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K Street and Tea Party again fight for soul of GOP

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Big business and the Tea Party are at swords' points once again, with GOP Senate primaries for the second straight election becoming proxy battles in the war over the soul of the Republican Party.

Conservative insurgents pose serious threats this year to establishment Republicans in at least three open-seat Senate races. In every case, political action committees and lobbyists have hugely favored the establishment pick with contributions. One reason: The GOP establishment rallies industry donors behind the Republican seen as stronger in November. A deeper reason: The revolving-door clique of K Street and Capitol Hill operatives needs Republicans elected to upper chamber who are likely to play ball.

"We don't need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples," former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said last election cycle. "As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them." Lott is now a millionaire corporate lobbyist whose clients include bailout beneficiaries like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, subsidy sucklers like General Electric and for-profit colleges and government contractors like Raytheon. He likes Republicans who don't take their limited-government talk so darn seriously -- team players who won't rock the boat, in part because they are eying K Street jobs after retirement.

Where does South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint fit in? His Senate Conservatives Fund in 2010 helped insurgent conservatives beat establishment Republicans in Florida, Kentucky, Nevada, Colorado and Pennsylvania. Also bringing money to the Tea Party wing is the Club for Growth, which figured in all those races and also helped overthrow notorious Utah porker Sen. Bob Bennett in favor of conservative stalwart Mike Lee. Lee, Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul aren't exactly "disciples" of DeMint, but they are decidedly not the products of K Street.

Trent Lott vs. Jim DeMint. K Street vs. the Tea Party. The Chamber of Commerce vs. the Club for Growth. The battle lines are the same this year.

Tommy Thompson, former Wisconsin governor and Health and Human Services secretary, is the establishment pick for the open Senate seat in the Badger State. Former Rep. Mark Neumann -- who was kicked off the House Appropriations Committee back in the 1990s for daring to vote against a GOP appropriations bill -- is the insurgent, supported by outside expenditures from the Club for Growth and DeMint's SCF.

Neumann's campaign has received exactly one PAC contribution this cycle: $2,500 from the Family Research Council PAC. Thompson has 16 times as much in PAC money, including $5,000 of in-kind contributions from lobbying firm BGR. That money covered catering for the November 3 fundraiser the lobbying firm hosted for Thompson. Around that date, Thompson pocketed checks from lobbyists Charlie Black (whose firm's clients include Chrysler and Google), Wayne Berman (whose clients include Pfizer and Kaplan), and many other senior GOP lobbyists.

Thompson's donor lists are replete with medical and biotech lobbyists and PACs such as the Biotech Industry Organization, Eli Lilly, and Novartis. Thompson is right at home with those K Street lobbyists and medical-sector companies. After leaving HHS, he cashed out to K Street lobbying giant Akin Gump, where he focused on health care. Although Thompson never fully endorsed Obamacare, he did issue a statement praising the Senate Finance Committee bill, which formed the template for the final bill that benefitted the drug and biotech industries.

In Texas, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has raised $364,310 from PACs, according to his latest filing -- more than five times the PAC haul by conservative insurgent Ted Cruz. Dewhurst donors include lobbying firms like K&L Gates and Greenberg Traurig, government contractors like Halliburton, Obamacare supporters like Pfizer, cap-and-trade supporters like Chesapeake Energy and bailout beneficiaries like Citigroup.

In Nebraska, the GOP establishment, K Street, and business PACs are backing Attorney General Jon Bruning, while DeMint and the Club for Growth are behind State Treasurer Don Stenberg. Bruning leads Stenberg in PAC donations $221,000 to $26,000 -- more than 8-to-1. Bruning's PAC backers include Citigroup, Pfizer, ethanol giant POET, K St. lobbying firm McGuireWoods, and tobacco-regulation champion Altria.

FreedomWorks, a free-market group led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, is another prominent player on the Tea Party side, with independent expenditures backing Cruz and Stenberg.

Much of the Left and the media may see no difference between libertarians and Tea Partiers on one hand, and K Street and the business lobby on the other. But the revolving-door players know the difference, and they're willing to spend big to put their people in power.

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CORRECTION: Originally this article wrongly described BGR as "Lott's lobbying firm." That would be Patton Boggs.

Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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