The Influence Industry

In midterm elections, Washington lobbying becomes a line of attack for both parties

If you missed any of this year's primaries -- or just forgot -- here are the names and faces you need to know in November.
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 9:26 PM

When Senate hopeful Linda McMahon was asked about her company's lobbying activities earlier this year, the co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment was adamant.

"I have not spent lobbying dollars in Washington," the Republican candidate told a tea party gathering.

But the claim - caught on a videotape that surfaced last week - has come back to haunt McMahon, who is running against Democratic state attorney general Richard Blumenthal for Connecticut's open U.S. Senate seat.

Federal disclosure records show that WWE (formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation) has spent more than $1.1 million on federal lobbying efforts since 1999, not to mention hundreds of thousands more to lobby state legislatures around the country. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee immediately went on the attack, releasing an ad labeling McMahon a "bad CEO" who put lobbyists ahead of the public.

In this year's contentious midterm election campaigns, lobbying has become a very dirty word.

From California to Indiana to Florida, candidates are seizing on ties between their opponents and the lobbying profession as an alleged sign of loyalty to special interests. Campaign contributions from K Street lobbyists have also flared as an issue in many campaigns, including the widely watched contest between tea party favorite Sharron Angle (R) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Although the lobbying industry has never been beloved by the public, its image has declined dramatically over the past decade even as its influence continued to expand. The Jack Abramoff scandal was arguably a turning point, sending politicians to jail and saddling the industry with the stench of criminality.

President Obama and his opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also made a point of attacking the influence of lobbyists during the 2008 presidential campaign, a theme Obama has continued during his time in the White House.

"Lobbyists are in a very distinct profession; they sell influence," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. "That always gets people's attention, especially in the current political climate."

Former U.S. senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who is attempting to return to the Senate, has sought to fend off Democratic attacks over his previous career as a Washington lobbyist. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) also has come under a volley of Democratic attacks for his close relationship to the business lobby. In California, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) and GOP challenger Carly Fiorina have traded accusations of ties to the influence industry.

And in Nevada, Angle has repeatedly attacked Reid for ranking as the top recipient of K Street contributions, estimated by CRP at $1 million since 2005. Democrats, in turn, criticize Angle for attending her own lobbyist-sponsored fundraisers, including one held Tuesday in Georgetown.

The lobbying issue has become a key line of attack in Connecticut by the Blumenthal campaign, which is struggling with its own controversy over the Democrat's inaccurate statements suggesting he had served in Vietnam. McMahon, who stepped down as CEO of her wrestling company to run for Senate, has vowed to spend up to $50 million of her own money in the race to replace retiring Sen. Chris Dodd (D).

McMahon's lobbying comments came during a tea party event in Waterbury, Conn. last April, when an audience member asked her about WWE's support of "special interests" in Washington.

McMahon acknowledged making campaign contributions to both parties but categorically ruled out giving money to K Street. "In terms of lobbying dollars in Washington, I have not spent lobbying dollars in Washington," she said.

The problem for McMahon is that federal disclosure records clearly show that WWE and its predecessor, the World Wrestling Federation, have been regular lobbying clients in Washington for more than a decade. Issues of interest to WWE lobbyists have included proposed restrictions on steroid use in sports; increased federal regulation of adult-oriented entertainment; and a decision by the Army to pull its recruitment advertising from WWE programming, which had come under attack from conservative groups for recurrent themes of sex and violence.

The company also paid more than $300,000 to K&L Gates, a lobbying and law firm, to represent WWE during a House investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional wrestling, records show.

McMahon issued a statement earlier this week apologizing for her "honest mistake" in claiming WWE had not hired Washington lobbyists. She acknowledged that the company had "utilized government relations firms to assist on several issues," including a wrestling-themed "Smackdown Your Vote" voter registration effort.

"This unfortunate mistake on my part was not my first, and I am certain it will not be my last," McMahon said in the statement. "But it's important to me that I set the record straight."

Blumenthal adviser Ty Matsdorf said the lobbying remarks were part of an effort by McMahon to fool voters. "She's trying to convince the people of Connecticut that she's something different," he said. "But she's spent more than a million dollars lobbying to protect her interests."

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