Congress

Checks and Balance: This summer's conventions may be a bit unconventional

Some lobbyists aren’t entirely convinced the show is worth the investment

The Clintons and Kaines gather on stage as balloons drop at the end of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS | The quadrennial political conventions, where the party faithful publicly coalesce in cheerleading for their respective White House picks, play a lesser-known role — as sleep-away camp for K Street.

Away from the convention’s main stage, K Streeters are booking concert halls, hotel ballrooms and chic restaurants in the host cities for brunches, receptions and late-night, booze-infused concerts to fete their favorite politicians and bring them together with the corporate clients they represent.

That tradition will carry on this summer with the Democrats in Milwaukee and the GOP in Charlotte, N.C. But as lobbyists and executives mull their presence at the conventions, some aren’t entirely convinced the show is worth the investment, sometimes into the six figures.

An anti-corporate, anti-lobbyist vibe is strong among the Democratic presidential contenders; even Joe Biden, whose son Hunter was once a registered lobbyist, has sworn off contributions from the denizens of K Street. And, on the Republican side, President Donald Trump cuts a controversial figure, worrying some companies about tying their brands to the incumbent’s most divisive policies, such as immigration.

“In the current environment, companies are particularly cautious about alienating employees and customers by sounding like they are closely aligned with either party,” says Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council.

Many of the most engaged companies in Washington remain mum about what plans, if any, they may have in the works. “We do not have anything planned as of now,” Amazon spokeswoman Jodi Seth said in an email.

Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, says similarly: “We don’t have any comment to offer at this stage about what the plans are.”

Banking industry titans, such as Charlotte-based Bank of America, may take a public profile at the Republican convention. The nation’s biggest companies often give millions of dollars to the convention host committees.

But even some organizations that say they’re not shying away from politics do plan to pull back from conventioneering in 2020.

Take the Credit Union National Association, for one. The group’s political coffers are hitting record numbers this election cycle, raising $2.8 million so far.

“Credit union members and employees and executives and volunteers are just becoming more politically engaged,” says the group’s Trey Hawkins, who runs the political action committee. “As an association we’re pushing harder on engaging people in advocacy.”

So it might make sense for CUNA to make a splashy appearance at both conventions. But it won’t.

“We’ve engaged to a great degree in past cycles, but we’ve decided to have a lesser presence,” Hawkins says, noting the change wasn’t related to any concerns about political controversies and was, instead, a matter of priorities.

Though many lobbyists expect to parachute in to Milwaukee or Charlotte, and maybe even both, for a specific shindig, many say the interest they’re gauging from their colleagues and clients isn’t what it has been in the past.

“It’s not business as usual,” says Jeff Forbes, a Democratic lobbyist who runs Forbes Tate Partners. “People are definitely questioning the value they get” from hosting convention events and doing sponsorships.

Still, the parties will go on.

After all, despite the perils of politics and eye-popping sums to hold events, much of K Street will be loath to miss out on opportunities to mingle over policy with the targets of their influence campaigns.

Magnum Entertainment Group Inc. — a venture of lobbyist Jeffrey Kimbell of Jeffrey J. Kimbell & Associates Inc. and John Green of Crossroads Strategies — will put on three evenings of live music events in Charlotte, as it has done at GOP conventions since 2004.

Kimbell says he’s seen “zero” change this cycle when compared with two decades of organizing inaugural and convention events.

“Virtually every elected lawmaker in both parties goes to the conventions and in some cases are actually delegates themselves,” he says. “So, if you want to discuss policy at the state or federal level, you must be there.”

Lobbyist Stewart Verdery, who runs Monument Advocacy, agrees that the conventions still matter, but says they’ve lost some luster.

“It’s kind of like something that used to be a big deal that faded,” he says. “You know, like September sweeps. Remember those?”

If you don’t recall the television networks’ major push to get viewers during regular fall audience estimates, then maybe he’s made his point.

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