Greg Nash

The rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Democratic primary is unnerving K Street lobbyists and their clients.

The self-described democratic socialist, who has touted an ambitious agenda to rein in special interests and corporations, has been gaining in the polls and is the Democratic front-runner after wins in two primary states.

While there is a long road ahead in the 2020 election, the senator’s new status is provoking sharp reactions on K Street, where lobbyists say clients are already asking about the fallout of a Sanders nomination — and maybe even presidency.

If Sanders wins, “you enter unchartered waters,” said Kevin O’Neill, a partner at Arnold & Porter.

“In our lifetime you we have not had a president so openly hostile towards corporations … or so skeptical of capitalism as the centerpiece of the American dream,” he told The Hill.

“There’s a lot of interest from clients. I think he definitely brings on concern with some corporate interests but that’s no surprise,” said Al Mottur, a Democratic lobbyist at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. “That’s the whole crux of his message … Washington is rigged and its rigged in part from the wealthy and the powerful. You would expect businesses to have concerns with him.”

For K Street in particular, Sanders has vowed to shake up how the influence world does business, with proposals to ban donations from federal lobbyists and corporations and to prohibit the corporate funding of party conventions.

Lobbyists panned those ideas, but they could gain new momentum with Sanders as the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in 2020.

The Vermont senator is pushing ambitious progressive policies, such as “Medicare for All,” with many of those plans to be paid for by new taxes on Wall Street and the wealthy. That has many business interests worried.

Some lobbyists have downplayed Sanders’s rise, noting that the nomination fight must still play out, with the general election over eight months away.

“I feel pretty good about the president against any of the Democrats but I think when you look at him compared to Sen. Sanders, it seems very, very far off field that the United States is going to elect a socialist as president,” said David Tamasi from Chartwell Strategy Group and a former finance chair for the Trump Victory Fund.

“I’m not sure it’s full blown anxiety yet, more so being somewhat incredulous that Sanders may actually win the nomination,” a Republican lobbyist said, adding, “there is not a lot of faith in the ability of any of the other candidates being able to stop him.”

Still, corporate clients regularly tap D.C. lobbyists for insight into the political climate and have been pressing them with questions about Sanders, his team and his agenda.

Matt McAlvanah, a principal at Monument Advocacy, was the lead author of a memo, “How Businesses Could Feel the Bern,” released this week to inform clients on the candidate’s positions, including on health care, free college tuition and taxes, as well as money in politics, climate change and labor unions.

McAlvanah laid out the progressive think tanks, organizations and unions supporting Sanders’s candidacy, as well as his political advisers and allies.

“Our goal with this is to help clients stop and take stock of all that Sen. Sanders is promising, who he is targeting and what his big lines of attack are. While our clients are all very savvy on this, anything we can provide to help deliver the bottom line to the C-Suite and internal audiences is helpful right now,” he said. 

The Vermont senator is in some ways a mystery to K Street. Sanders does not engage with lobbyists much and has few former top staffers on K Street. One, former chief of staff Michaeleen Crowell, is a principal at S-3 Group, a bipartisan public affairs and lobbying firm.

“Of course the senator has been a fixture in Congress for 30-plus years, but very few K-Streeters can say they have worked closely with the office. So most are scrambling to figure out the key campaign staff and advisers,” a GOP lobbyist said. 

Tamasi said for now, clients understand that there is a long election ahead and expect that many of Sanders’s proposals would face opposition in Congress if he is elected, even from Democrats.

“Because the policies are perceived to be out of the mainstream, that is greatly hindering the perception that he can win … [And then] what is the likelihood that these policies, if he became president, would go into law,” he said.

“While Sanders’s aggressively anti-business agenda worries some and has many strategizing, most companies believe Congress would limit how far a President Sanders could go,” said Bruce Mehlman, a partner at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas. He added that businesses have also “learned from four years of the Trump era to cope with disruptive changes and roll with the unexpected.”

But others are not so sure a Sanders agenda would be dead in the water.

“Usually the president gets something out of a victory in terms of policy achievements. Everyone thought Trump isn’t going to get anything done, he got a major tax cut done and he has done significant deregulations. Bernie Sanders would try to use the executive pen,” Mottur said.

Other lobbyists say clients should be prepared for the unexpected, citing President Trump’s win.

“Too many people on K Street dismissed Trump at their own peril four years ago,” O’Neill said. “That left many clients flat-footed when the president was elected. People are endeavoring not to make that same mistake again.”

“No one thought that Trump could win so I wouldn’t discount the argument that [Sanders] could win,” Mottur said.

As for what Sanders could mean for K Street, a Democratic lobbyist said there was always “anxiety” for lobbyists before an election.

“But if we can survive eight years of being ostracized by the Obama administration, and four years of the swamp draining, we can survive,” the Democratic lobbyist said.

A GOP lobbyist, though, saw a silver lining for K Street.

“You also have to remember that a Sanders presidency could simultaneously be terrible for corporate America and great for K Street. Nothing drives our business like being on defensive 24/7.”

Tags 2020 Bernie Sanders Donald Trump K Street Sanders campaign

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