Unlike John Boehner, he has minimal ties with the influence set. That could make fundraising a challenge.
By ANNA PALMER
09/30/15 05:22 AM EDT
Kevin McCarthy pulled off one of the most historic climbs up the congressional ranks, but as he prepares to ascend to speaker, he lacks the K Street network many of his predecessors have leaned on heavily.
The contrast couldn’t be more different than with outgoing Speaker John Boehner, whose extensive web of connections was coined "Boehnerland." The Ohio Republican, long known for enjoying dinners at favorite Washington restaurants with confidants and playing golf with his K Street cabal, had a stable of lobbyist loyalists who had worked for him, gotten to know him over the years and helped him become a fundraising juggernaut.
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The lack of such a network could prove a liability for McCarthy. He faces the daunting challenge of trying to unify the fractious Republican conference and faces increased pressure to fill the massive fundraising void left by Boehner, who has raised nearly $300 million since 2009.
Downtowners are often indispensable in those respects, helping develop strategy, cutting campaign contributions and providing political cover in Washington and back in congressional districts.
And the lobbying world is feeling a bit anxious as they try to get a handle on what a McCarthy speakership would mean for the agenda this fall. They have some big-ticket items hanging in the balance, including the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank charter and a tax extenders package.
"People want to understand the dynamic in the House going forward and how the impact of John’s resignation is going to make any real change," said Steve Stombres, former chief of staff to then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), now at Harbinger Strategies. "They want to know what should they expect to see. Will it be more gridlock, or is there a way to thread the needle to get some things done."
A McCarthy spokesman declined to comment.
In part, McCarthy’s limited K Street ties are a product of his quick rise in leadership. In his fifth term, McCarthy has risen from House majority deputy whip to house majority leader at an unusually fast clip. Few top McCarthy hands have left for K Street over that time. And instead of spending time on the cocktail circuit schmoozing with old Washington hands, McCarthy has focused his attention much more internally on Capitol Hill.
He is well-known for holding "listening sessions" on legislative issues with members to spread the GOP leadership's strategy and for meeting in small and medium-sized groups to get to know lawmakers better.
McCarthy also spent much of his nearly 10 years in Congress jetting back to California every chance he gets — even for just 12 hours. He does spend a lot of time on the road for the party, but even his closest allies acknowledge that the speakership demands a whole new level of fundraising work. And, that's where the downtown dimension comes in handy — helping set up fundraisers at companies, for instance.
The few former senior McCarthy staffers who have become K Streeters have seen their professional stock rise in the few days since Boehner announced his resignation. The small group includes Stephen Pinkos, his former policy director and general counsel who is now a lobbyist at American Continental Group; Uber’s Brian Worth, who served as his coalitions director; and senior policy advisor Wes McClelland, who recently jumped to the American Insurance Association. Former McCarthy Communications Director Erica Elliott is now at Franklin Square Capitol Partners.
"He’s just very inclusive and he’s very curious," Pinkos said. "He doesn’t bring with him 20 years of being in D.C. He likes to get to know everybody. He’s open to different viewpoints. Clearly he comes from a small business and entrepreneurial start up mentality."
McCarthy has also amassed a small “kitchen cabinet” of lobbyists whom he and his chief of staff Tim Berry and coalitions director Danielle Burr regularly meet with, including Greg Maurer of Facebook; Dan Meyer of the Duberstein Group; Kirsten Chadwick of Fierce Government Relations; Brian Conklin of USAA; Jeff Shapiro of Peck Madigan Jones; and Amy Best of American Express.
McCarthy’s staff also has a natural alliance with former Cantor staff, who worked closely with McCarthy when he served as deputy whip. "Anyone in the former Cantor world is undoubtedly close to that office," said one former GOP leadership aide, noting that the teams worked very closely together.
Despite his smaller footprint, McCarthy is no stranger to working with downtowners when needed. Last year he huddled with roughly 40 lobbyists trying to sell them on changes to Obamacare that would increase a full-time week of work from 30 hours to 40 hours. And the California Republican fancies himself as the GOP's unofficial ambassador to Silicon Valley, regularly shuttling Republican lawmakers to tech company headquarters like Google and Intel.
"He really likes to get to know about what [companies] are all about," Pinkos said. "It helps form his opinion about what’s good for economic growth."