By The Hill Staff - 11/01/06 12:00 AM EST
Michael McKenna is a Republican and owner-operator of a one-man lobbying shop, MWR Strategies. Those facts led his client, energy company Suez, to ask him the following in a recent phone conversation: What does he plan to do if Democrats retake the House?
“What my plan is, is to adjust to a new reality,” McKenna says he told executives from Suez, formerly known as Tractebel.
McKenna said that likely means he will work more closely with his Democratic colleagues through some sort of formal business agreement to lobby on behalf of his client.
“There is no getting around the fact that [Democrats] are going to be more important,” McKenna said. Even if Democrats fall short of retaking the House or the Senate, the margins in either body are likely to be narrowed.
Some version of the question posed by Suez executives is being repeated across Washington, as companies, associations and lobbying firms plan for the new reality after the midterm elections.
Many political observers predict Democrats will regain the majority in the House, or at least significantly reduce the voting margins held by Republicans. Less likely, though possible, is a Democratic takeover of the Senate.
While the election is still six days away, the strength Democratic candidates have shown has already produced one shift in Washington: Democratic lobbyists, once marginalized, are seeing a resurgence in their popularity.
“We’ve had more detailed conversations in the last month than we have had all year,” says Patrick Murphy, a lobbyist who has been an active supporter of Democrats. Murphy joined mCapitol Management in July and has been aggressively marketing his ties to Democrats ever since.
“We are ready for the new transition,” says Murphy, whose current clients include Eastman Kodak, the American Federation of Government Employees, and the Edison Electric Institute.
Lobbyists close to House Democrats in particular are stressing their ties. Not many lobbyists bothered with House Democrats, they say, because the caucus faced a disciplined Republican majority and had little ability to affect the course of House votes. Now those ties could produce new business.
“In 2005, things were pretty tough for a Democrat. Nobody thought we were going to win,” said Steve Elmendorf, a former chief of staff to then-House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) , who is now in the midst of expanding his practice at Bryan Cave Strategies.
As they work to market themselves by stressing those ties, Democrats on K Street are also careful to strike a cautionary tone.
“Nobody’s measuring drapes. Nobody’s counting their chickens,” Elmendorf said.
Any change in the political dynamic will affect industries differently. How members view issues relating to telecommunications, financial services or transportation doesn’t necessarily depend on their party affiliation, Elmendorf said.
One industry, though, that may feel particularly nervous about a Democratic takeover is the energy industry, which is a traditionally strong backer of the Republican Party.
Democrats, meanwhile, have called for “windfall” profits on oil companies. A Democratic House may also investigate the rise in gasoline prices or Vice President Cheney’s energy task force that often met in secret.
“There are companies that are definitely looking to hire Democrats,” said John Northington of Thomas Advisors, a firm that specializes in energy issues.
Northington is a rarity: a Democratic lobbyist who specializes in energy production issues. Oil giant ExxonMobil hired Northington three months ago to lobby the White House on exploration issues and to reach out to Democrats in Congress.
Other lobbyists said energy companies have been calling them, too.
“It is evident across the board that energy companies are desperately trying to identify lobbyists with Democratic credentials, especially in the House,” says Stephen Brown, a former counsel to Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who is in line to take over the Energy and Commerce Energy and Air Quality subcommittee if Democrats regain the majority in the House.
Brown, who now runs the energy and environment practice at Dutko Worldwide, a broad, bipartisan firm, said several companies have approached him in recent weeks. He declined to name the companies.
Brown favors some issues more aligned with Republicans, like opening the outer continental shelf to oil and gas drilling. But while his practice is bipartisan, Brown adds, “I can talk Democrat.”
It may be easy to overstate the nervousness among business groups in town.
Democratic staffers have sought to ease any anxiety among business leaders in the run-up to the election. Many lobbyists don’t predict wild swings in policy even if Democrats take over one or both bodies of Congress.
Don Duncan, a lobbyist at ConocoPhillips, said the most onerous measures proposed for oil and gas companies, like windfall profit tax, are unlikely to become law in an environment where the voting margins are close and there is a Republican president with veto power.
“Personally, I’m not that concerned with a change. We’ll work with whoever is up there,” Duncan said.
Most large companies and trade groups already employ a bipartisan staff, although Republicans, who have control of the House, Senate, and White House, are typically in the top spot.
“At the end of the day, you are going to have to have a strong bipartisan team,” Elmendorf said.
But many Democratic lobbyists describe the environment in more hopeful terms than any time since Republicans took over the House in 1994.
Through efforts like the K Street Project, Republican leaders have sought to put their own into top slots of trade groups or large companies. There is disagreement over how aggressively that effort was carried out. But Democrats maintain the effort was real and harmful to the prospects of Democratic lobbyists.
The Association of Oil Pipe Lines last week hired Shirley Neff, a former Democratic aide on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources, to lead the group.
Raymond Paul, a spokesman for the group, said Neff’s Democratic background had nothing to do with the decision.
“Our executive search team didn’t discuss party affiliation,” he said.
While Neff will replace another former Democratic staffer, Benjamin Cooper, the association would likely have felt more pressure to hire a Republican a couple of years ago when Republicans were more firmly in control of Congress, one Democratic lobbyist said.
Leading Democratic lobbyists
Steven Elmendorf, Bryan Cave Strategies.
David Castagnetti, Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti.
Daniel Tate, Capitol Solutions.
Melissa Schulman, The Bockorny Group.
Sandra Stuart, Clark & Weinstock.
Vic Fazio, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
Alan Roth, Lent, Scrivner & Roth.
Dan Turton, Timmons & Company.
Chuck Brain, Capitol Hill Strategies.
Bruce Andrews, Quinn Gillespie & Associates.
Julie Domenick, The Loeffler Group.