When the word "lobbyist" is tossed around on the campaign trail, it is rarely in a flattering context.
Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) knows this. His Senate campaign has gone after Sen. Jon Tester (D) for accepting more direct campaign contributions from lobbyists than anyone else in Congress this cycle. But now, Democrats could turn the lobbyist argument against Rehberg, following the revelation earlier this week that the Republican praised the industry in a speech last fall.
During an address last October before the American League of Lobbyists, Rehberg called lobbying "an honorable profession" and suggested that it might have been a better decision for him to go into lobbying before running for Congress, following the end of his tenure as lieutenant governor in 1997.
"Almost did it. But a lot of y’all’s type came to me and said what are you nuts? You know, if we had the choice of either run for Congress or be a lobbyist, wouldn’t you like to try the Congress first, and I fell for it, and I ran for Congress, I probably, if I had been smart I would’ve said nope, no, I think I’ll stay out of the political arena and go into lobbying," Rehberg said.
For several reasons, Rehberg's own words could cause him a political headache this fall.
Rehberg's campaign and his allies have noted repeatedly that Tester is the top recipient in Congress this cycle of direct campaign contributions from lobbyists, and they have sought to contrast that with Tester's posture toward the industry in his 2006 campaign. But now, when Rehberg attacks Tester's reliance on the lobbying community, he'll be forced to answer the question of why he spoke so highly of an industry his own campaign uses as a negative.
Think debates. Tester now has a quick rebuttal at hand to help him neutralize lobbyist-based attacks and pivot the discussion to Rehberg. Tester will not be excused from having to explain his own ties to the industry, but he can now play a little offense as well.
Montana is a long way from Washington. That's a reason why both Tester and Rehberg have been producing ads that aim to connect with voters on local themes.
It's also why Rehberg's newly unearthed comments are potentially damaging to his campaign. Positive talk about a D.C.-based industry won't get you very far with Montana voters.
Finally, because his comments were recorded, they are readily accessible for use in opposition ads. And in a political culture in which 30-second sound bites can be damaging, Democrats have strengthened their capacity to play offense. Tester's campaign distributed Rehberg's remarks to the press, illustrating the extent to which they hope to use the congressman's remarks against him.
As much as candidates like to tie their opponents to the lobbying industry, the overall climate in which a campaign is run is usually more important in the grand scheme of things. In 2010, Indiana Democrats relentlessly pointed out Republican Dan Coats's lobbying ties. But it wasn't enough to overcome a widespread anti-Democratic sentiment, and Coats won his open Senate race comfortably.
Unlike Coats, Rehberg's ties to the industry are based on comments, not a career choice. And he did ultimately opt for ranching over lobbying after his tenure as lieutenant governor came to an end.
The fact of the matter is that lobbying remains very much a part of the legislative process in Washington. It's a punching bag on the campaign trail, but the industry is a common destination for members who have left office.
Still, the political realities of running for office mean Rehberg's remarks were not ideal for him. Topics like the economy and job creation will still dominate the discussion on the trail this fall. But the Republican didn't do himself any favors by handing his opponent a fresh line of attack.