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Gillespie Senate run tests stigma of ‘lobbyist’ label

Democrats are aiming to hobble the Senate candidacy of Ed Gillespie by wrapping him in the “Scarlet L” of a Washington lobbyist.

The Republican strategist’s name was once attached to one of K Street’s most storied firms — Quinn Gillespie & Associates (QGA) — and he will likely disclose any clients that he has at his new outfit, Ed Gillespie Strategies, when announces a run for Senate in Virginia against Democrat Mark Warner. 

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Democrats see a major vulnerability in Gillespie’s K Street career and began tagging him with the “lobbyist” label minutes after the news of his likely run went public last week. 

“Ed Gillespie’s career as a D.C. lobbyist will absolutely be an issue,” said Lily Adams, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

Gillespie defended his private sector work in a statement to The Hill.

“For the past five years, clients have valued my strategic communications advice as founder of Ed Gillespie Strategies,” he said. 

“Unfortunately, Senator Warner has voted for job-killing policies, including casting the deciding vote for 

ObamaCare, and to increase taxes by nearly $1 trillion dollars and our debt by $7 trillion dollars since taking office long after I left my old firm,” Gillespie said. 

Gillespie helped found QGA in 2000, and cemented his status as a power broker by serving as chairman of the Republican National Committee.

By 2007, when Gillespie left to join then-President George W. Bush’s White House, the firm was taking in almost $18 million in lobbying fees. That ranked QGA at No. 9 among K Street’s top earners that year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

The co-founder of what is now QGA Public Affairs, Jack Quinn, praised Gillespie, but said he won’t be supporting his Senate bid.

“I remain a loyal Democrat, and I conduct my political activities accordingly,” Quinn said in a statement to The Hill. 

“We owe much to the keen judgment and superlative communications skills that Ed brought in starting the firm 14 years ago,” Quinn said. “At the same time, the strong reputation and loyal client base that we have today were substantially built on the years of effective and bipartisan strategic counsel provided by the terrific team that makes up QGA today.”

With their Senate majority at risk, Democrats hope Gillespie’s influence industry success will be unpalatable to Virginia voters — even though one of the party’s own, Terry McAuliffe, overcame similar attacks to win the state’s governor’s race last year.

“The contrast is clear as day. Sen. Warner has worked tirelessly to reach across the aisle to grow the economy and get the nation’s fiscal house in order while Ed Gillespie has spent years shilling for special interests and supporting failed policies that tanked the economy,” said Adams, with the DNC.

They also hope to use the lobbyist smear to take down David Jolly, who is running for the House seat of his former boss, the late Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.). Jolly founded lobby shop Three Bridges Advisors Inc., and also has lobbied for K Street giant Van Scoyoc Associates. 

K Street lobbyists are accustomed to being a punch line during election season, and they dismiss the rhetoric as election-year posturing.

A former colleague of Gillespie’s at QGA said both parties know their way around K Street. 

“The Democratic attack on lobbyists is now as stale as it is hypocritical,” said Jeff Connaughton, who left the firm in 2009 to join then-Sen. Ted Kaufman’s (D-Del.) staff. 

“Senators of both parties are constantly attending fundraising events at every lobbying firm in town, taking PAC checks from every corporate client in town.” 

The “lobbyist” attack can be effective because the public does not hold the profession in high regard. A Gallup poll released last month found only 6 percent of people polled say lobbyists have “high” or “very high” ethical standards — the lowest out of the 22 professions respondents were asked about. 

That creates a political problem for lobbyists-turned-candidates, who typically have to disclose their clients when running for office.

“The law requires candidates who are working for firms, that they identify clients that they provide direct services to,” said Kenneth Gross, who leads the political law practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. “This includes law firms and lobby firms and possibly PR firms. ... There is a compensation threshold of $5,000 and confidential information does not have to be disclosed.” 

When Gillespie entered the White House as a counselor to Bush, he filed a financial disclosure form listing dozens of QGA clients, including Amgen, Bank of America, Microsoft, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Visa. 

But he has never registered to lobby at his new firm, Ed Gillespie Strategies, nor has he ever disclosed his clients.

“I’m not required to disclose my clients. If, however, I do decide to run, I will seek their permission to allow me to do so, even before any disclosure forms are required to be submitted,” Gillespie said.  

Democrats have worked to attach the “Scarlet L” to other GOP candidates in recent elections, and with mixed success.

Tommy Thompson lost his 2012 Senate race against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) after being assailed by Democrats for his work at influence powerhouse Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. 

But the lobbyist attack didn’t stick to Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who won his 2010 Senate race despite attempts to demonize his lobbying at the firm King & Spalding.

“He was registered for this company and that company. It came to us on what did he do, the extent that he lobbied, and the answer was not very much. And that was the end of it,” said Tom Spulak, chairman of King & Spalding’s government advocacy and public policy practice group. 

Asked if the political scrutiny damaged the firm’s image, Spulak said no.

“And I don’t think it damaged [Coats] either,” he said.

Jessica Taylor and Cameron Joseph contributed to this report.