Business & Lobbying

Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race

Greg Nash

Republican lobbying firms are riding high after three years of President Trump and a GOP Senate. 

But those firms also face a tumultuous presidential election, a heated fight for the Senate and a wave of Republican retirements from both chambers. That’s sparking questions about whether they can keep that stretch going.

{mosads}K Street as a whole has been booming in recent years, but the gains for Republican lobbyists in particular have been notable, as firms have beefed up their Washington teams and seen revenue surge.

Florida lobbyist Brian Ballard, a top fundraiser for Trump, opened up shop in Washington after 2016. Those Trump connections helped Ballard quickly build up a formidable presence and a large Rolodex of clients. He closed out 2019 with $18.9 million in revenue, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Other Republican-only firms, such as CGCN Group, which made roughly $9.3 million in 2019 revenue, are also expanding their ranks despite the contentious political climate and uncertain election ahead. The firm recently brought on Scott Riplinger as a partner after 15 years on Capitol Hill, which saw him as legislative director for Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho).

And former Republican members of Congress have been a hot commodity for lobbying firms, including bipartisan shops — Greenberg Traurig hired ex-Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) last week and BGR Group hired former Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) in November.

Whether these trends can continue remains to be seen as Trump faces what is likely to be a close election. Some question whether GOP firms should brace themselves for the uncertainty ahead and the prospect their party could lose the White House.

Many lobbyists from Republican firms who spoke to The Hill, however, said they expect the boom to continue no matter how 2020 shakes out.

“Republicans will be relevant regardless of the makeup of Washington. Any lawmaking exercise will be shaped by both parties,” said Jonathan Slemrod at GOP lobbying firm Harbinger Strategies. “We expect the demand for Republican-focused advocacy to remain high no matter what happens in November.”

“Whatever happens in the upcoming election, it is not going to be a congressional blowout,” said Sam Geduldig, co-CEO of CGCN Group.

“There’s a coalition to be had opposing onerous taxes or burdensome regulations that don’t work for a majority of the members of Congress,” Geduldig added. “The business community needs to have relationships with key committees and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.”

The Trump years have been a boon for K Street, with a number of high-profile industries ramping up their lobbying spending amid fights over trade, health care, taxes, technology and a host of other hot-button issues. And with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress in the first two years of Trump’s term, GOP firms were able to reap the benefits of that activity.

But the rising Republican firms of the Trump era are also an outlier on K Street, where lobbying trends have seen a move away from exclusively partisan firms. More shops are bipartisan, building their teams from the ranks of both parties.

If Republicans suffer setbacks in the 2020 election, GOP firms could also face pressure to move to a bipartisan model. 

“The constantly changing political environment underscores the value of a fully integrated bipartisan team,” said Kimberley Fritts, CEO of Cogent Strategies, a bipartisan lobby shop. “Regardless of who resides in 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. come January, the landscape will change and so too must the tactics for reaching the administration and Congress.”

“Anyone who says you need a Republican to lobby this or a Democrat to lobby that is probably a fundraiser and not actually a lobbyist,” said Alex Vogel, founder and CEO of the bipartisan Vogel Group.

Slemrod said there will always be room for partisan shops, dismissing the idea that a change in the White House could be tough for Republican firms.

“We work closely with Democrats on a daily basis, but our clients look to us to know what Republicans are thinking and what arguments will be persuasive on the Hill and in the administration,” he said.

BGR, a staple on K street, launched in 1991 as a GOP-only firm and went bipartisan in 2007.

“The reasoning was fairly simple. When you look around, the majority of legislation that is passed has to be bipartisan,” said BGR CEO Bob Wood. “Our clients needed both perspectives and interaction with both sides of the aisle.”

At that time, former President Bush was in his final year in office and the House and Senate were both under Democratic control.

“It was more coincidental or fortuitous,” Wood added. “Being recognized as a bipartisan firm took time.”

Today’s Republican-only firms may need to make the same calculus after 2020.

“Any firm is benefited if you’re able to reach into both side of the aisle,” Cristina Antelo, founder of the bipartisan firm Ferox, told The Hill.

But Matt Johnson, co-founder of bipartisan lobbying firm Klein/Johnson Group said making the switch from a partisan to a bipartisan focus could be tricky for some firms.

“There’s plenty of room for both models in terms of business opportunities. But, in my experience, firms that weren’t bipartisan from the start and switch midstream because of political exigencies tend to find rebranding a challenge,” he said. 

K Street began Trump’s fourth year on a high note, with growing revenues.

Despite the potential for big changes ahead, GOP lobbyists downplayed any anxiety over the 2020 election. They insist they will stay busy even if Trump loses reelection or Republicans suffer more losses in Congress.

Even if Republicans are out of the White House, many of the issues important to them will still be in play, said Slemrod.

“Most of the proposals put forward by the Democratic contenders cause anxiety in the business community,” he said. “And many companies and trade associations will be looking to Republicans to speak up on this stuff, especially tax, health care and energy.”

Wood, from a bipartisan firm, said that regulatory and executive branch work has been heavy under Trump and expects that to continue regardless of who is in the White House.

“One’s partisanship will matter but, again, equally as important is the policy expertise and knowing the issues and how to navigate the executive branch no matter who’s in power,” Wood said.

Tags Donald Trump Mike Crapo Rodney Frelinghuysen Sean Duffy
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