Buying of the President

Published — March 14, 2016

Lobbyists’ preferred candidate in GOP presidential race — Marco Rubio

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio. Jonathan Bachman/AP

Professional influencers line up behind struggling White House hopeful

This story was co-published with PBS Newshour.


While 2016 may be the year of the political outsider, Republican White House hopeful Marco Rubio is relying on a decidedly insider source for campaign money: lobbyists.

Rubio’s presidential bid has benefited from lobbyists more than any other Republican still in the race, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of campaign finance data.

These lobbyists represent a range of interests, spanning from blue-chip companies such as AT&T, Goldman Sachs and 21st Century Fox to trade associations such as the Private Equity Growth Capital Council and Satellite Industry Association.

Rubio’s reliance on K Street money could be less of a boon than a burden during an election season in which insurgents such as real estate tycoon Donald Trump and firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas have so far won nearly every primary or caucus.

“Republican voters are turned off by the big money,” said John Pudner, the executive director of Take Back Our Republic, a conservative campaign finance reform organization.

Pudner, who previously served as Republican Rep. Dave Brat’s campaign manager, added that money from lobbyists is “becoming more and more of a liability” as voters are increasingly worried that “campaign contributions are traded for their tax dollars.”

Thus far, support from professional influencers hasn’t helped Rubio much. He trails badly in the delegate race, and he now faces a critical test in his home state of Florida, which hosts its primary Tuesday.

Lobbyists — who sometimes seek to leverage their connections and convert access into influence for clients — can boost a candidate’s war chest in two ways.

First, they may directly donate to a campaign. They may also steer other donors toward a candidate, a fundraising practice called “bundling.”

Because individuals are limited in how much they can directly donate to federal politicians, pooling donations together in “bundles” is one way people attempt to gain more clout.

Legislation passed in 2007 following the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal has required lobbyists to disclose information about their bundling activities. Campaigns are not required to disclose the names of bundlers who are not lobbyists.

Rubio, an incumbent U.S. senator from Florida whose campaign did not respond to requests for comment, has benefitted from lobbyists aiding him in both ways.

GOP presidential candidates boosted by lobbyist-bundlers

Source: Center for Public Integrity analysis of Federal Election Commission filings that detail fundraising by registered lobbyists during 2015.

Lobbyists acting as bundlers raised nearly $1.2 million for Rubio’s campaign last year, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of the most recent filings with the Federal Election Commission.

That was only a fraction of the $36 million Rubio raised last year, but it was a larger dollar amount than either of the two other GOP contenders who had support from registered lobbyists working as fundraisers.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush collected about $635,000 from lobbyists acting as campaign bundlers last year, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie got about $23,000 from his sole lobbyist-bundler.

Furthermore, data the Center for Public Integrity obtained from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, shows that federal lobbyists who were active in 2015 personally donated more than $294,000 to Rubio’s campaign last year.

That ranked him second among GOP presidential hopefuls in terms of direct contributions — and was nearly as much as the roughly $340,000 lobbyists donated to Bush, the top beneficiary.

With Bush now out of the presidential race, Rubio has been making overtures to former Bush donors to support his campaign — and winning several over.

Rubio “was the logical place for me to go once Jeb Bush decided he would suspend his campaign,” said Dirk Van Dongen, the longtime head of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, who raised nearly $70,000 for Bush last year, according to federal campaign finance records.

“[Rubio] is very much the future of this party,” Van Dongen continued. “I like him a lot. I respect him a lot.”

Why has Rubio been so successful winning K Street fans? Lobbyists often line up behind the party’s likely nominee, political observers say.

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said Bush and Rubio were seen “as good, even safe, bets — obvious targets for those who wanted to curry favor with those considered most likely to be the presidential nominee.”

With Bush now out of the race, many view Rubio as the establishment’s choice — although he’s still facing opposition on that front from Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Donations from lobbyists to GOP presidential candidates

Source: Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics covering contributions received between Jan. 1, 2015, and Dec. 31, 2015.

Meanwhile, Trump and Cruz, the two GOP contenders to have seen the least amount of support from the Republican establishment, continue to dominate at the polls.

For his part, Trump — who is mostly self-funding his campaign — has accused both Cruz and Rubio of being “controlled by the lobbyists and special interests.”

Anne Mervenne of Michigan is one lobbyist who’s been torn between Rubio and Kasich.

The president of her own firm, Mervenne & Company, she typically works with nonprofit clients such as the United Way for Southeastern Michigan, the Children’s Hospital of Michigan and the Hope Network, a Christian organization that helps people with disabilities live independently.

Mervenne donated to both Rubio and Kasich last year, giving Kasich $500 in September and Rubio the legal maximum of $2,700 in December.

“I’m establishment,” Mervenne said. “I’m not ashamed to say that.”

But just days before Michigan’s March 8 primary, Mervenne — who said she’s afraid of Trump’s “fearmongering” and “inflammatory language” — decided to go all in for Kasich over Rubio. She joined his leadership team in the Wolverine State and said she would be “maxing out” her contribution to him as well.

Charlie Black of Virginia — chairman of the Prime Policy Group and one of the country’s leading GOP political strategists — is among the lobbyists who have remained neutral during the Republican presidential primary.

That’s because he still has multiple friends in the race, Black said.

On March 31, two weeks before Rubio officially became a presidential candidate, Black donated $2,700 to a joint fundraising outfit benefiting Rubio’s now-defunct Senate campaign and his leadership PAC

As a senator, Black said, Rubio “did a good job of being available at fundraisers,” which allowed lobbyists the opportunity to get to know him.

Other lobbyists contacted by the Center for Public Integrity were more reluctant to talk.

All five of Rubio’s top lobbyist-bundlers either declined to comment or failed to respond to interview requests, namely:

Verhoff’s recent clients include the International Franchise Association, the National Auto Dealers Association and the Private Equity Growth Capital Council. Weaver’s clients include 21st Century Fox, AT&T and the Satellite Industry Association.

According to a database of fundraising materials maintained by the Sunlight Foundation, Verhoff, Weaver and Wall, of Goldman Sachs, were among the hosts of a pro-Rubio fundraiser in January at a Texas-style barbecue restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C., as well as a D.C. event last May billed as “Mojitos with Marco.”

One trade association lobbyist who donated to Rubio — and who refused to be quoted by name because his employer has not endorsed a candidate in the 2016 presidential race — said the Florida senator “could inspire the country … much like Ronald Reagan.”

“I don’t see him as an establishment figure,” the lobbyist added. “Marco Rubio was an outsider when he ran against Charlie Crist.”

In 2010, Rubio rode a wave of tea party enthusiasm into office, beating out Crist, the outgoing Florida governor who had switched from being a Republican to an independent during the race. The three-way contest also featured Democrat Kendrick Meek.

In the U.S. Senate, many conservative groups have given Rubio high marks — although his work on a bipartisan immigration reform bill has dogged his presidential campaign.

In 2014, Rubio earned a perfect 100 percent score from the conservative group FreedomWorks. That same year, Rubio earned a 92 percent score from the anti-tax organization Club for Growth.

As a senator — and now as a presidential candidate — Rubio has emphasized a hawkish foreign policy, free trade policies and an opposition to new taxes.

His proposed tax plan would cut the regular tax rate on capital gains and dividends to 0 percent.

He’s also called for repeal of many of President Barack Obama’s signature initiatives, including the president’s health care overhaul and nuclear deal with Iran.

Now on the verge of elimination in the GOP presidential race, Rubio needs even more campaign cash to compete. He began February with just $5 million in the bank.

Beyond his campaign committee, two big-money outside groups have also aided Rubio. One is the Conservative Solutions Project, a nonprofit group that doesn’t disclose its donors. The other is the Conservative Solutions PAC, a super PAC whose biggest donors include billionaires Norman Braman, the Florida auto dealer who previously owned the Philadelphia Eagles football team, and Larry Ellison, the former CEO of Oracle.

But candidates get cheaper advertising rates when they are able to purchase TV ads themselves — and they have full control over how funds are spent when money flows into their campaign committee instead of an independent group.

Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says money from lobbyists represents “low-hanging fruit” for a candidate like Rubio, who’s coming out of Congress.

“If you are Marco Rubio, your hope of winning a nomination depends on having more than Norman Braman supporting you through a super PAC, and you need funding to carry you through the sea of primaries ahead,” Ornstein said. “So it’s no surprise that you will take whatever hit comes from getting lobbyist funding in return for crucial dollars.”

Carrie Levine contributed to this report.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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