventions have explored the idea of delegates voting remotely, he said. 

With fears of terrorism still fresh after 9/11, he and his team looked at backup plans if they’d had to shut down. “We had done enough to know what we probably couldn’t do, so that left us with what we likely could do,” he recalled recently. 

Norcross says that if he were still on K Street, he’d likely be scoping out hotel rooms in Jacksonville. But like many of his colleagues who are still in the business, he’s not going this time.

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