For election losers, many paths through the political wilderness

Rick Santorum formed a new fundraising organization. Jon R. Huntsman Jr. joined the Ford Motor Co. board of directors, whose members are paid an average of $260,000 per year. George Allen opened a consulting firm bearing his name but steered clear of lobbying.

For former officeholders seeking another bite of the apple, or thinking about it, there are many paths through the political wilderness. And come the morning of Nov. 7, a new wave of failed challengers and ousted incumbents will have to grapple with a decision: Do they move on with their lives, or lay out a strategy to remain engaged and relevant until the next campaign?

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“I would say the model hasn’t changed much since Nixon was clawing his way back from the wilderness,” said Republican consultant Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, who knows a bit about comebacks himself; his career nearly imploded in 2006 when his ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff came to light.

Reed was referring to the six years between Richard M. Nixon’s 1962 defeat in the California gubernatorial race and his presidential victory in 1968. He traveled widely, wrote and played the loyal party soldier campaigning for other Republican candidates.

In 2012, members of the political class who want to return to office may be seeking a similar strategic mix of visibility, base-building and, in some cases, wealth.

A seat on the board

For many politicians who are between offices, corporate boards and the financial industry have long been perches of choice. Sixty-six Fortune 1000 companies have a former member of Congress on their boards, according to an analysis of business filings by the Web site Muckety. Two dozen former governors are also directors.

With annual pay and stock awards often in the low six figures for just a few days of work, such posts are attractive to former officeholders seeking time to regroup politically. In exchange, companies benefit from big names, whose calls are taken by prospective clients or who can sometimes smooth out regulatory bumps.

Huntsman, a former Utah governor, deputy U.S. trade representative, and ambassador to China and Singapore, joined the Ford board shortly after dropping out of the race for the GOP presidential nomination in January.

He hardly needs the dough: His filings during the campaign reported as much as $66 million in assets. But the board seat is a way for him to stay in the middle of the conversation on issues such as manufacturing, trade and competitiveness. And for a car company interested in Asian markets, Huntsman, who speaks fluent Mandarin, is an asset.

A spokesman said Huntsman’s schedule over the next few weeks would not allow for an interview.

Few ex-officeholders have taken to the boardroom as readily as Jeb Bush, who has been on every short list of possible Republican presidential contenders since finishing his second term as governor of Florida in 2007.

He is a director of at least six companies — involved in a range of businesses from timber to hospital linens — and served as a paid adviser to Lehman Brothers at the time of its 2008 collapse. He is a senior adviser to Barclays Capital and has his own consulting firm, Jeb Bush and Associates. A Bush spokesman did not respond to an interview request.

One of his directorships is with Tenet, a for-profit health-care giant that owns several hospitals in Florida. The company has had serious regulatory troubles, paying $900 million to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2006 to settle charges that it overbilled Medicare and Medicaid. Bush became a director in 2007 and received $271,000 in cash fees and stock awards from the company last year, according to a proxy statement.

Bush’s corporate board service is legal, but it has some government-reform advocates wondering where his allegiances would be if he returned to office.

“It’s always been a concern to me,” said Peter Butzin, executive director of Florida Common Cause. “He’s going to have an opinion, and the question is whether it’s going to be shaped by the voters or his directorships. I would say more often than not his directorships.”

Consultants, not lobbyists

Just beyond the boardroom for out-of-work politicians is K Street and its influence industry. But the stigma attached to lobbying has caused some to approach with caution, especially those who may be contemplating a return to office. Many become advisers or consultants, performing similar work but skirting the technical definition of lobbying.

Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who withdrew from the Republican presidential race in April, earned $1.3 million in 2010 and the first half of 2011, according to financial disclosure forms. The largest slice came from consulting for groups that advocate and lobby for industry interests, including a Pennsylvania energy company.

After losing the Ohio governorship to John Kasich (R) in 2010, Democrat Ted Strickland started Midwest Gateway Partners, a firm with offices in Washington and Columbus, Ohio. Two of the firm’s principals are registered lobbyists, but Strickland is not.

Same with Allen, who lost his 2006 Senate reelection bid to Democrat James Webb. He opened George Allen Strategies, which promises clients expert advice on navigating Washington. One of the principals, a former Senate aide, is registered to lobby. Allen (R), now running against former Virginia governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) to recapture his Senate seat, is not.

Some unseated officials say employers see them only as lobbyists-in-waiting.

Former four-term Alabama congressman Artur Davis — who in 2008 seconded Barack Obama’s presidential nomination but who spoke at the Republican convention in Tampa last month after switching to the GOP — moved to Northern Virginia last year to practice law and possibly revive his political career. But the Harvard Law School graduate said his only offers were to lobby.

“I had no interest in lobbying and was unable to find a law firm that was interested in me being a working lawyer,” Davis said. Instead, he makes speeches and sits on the board of Huntington Ingalls Industries, a Navy shipbuilder.

Engaged with the issues

Politicians between offices also like to be seen as thought leaders — writing, speaking and staking out substantive positions on the issues.

Books are a reliable sign that an ex-officeholder is still in the hunt. Bush­, who has a Mexican-born wife and has urged a softer Republican line on immigration, is co-authoring a book on the issue that is due next spring. He also heads two education nonprofits that promote charter schools and other initiatives.

While opinion leadership is important, nothing garners goodwill within a party like time and money. After losing the GOP’s 2008 presidential nomination, Mitt Romney campaigned heavily in 2010 and distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates through a network of PACs.

This spring, Santorum announced the formation of Patriot Voices, a “social welfare organization” under the tax code. That means it can lobby and run ads supporting or opposing candidates as long as the spots don’t ask viewers to vote one way or another. It can also keep its donors secret.

And what of Obama, a potential one-term president, and Romney, a possible presidential loser? History suggests that there is probably no road back. Each will have all the speaking, writing and corporate gigs he can handle. But since 1968, there have been no second chances for standard-bearers. It’s one page of the Nixon playbook yet to be copied.

 
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