Lobbying groups descend on battleground states

Lobbying groups descend on battleground states
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Look out, swing states: the lobbyists are coming.

With members of Congress poised to spend most of this year campaigning for reelection, groups in Washington are shifting their focus toward grassroots advocacy in hopes of changing the political debate from the ground up.


“As we see more and more gridlock in D.C., trades and corporations are looking for new ways to push the public policy initiatives, and the election just really serves as an important catalyst to take messages outside of the Beltway and into battleground states,” said David Barnhart, a founding partner of Locust Street Group, a grassroots advocacy firm.

The House is only scheduled to be in session for 108 days in 2016, with lawmakers spending the other 257 days in their states and districts. The schedule is similar in the Senate.

With few chances left for face-to-face advocacy in Washington, lobbyists are turning to their election-year playbook, which includes heavy spending on targeted advertising in battleground states. Those efforts are more important than ever before, lobbyists say, due to the unpredictability of a presidential race featuring presumptive Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE.

“The activities aren’t exclusive to the 2016 campaign cycle, but the unconventional nature of this presidential season has changed the landscape,” said Bruce Haynes, a founding partner at Purple Strategies.

The state-level advocacy is “a time-honored tradition, and this is the usual time, but there is still so much uncertainty,” Haynes said. “You may need more allies than you’ve ever had when you just don’t know which way the wind is going to blow.”

One group that’s keeping a heavy presence on the campaign trail is the Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing, which has sent supporters into town halls and placed them on rope lines, directly confronting candidates about the costs of prescription drugs.

That effort appears to have paid dividends. Democratic presidential candidates Bernie SandersBernie SandersHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike House set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package On The Money: Democrats scramble to save minimum wage hike | Personal incomes rise, inflation stays low after stimulus burst MORE and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMedia circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Senate ref axes minimum wage, House votes today on relief bill Democratic strategists start women-run media consulting firm MORE have both criticized the rising cost of drugs, with Clinton cutting an ad before the Iowa caucuses accusing pharmaceutical companies of “predatory” drug pricing. Former Republican presidential candidate Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWatch live: Day 2 at CPAC DeSantis derides 'failed Republican establishment' at CPAC The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Divided House on full display MORE, a Florida senator, blasted drug
companies for “profiteering.”

“The key to success in these situations is to channel the energy around current issues,” Barnhart said. “No one is influenced by things that are fake. Go out and find real people and real stories and make sure they’re pushed forward to the front of the rope line — push forward to a microphone at a town hall.”

The Coalition for Medicare Choices is taking a similar approach, launching an outreach and media campaign to bolster support for the Medicare Advantage program. The coalition has been holding its own roundtables with presidential and congressional candidates and running strategic advertising.

“I think, traditionally, the activity was centered around television, but increasingly you’re seeing it move more in the space of trying to create digital advocates for your views,” Haynes says.

“Everything is getting smarter and more targeted,” he adds. “We look at proprietary tools to look at political influencers and the people who influence them and how to reach them,” Haynes said. “If a decision-maker is particularly fond of a certain blog, who influences that blogger? How do you discover who those people are? And how do you make sure your message is in front of them, online and in real time?”

Although the coalition’s efforts are not exclusive to the election-year politicking, seniors who use Medicare Advantage — private insurance plans funded by the government — are a critical voting bloc in several swing states, including Florida and Ohio.

Seniors are effective advocates because they can personalize the Medicare issue and “talk about what changes in Congress and legislative proposals actually mean for” people who are enrolled, said Clare Krusing, the spokeswoman for Coalition for Medicare Choices.

“So, when it comes to … facing these cuts, lawmakers are going to have to talk to these seniors about that,” she said.

While Medicare Advantage has become widely popular with both parties over time — up to 404 members of Congress support the program this year, compared with 287 in 2014 — some concerns about cost and overbilling the government persist.

“The key is to highlight and amplify the powerful stories and examples that will impact the candidates,” said Barnhart, of Locust Street Group. “And even then, the candidates need to hear these perspectives over and over again.”

“With a well-run campaign, a lot of repetition and a little luck, your issue becomes part of a stump speech and in the national dialogue,” he added.

The same is true for other groups, including the America Forward coalition, that see the election as an opportunity to raise the profile of organizations and issues.

The coalition — made up of more than 70 organizations including YouthBuild, Teach for America and Save the Children — has been putting itself in front of every presidential campaign.

It hosted Clinton at a YouthBuild work site days before the Nevada caucuses, showing off the organization. It has reached out or met with every presidential campaign this cycle and has put an emphasis on illustrating the impact of organizations in battleground states.

America Forward has several policy priorities, but the one that is resonating the most, according to Executive Director Deborah Smolover, is pay-for-success strategies that tie federal funding to an organization achieving specific results.

Overall, the coalition aims to connect “social innovators with policymakers, with the overarching goal of translating local impact to federal change,” Smolover said.

Industry groups are also seeking to get their message out, including the U.S. Travel Association, which has worked to increase its visibility as a champion of the nation’s tourism industry.

“If you look at the different varieties of crisis — security crisis, budgetary crisis, health crises with Ebola or Zika — there has been a knee-jerk instinct among some to shut down travel, or sometimes it’s unwittingly caught in the crossfire,” said Jonathan Grella, the vice president of public affairs for the group, mentioning the closure of national parks during the budget sequester.

The group is introducing the campaigns to workers in the travel and hospitality industry who can talk about the importance of the industry to the economy. It also has been rolling out an elaborate ad campaign that puts its messaging on everything from hotel room keys to billboards and screens in airports. 

During the primaries, for example, U.S. Travel posted ads at a Manchester, N.H., airport that read, “Candidates bloviating about jobs actually creates them: 2016 Road Warriors: Thanks for doing your share.”

Throughout the campaign and at the nominating conventions, Grella said, people can expect more of the same.

“You’ll see us having a little fun making the point about conventions having room for both fun and serious business,” he said. “We’re going to borrow the phrase, ‘Business in the front, party in the back.’ ”


This post was updated at 11:38 a.m.