Republicans in Eastern North Carolina face an interesting choice May 6. Should they keep their erratic ten-term Congressman Walter Jones? Or should they dump him for K Street lobbyist Taylor Griffin, who is backed by Sarah Palin?
Griffin is the underdog in Tuesday’s primary, but he has some wind in his sails thanks to Jones’ ever-shifting, hard-to-explain positions — and also thanks to serious support from K Street.
Cash from lobbyists makes up less than 3 percent of all donations to House and Senate races this year, judging by data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Incumbents rake in more than 90 percent of that money.
So it’s jaw-dropping that nearly 20 percent of Griffin’s individual donations come from K Street, by my count.
Looking through Griffin's campaign finance filings, I flagged donors who identify as lobbyists, who are registered lobbyists or who work in Washington as communications or policy consultants for corporations. These donors accounted for more than $45,000 of Griffin’s nearly $238,000 in individual donations as of mid-April.
Legendary GOP lobbying firm BGR Group (formerly Barbour, Griffith, and Rogers) donated $2,000. Patrick Raffaniello, founder of the Raffaniello & Associates lobbying firm (with the enviable web address, lobbydc.com), is a Griffin donor, as is K Street titan Wayne Berman.
Griffin himself comes from K Street. As his website tells it, after serving in George W. Bush's administration, "Taylor took his entrepreneurial spirit and skills to the private sector, founding a leading public policy consulting firm, quickly growing it to a business that included over 20 employees on its payroll."
The firm, Hamilton Place Strategies, is mostly not a lobbying firm. The exception: For three months in 2010, Griffin and his colleague Tony Fratto registered as lobbyists on behalf of a Dubai-based jet fuel company facing a congressional investigation. Predominantly, though, HPS provides strategy and public relations for businesses. Fratto, for instance, has taken the lead in defending the big Wall Street banks from the charge that their size and success come from an implicit government backstop.
The simplest explanation for Griffin's huge K Street haul is his pedigree in the Bush White House and Treasury Department. These offices naturally fed into K Street. The lobbyists and consultants on Griffin's donor lists are his former colleagues and buddies.
K Street and the GOP establishment often array themselves against candidates who are too libertarian for their liking. Rep. Justin Amash, for instance, has attracted a K Street challenger. In recent open seat races, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul encountered opposition backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars from Big Business.
But the Griffin-Jones race is different. Jones has incurred the ire of the business lobby not by being too free market, but by being too liberal. Jones voted for the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill and opposed Paul Ryan's budgets. Jones gets a C+ from the National Taxpayers Union, and his lifetime Club for Growth score of 56 percent puts him lower than 202 of his House Republican colleagues. His score is closer to Alan Grayson than to Justin Amash.
Jones is no anti-cronyism crusader: He supports indefensible sugar subsidies while pocketing big checks from the sugar industry.
A telling comparison: The Club for Growth and the Koch Industries PAC are backing Amash, while the Club is staying out of the Jones race, and the Koch PAC gave $5,000 to Griffin on April 21.
Another difference between Griffin and the standard K Street candidate: Sarah Palin and some local Tea Party groups back Griffin.
“People are against [Jones] for a variety of reasons,” Griffin donor and GOP operative Michael Goldfarb tells me, “but mostly for his crackpot foreign policy.” Goldfarb’s PAC, Emergency Committee for Israel, spent more than $165,000 in ads supporting Griffin and attacking Jones.
Again, like Amash and Paul, Jones opposes the surveillance state and bellicose foreign policy of the GOP establishment. But Paul and Amash can give a coherent accounting of their positions. Jones's national security views often come across as inchoate anger boiling over from an overheated pot of disjointed opinions.
It was Jones, in 2003, who led the charge to rename French fries as “Freedom Fries” because of France's reticence about the Iraq War. When Jones realized the war was a mistake, he did more than just change his mind: He supported the impeachment of President Bush and began cavorting with conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones.
This gets at Walter Jones’ deepest flaw. "He's erratic and ineffective," said Marc Rotterman, a longtime GOP operative in North Carolina who counted Jones as a client for over a decade.
But Jones is the incumbent, and he has a cash advantage. Griffin hasn't tapped his K Street connections as much as he could have, and Jones has pulled in $160,000 in PAC money. So it comes down to K Street, the Tea Party and Sarah Palin against the power of incumbency.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Sunday and Wednesday on washingtonexaminer.com.