By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — This is a Jolly time for corporate power.
Last week, as lawmakers, including most Republicans in Congress, approved a $1.1 trillion spending bill that eased federal spending restraints, voters in Florida gave the clearest sign yet that corporate influence is back in its customary place atop the GOP.
In a Republican primary for a special election to replace the late Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young , there were three candidates on the ballot:
— Mark Bircher, a tea party candidate endorsed by a movement favorite, former representative Allen West.
— State Rep. Kathleen Peters, who billed herself as a mainstream conservative with deep local ties.
— And David Jolly, a corporate lobbyist with a history of giving to Democratic candidates as well as Republicans.
The results, in a light turnout: 24 percent for the tea party candidate, 31 percent for the local pol and 45 percent for the lobbyist. Jolly’s superior fundraising — including hefty chunks from business executives and lobbyists — no doubt had something to do with it.
Jolly’s good showing is a happy event for the influence industry — and Democrats are equally exultant. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has just begun running a TV ad showing a video clip of Jolly in which he says, “I have been a registered lobbyist and I’m proud of the work that I’ve done.”
Federal records show that Jolly, once an aide to Young, built a healthy business as a lobbyist for defense contractors and others seeking a larger piece of the federal pie: corporations, local governments, universities, hospitals, broadcasters and a group that favored expanded oil drilling.
Arguably, corporations never really lost their hold on the Republican Party (and a somewhat looser grip on the Democrats). The wealthy exploited the grass-roots anger of the tea party all along — such as when Glenn Beck, the movement’s de facto leader, urged his followers in 2010 to donate to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But corporate interests were displeased that the brinkmanship practiced by tea party lawmakers sometimes turned out to be bad for business. After the government shutdown in the fall, the chamber announced that it would spend $50 million in the 2014 GOP primaries to help “pro-business” Republicans beat tea party candidates.
Even without business interests putting their dollars behind friendly candidates, the tea party has lost clout because the anger that once fueled the movement is fading. Frustration with government remains high, but The Conference Board, a corporate group that tracks consumer confidence, said in its most recent report that consumer sentiment regarding current economic conditions has reached its highest level since April 2008, before the financial meltdown. The spreading optimism has put into question the tea party’s warnings of an American collapse and attendant exhortations to buy gold and stockpile arms and food.
But now we’ve reached a new milestone in the Republican search for identity: the point where a man proud of his work as a lobbyist trumps a retired Marine general embraced by the tea party. Both Bircher and Peters criticized Jolly’s lobbying work during the primary. A day after her loss, Peters declined to endorse Jolly, saying it would “weigh heavily on the voters, to have a lobbyist who represents special interests to now say that they’re going to represent the people and be able to separate that.” Peters has since endorsed Jolly, but his Democratic opponent in the March election, Alex Sink, is likely to make much the same case.
Over half a dozen years, Jolly, first with the lobbying firm Van Scoyoc and then with his own firm, Three Bridges Advisors, represented several military or homeland security contractors, including Mikros Systems, Finmeccanica and STS International. Among the many entities he represented were BayCare Health System, broadcast groups, biotech concerns and something called The Implementation Group, which says it helps corporations and nonprofits “target, capture and implement federal grants and contracts.”
Somewhat contradictorily, Jolly also represented Free Enterprise Nation, which opposes “unsustainable spending by the government.” This group caused Jolly some trouble in the primary, when a voter at a forum asked the candidate if he had lobbied for oil-drilling interests. Jolly adamantly denied it.
But PolitiFact found a 2011 lobbying disclosure in which Jolly said he worked for Free Enterprise Nation on legislation that would indeed have expanded oil drilling. Jolly then explained that the disclosure he filed was a case of “overcomplying” and that he hadn’t really lobbied for the bill.
Overcomplying, eh? Sounds as if Jolly is overreaching. But his victory shows that, in the Republican Party, corporate influence is again overarching.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.