For many Republican lobbyists, the thrill surrounding this year’s Republican convention in Cleveland is, well, gone.
Instead, it’s been replaced by such emotions as anxiety, uncertainty and unease — not exactly the sentiments Republicans want to feel as they crown their presidential nominee in July.
Until recently, many senior Republican lobbyists backed the wrong horse in the chaotic presidential primary — Jeb Bush, the early establishment favorite and, later, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. But it is Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz who have emerged with the best shot of taking the GOP prize, lobbing criticism that often seemed aimed squarely at K Street.
Despite their reservations, top GOP lobbyists are still planning to decamp to Cleveland this summer, if only to watch possibly the first contested convention the party has seen since 1976.
“There’s no talk at our firm of sitting one out,” said lobbyist Dave Schnittger, deputy chief of staff for former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) who now works at Squire Patton Boggs, Washington’s second-largest lobby firm.
Schnittger and several colleagues plan to stake out a larger presence this July than at previous conventions, largely because Patton Boggs — since being acquired by the law firm Squire Sanders in 2013 — is now headquartered in Ohio. The firm plans to host several events at its office in downtown Cleveland, which is blocks away from the convention site, and will co-sponsor what repeat convention-goers refer to as the Boehner warehouse party.
“Whether there’s uncertainty or not in a given year about what’s going to take place on the floor of the convention…I think people feel a responsibility to be there,” Schnittger said.
Some lobbyists said whether they ultimately descend on Cleveland depends on what Republican lawmakers show up.
This week, a number of Senate Republicans indicated they are either skipping or likely to skip the convention. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), for example, said it is unlikely she will attend this year, and will instead focus on her re-election efforts in New Hampshire. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), one of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents up for re-election in November, will not be attending and will instead focus on his own campaign, his spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — who famously quipped that choosing between Trump and Cruz is “like being shot or poisoned” — has yet to make definite plans for the convention, his spokesman said Wednesday.
But for countless Washington lobbyists, the conventions every four years are a prime chance to network with party officials and donors, schmooze for a shot at a job in a future administration, and advise corporate clients on how to best showcase their products at one of the most high-profile and widely broadcast events in national politics. Many power-brokers take on volunteer jobs, such as helping coordinate speakers backstage, through their connections with Republican National Committee officials.
And for them, Cleveland will be business as usual.
“Whether or not you’re happy with who the nominee might be, it’s a tremendous venue to drive ideas because you have such a high level captive audience,” said John Murray, a top aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) who now advises trade groups on public affairs strategies. “Companies and lobbying firms think about it in a broader sense than just who the nominee may or may not be.”
And then there’s the entertainment factor, which may reach an all-time high this year in what could be the first contested convention in four decades — the first in many political junkies’ lifetime.
“I usually go for the entertainment value alone,” Murray said. “This one may turn out to be extra entertaining.”
Many GOP lobbyists predict that the K Street and corporate presence in Cleveland will still be significant, but slightly less than that of previous years.
“If you’re not a longtime participant, this is not the year you’re going to start,”said Republican lobbyist Stewart Verdery. “Others are scaling back or waiting longer [to decide whether to go]. If you add it all up, there’s a drop-off in commitment. But it’s not some drastic kind of thing.”