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Clinton Brings Lobbyists in From the Cold

Jeanne Cummings writes on money, lobbying and politics. As political editor for Bloomberg News, she directed coverage of the 2012 and 2014 elections. The 2016 race marks her seventh presidential campaign.
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"I'm in," said lobbyist Heather Podesta in an email blast to friends and associates urging them to contribute to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Podesta won't be alone. Lobbyists Steve Elmendorf, an adviser to Clinton's 2008 campaign, and Scott Pastrick, a veteran of President Bill Clinton's 1992 victory, are also back in action after the Clinton campaign sent word this week that it's abandoning President Barack Obama's policy of refusing campaign checks from lobbyists.

The creation of largely unregulated nonprofit political groups and super-PACs, along with Obama's unprecedented success with small donors, enabled him to bypass a previously vital source of funds -- the bundling of campaign contributions by lobbyists. Some lobbyists were able to make their presence felt in other ways -- via donations to the campaign from family members, for example. But lobbyist ranks include many former Democratic White House and Capitol Hill aides, for whom the president's ban chafed. Excluding lobbyists from peak fundraising also meant shutting them out of valuable perks that top bundlers received, such as private briefings from senior campaign aides or a prestigious ambassadorship.

Clinton campaign bundlers are being asked to raise no more than $27,000 each in the next month. That effectively means collecting just 10 checks of $2,700 (the federal maximum for a campaign per election) to achieve the status of a "Hillstarter." The campaign hasn't indicated whether it will set higher targets or designate additional classes of bundlers later in the election -- though both seem likely.

In President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election, bundlers who raised $200,000 were called "Rangers" and those who collected $100,000 in checks for the campaign were dubbed "Pioneers." At an "appreciation weekend" for Rangers and Pioneers, Bush's elite bundlers were reportedly able to shoot skeet with Vice President Dick Cheney and play golf with professionals Ben Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller.

Clinton's backers said they aren't being offered similar spoils. Nor do they expect the former secretary of state to headline big fundraising events anytime soon. Clinton is currently pursuing a low-key "listening tour" with voters. In addition, the campaign is sensitive to the discomfort many Democrats express with the money chase. (Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, for one, rails against the political influence of moneyed interests.)

Lobbyists and others will still have plenty of opportunities to deliver large checks. And Clinton will almost certainly need them. More than $2 billion is expected to be raised for the 2016 presidential contest -- and the final sum could be significantly higher.

Priorities USA Action, a super-PAC that supported Obama's re-election and now supports Clinton's presidential run, began calling in contribution pledges after her official announcement on Sunday. Priorities also accepted donations from lobbyists in 2012, thus undermining the principle behind Obama's ban on lobbyist contributions. For example, the Perennial Strategy Group, a lobbying firm founded by Lamell McMorris, contributed $600,000.

Democrats haven't yet created for the 2016 election the type of nonprofit groups that Republicans are using to keep contributors' names secret. Clinton this week said she wants to "get unaccountable money" out of politics, and told the Washington Post that she will unveil a plan to do that. "Stay tuned," she said.

Meanwhile, lobbyists are once again welcome in the Democratic campaign. "There is tremendous enthusiasm following Hillary Clinton's announcement and we are confident we will have the resources we need to help elect her president," said Buffy Wicks, Priorities USA Action executive director.

(Corrects election year in which Priorities USA Action accepted lobbyist donations in eighth paragraph of article published April 17.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net