The Republican divide: K Street vs. Tea Partiers

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Bob Dole, once the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, parlayed his political clout into personal wealth, and now he’s putting that wealth to work against a conservative Republican Senate candidate in a general election. Dole, now a lobbyist at Alston Bird, contributed $1,000 on Aug. 11 to the independent Senate campaign of Charlie Crist, who left the GOP in April.

Dole’s may be an extreme case — because he’s actually backing a non-Republican — but it epitomizes the fundamental split within the Republican Party.

The current GOP fault line is not exactly conservatives vs. moderates or new guard vs. old guard. For 2010, the rivalry is the Tea Party wing against the K Street wing. To tell which kind of Republican a candidate is, see how the Democrats attack him: If
he’s branded a shill for Wall Street, he’s from the K Street wing. If he’s labeled an extremist outside the mainstream, he’s a Tea Partier.

More tellingly, study their campaign contributions. K Street Republicans’ coffers are filled by the political action committees of defense contractors, drug companies, lobbying firms, and Wall Street banks. A Tea Party Republican is funded by the Club for Growth or the Senate Conservatives Fund, which is run by the Republican leadership’s least-favorite colleague, Jim DeMint.

In Colorado’s Senate primary last week, the Tea Party trumped K Street as Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck upset former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton. Norton, herself a former lobbyist who tried to run from that background, raised $293,000 from PACs. Buck got only $2,500 in PAC cash.

Buck got zero support from Republican lawmakers’ PACs while 15 GOP incumbents funded Norton, including leaders Mitch McConnell, Lamar Alexander, John Thune and Kay Bailey Hutchison. Two senators who have cashed out to K Street — Mel Martinez and Trent Lott — also put their money behind Norton.

Kentucky shows an even starker contrast. Before the May 18 Senate primary, secretary of state and McConnell acolyte Trey Grayson had raised a half million dollars from PACs —20 times the PAC haul of upstart Rand Paul. Paul got a check from outgoing curmudgeon Sen. Jim Bunning, but 18 Republican senators bankrolled Grayson’s campaign, plus the Republican Mainstreet Partnership and three top House Republicans.

Grayson pocketed political action committee cash from businesses that have sided more with Obama than with Republicans, such as $10,000 from drug maker Pfizer — a key champion of Obamacare. Other Grayson funders are a rogues’ gallery of subsidy sucklers and regulatory robber barons: bailout bandits like the American Bankers Association and the Managed Funds Association; Obamacare backers like the American Hospital Association and a dozen drug companies; ethanol baron Archer Daniels Midland; cap-and-trade profiteers like Duke Energy; and government contractors like the Chubb Corp. and Northrop Grumman.

A K Street lobbyist who had represented AIG during the bailouts hosted a fundraiser for Grayson, and at least a dozen lobbying firms and industry groups backed him with cash. And of course, Trent Lott was a Grayson donor.

Lott is the captain of the K Street team. He told a reporter last month his thoughts on the Tea Partiers: “We don’t need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples. As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.”

Lott’s proposed co-opting is not primarily ideological — Norton and Grayson, and their inside-the-Beltway patrons are all fairly conservative. The main distinction between Team Lott and Team DeMint might have less to do with policy platforms and more to do with a politician’s attitude toward the Washington nexus of power and money. Nevada’s Sharron Angle is anti-bailout and anti-subsidy. Paul could try to shrink defense spending and ethanol subsidies. In Florida, Republican Marco Rubio isn’t a game player like Dole’s buddy Crist is.

To the K Street wing, the Tea Party types are like the guy who’s playing too hard in a co-ed softball game — he’s sliding headfirst and barking orders at the cutoff man while you’re trying to chum it up with the boys and then maybe go home with the other team’s cute second baseman after the game.

You can see today, by their improved personal financial situations, what Lott and Dole were trying to accomplish in Washington. You can also guess which current Republicans will join them on K Street in a few years — and play ball with them in the meantime.

But Tea Partiers and DeMint disciples will come to Washington with an aversion to K Street. Now that Lott and Dole have sided so clearly against them, maybe K Street will have a harder time trying to co-opt them.

Timothy P. Carney, senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com.
His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts are on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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