WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney has cast himself as an outsider to Washington’s political gridlock, and his rivals as insiders who have been part of the problem in the nation’s capital.
But when it comes to financing his campaign, Romney has courted a key symbol of Washington’s establishment: its lobbyists, the quietly powerful forces who are hired to try to influence government decisions.
And like financial titans on New York’s Wall Street, the political insiders on Washington’s K Street are investing heavily in a potential match-up between President Barack Obama and Romney.
Nearly 390 registered lobbyists and lobbying political action committees (PACs) have contributed more than $1.5 million to Romney’s campaign and Restore Our Future, the independent Super PAC that backs Romney, according to a Reuters analysis of filings with the Federal Election Commission and the Senate Office of Public Records.
The tally is far more than what any other Republican candidate or his Super PAC has received.
On the Democratic side, Obama has distanced himself from lobbyists, but his re-election effort is not free from lobbying interests, according to the filings.
Obama’s Super PAC has received $1 million from the lobbying arm of the Service Employees International Union, which pushes labor causes in Congress just as business lobbyists promote companies’ interests.
Many of Romney’s campaign donors represent the healthcare and financial sectors, while K Street donations to his Super PAC came from three PACs: law and lobbying firm Duane Morris and energy firms Consol Energy and Oxbow Carbon, run by Bill Koch, who is a member of a prominent Republican family.
Romney’s three rivals for the Republican nomination all have ties to Washington, but the Reuters analysis found that, combined, their campaigns have received less than $94,000 from registered lobbyists.
And the Super PACs supporting Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul do not appear to have received any donations from registered lobbyists, the analysis found.
Gingrich, a former U.S. House of Representatives speaker who was a consultant to lobbyists after leaving office in 1999, received $73,000 from 42 registered lobbyists and two lobbying PACs.
Long-time Texas Congressman Ron Paul has received just $750 in donations from two registered lobbyists.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, took in less than $20,000 from 18 registered lobbyists and one lobbying organization.
When he was the third-ranked Republican in the Senate, Santorum held meetings with Washington lobbying firms and congressional Republican leaders to try to secure a long-term Republican majority in Congress by making sure that lobbying firms and trade groups hire Republicans for top jobs.
The Republicans’ “K Street Project” prompted ethics investigations of at least two House members, although leaders defended it as within the bounds of what Democrats did for years.
Santorum later went to work for American Continental Group, a lobbying firm, though he was never officially a lobbyist.
Obama has tried to stay at arm’s length from lobbyists and has returned many donations from them. Because of that, his campaign has for now retained only $22,134 from 18 registered lobbyists.
But Priorities USA, the Super PAC that supports the president’s re-election, has taken in about $1.1 million from interest groups and individual registered lobbyists. The sum came from eight K Street donors, and of it, $1 million was given by the lobbying PAC of the Service Employees International Union.
Although Priorities USA head Bill Burton called the comparison of union donations to corporate money “preposterous,” Bill Allison at the Sunlight Foundation open government advocacy group said unions are an influential Washington power player.
“Labor unions lobby, they have interests in Washington,” Allison said. “They’re different from corporate interests, but I don’t know how you can say they’re not a lobbying interest.”
Lobbyists get paid for their relationships, ability to open doors, get access and get clients’ messages to the right people.
In the Republican nominating race, Romney in particular has cast them as a key part of a dysfunctional political system. In a Gallup poll in December, lobbyists ranked second-to-last among 21 professions in honesty and ethical standards, ahead of members of Congress.
Lobbyists say they are an integral part of the Washington process, helping to raise issues on the national agenda and educate lawmakers.
“The insiders approach this from a lot of different angles than a casual voter. They’ve been in town for a long time, they’ve watched this process for a long time, they can smell a winner,” said Tom Korologos, a long-time Washingtonian and a strategic adviser at law firm DLA Piper who has given $1,500 to Romney’s campaign.
In interviews, Romney’s donors said their contributions were often triggered by his business-friendly views that also appear attuned to their taste for debates over policy rather than values, issues that are economic rather than social.
“The establishment knows practicality when it sees it,” Korologos said.
“People who contribute to Governor Romney’s campaign do so because they support his agenda for the country,” Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in an e-mail.
Individual lobbyists who donate give either because they personally support a campaign’s goals or to influence policy for their clients. But lobbying PACs exist with the sole intention of shaping government decisions.
Prominent Republican lobbyists on Romney’s side are Charles Black Jr, who lobbies for AT&T Inc (T.N) and Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N); Wayne Berman, who represents Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) and Visa Inc (V.N); and Ed Rogers, who lobbies for defense contractor Raytheon Co (RTN.N) and drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK.L).
Romney campaign donors who gave the maximum $2,500 include executives at energy, consumer and insurance trade groups as well as Bank of America (BAC.N), Goldman Sachs (GS.N), JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N) and accounting firm Ernst & Young LLP.
Tech giants Google (GOOG.O) and IBM (IBM.N), energy heavyweights Chevron (CVX.N) and Exelon (EXC.N), retailer Home Depot (HD.N) and the largest U.S. conglomerate General Electric (GE.N) were also on the list.
Apart from the financial industry, most notable was the connection of many Romney donors to healthcare. The industry awaits drastic changes from Obama’s signature healthcare reform that is scheduled to kick into full gear in 2013. Romney has vowed to repeal the law if he becomes president.
Several of Romney’s donors came from the drug lobby and work for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and makers of medicines and medical devices, including Medtronic (MDT.N), Merck (MRK.N), Biogen Idec Inc (BIIB.O) and Covidien COV.N.
Many of the lobbyists’ agendas are topped by concerns over fixing the U.S. budget deficit and the complex tax code, similar to the concerns of many Americans.
But K Street power players also worry about a “sequester,” automatic across-the-board cuts in federal programs that will take effect in 2013 unless lawmakers negotiate an alternative.
For a factbox on lobbying donations, see <ID:L2E8E8EGL>
Additional reporting by David Ingram and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by David Lindsey and Stacey Joyce