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'Trump show' convention sparks little interest on K Street

K Street isn't holding its collective breath for any major policy announcements at this week's Republican convention.

Despite GOP officials promising a “surprise factor” each night, lobbyists say they aren't expecting that to extend to issues of interest to their clients.

“When you look at where the president’s taking the race, it’s about contrast, and those types of contrasts don’t necessarily lend themselves to particular policy announcements, per se. They are more thematic – law and order, the economy. He’s more of a big theme person,” Trump bundler David Tamasi of Chartwell Strategy Group told The Hill.

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Democratic lobbyists faced similarly low client interest at their convention last week, largely because companies are preoccupied with the coronavirus. While the Democratic convention consisted of speakers who described goals for the future of the party, GOP lobbyists say the message from Republicans this week is likely to focus more on what President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Trump's remaking of the judicial system Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit MORE has accomplished, as details of a potential second-term agenda remain vague.

“The Republican convention is definitely going to be the Trump show. There’s going to be mild interest for everyone speaking before Trump and massive interest for him,” said Omar Franco, former chief of staff to Rep. Mario Diaz-BalartMario Rafael Diaz-BalartHouse Hispanic Republicans welcome four new members GOP Rep. Dan Newhouse tests positive for COVID-19 Colorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter tests positive for coronavirus MORE (R-Fla.) who’s now managing director of Becker & Poliakoff.

GOP convention organizers plan to highlight a different theme each night, with a heavy focus on law enforcement and security in the suburbs, a former Trump administration official told The Hill. The programming aims to appeal to voting blocs such as veterans and suburban women, a group Trump has failed to keep on his side since winning four years ago.

Other convention themes, the former official said, will include trade, jobs, less regulation, lower taxes and energy dominance in contrast to the Green New Deal, even though Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden team wants to understand Trump effort to 'hollow out government agencies' Overnight Defense: Trump transgender ban 'inflicts concrete harms,' study says | China objects to US admiral's Taiwan visit Protect our world: How the Biden administration can save lives and economies worldwide MORE is not a proponent of the progressive proposal.

“It’s different than the Democratic convention in the sense that the president has a four-year record, he’s been pretty consistent that he will continue to push a lot of the additional politics that have been in place in terms of tax policy and deregulation,” Tamasi said.

Fred Dombo of Nossaman LLP, a lawyer who gives legal advice on lobbying, ethics and campaigns, said a virtual convention will give Trump and the party full control of the week’s activities, to the detriment of clientele.

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“Who is getting the most attention is funneled more through the organizers now,” he said. “In the past, I had clients who were able to do outside events that were fairly prominent, and they were able to get a good amount of attention to their cause by putting on an event that had big names and rock star entertainment. Now, it’s a lot harder to fight for that attention.”

Some lobbyists are participating in events preceding the convention’s daily prime-time programming. Former Rep. Ileana Ros-LehtinenIleana Carmen Ros-LehtinenHouse Hispanic Republicans welcome four new members The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by UAE - US records 1 million COVID-19 cases in a week; governors crack down Trump-backed Republican unseats Shalala in Miami House race MORE (R-Fla.), now a senior adviser at Akin Gump, is participating in the Latino Leaders Network forum Tuesday at 2 p.m. with Diaz-Balart, Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdHouse Hispanic Republicans welcome four new members Democrats lead in diversity in new Congress despite GOP gains Senate passes bill to secure internet-connected devices against cyber vulnerabilities MORE (R-Texas) and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

But Republican lobbyists noted there has been a steady decline in client interest, particularly after Trump’s concerted effort to have an in-person event.

The convention was initially scheduled to take place in Charlotte, N.C., but the Republican National Committee moved the major events, including Trump’s acceptance speech, to Jacksonville, Fla., after the president objected to North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s (D) insistence on a scaled-down event due to concerns over the coronavirus.

“Once [Trump] moved it to Florida, I think a lot of companies and entities that fund it were starting to get very nervous because they didn’t want to be sponsoring something that could be a super spreader event. And the press coverage was so bad that they just checked out,” one lobbyist said.

Trump later canceled the Jacksonville convention plans. He now plans to formally accept his party’s nomination at the White House.

There’s now pressure on the GOP convention to outperform the Democratic one.

“I think that dynamic of the Democrats producing some sort of virtual show that will be the talk of the media will really put the White House in a bind. How do they match it?” one veteran GOP lobbyist asked.

Conventions, both Republican and Democratic, often provide a chance for rising stars to become household names through breakout speeches. But lobbyists say any 2024 hopefuls on the GOP side will need to find a different forum since stealing the spotlight from Trump is not an option this week.

“The president, I don’t think he likes using surrogates for the most part. He likes delivering his message himself,” Franco said.

The new convention format is a welcome change for some lobbyists who hope it will stick in some form.

“My hope is that in the future we don’t do away with everything, but instead do this in a more tailored way that is more effective and better suited to our world,” said Geoff Verhoff, a senior adviser at Akin Gump.

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He suggested that a convention can be done in two nights rather than four, for example. 

“But these four-night conventions, which end up being five- or six-night conventions, which take over a city and a lot of times leave a lot of merchants in that city more upset than happy — those can end,” he said.

Dombo said conventions are mostly about visibility and interfacing with officials. But that is largely what lobbyists do regularly in Washington.

“It’s networking, it’s the kind of stuff we do Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday nights at home in D.C. There’s a bunch of them compressed into one week at conventions and it can be pretty grueling. Some of the lobbyists who are a little grayer are probably relieved,” he said.