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Tim Carney: Could South Dakota elect a senator from K Street?

Herseth Sandlin Lecture
Former South Dakota Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin is the front-runner for Democrats to run in a special election to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. (AP Photo/Dirk Lammers)

Democrats' hope for keeping a Senate majority next election may rest on the shoulders of a K Street corporate lobbyist married to another K Street corporate lobbyist.

South Dakota Democrat Stephanie Herseth in mid-2004 won a special election for an open-seat House race. When she came to town, she became involved in a romance with fellow Democratic Rep. Max Sandlin of Texas. In 2004, Sandlin lost re-election. In 2006, Sandlin registered as a lobbyist. Herseth and Sandlin married in 2007, creating an ethically awkward arrangement, especially when Rep. Herseth Sandlin voted for the legislation her husband was being paid to champion.

In 2010, Herseth Sandlin lost re-election. Immediately after leaving Congress, she joined the lobbying firm Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz. Once she cleared the two-year required "cooling-off period," she registered as a lobbyist.

Today, Herseth Sandlin tops the list of Democrats who could run to replace the retiring Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. Liberal firm Public Policy Polling reported "Herseth Sandlin is the strong favorite of Democrats to be their candidate." IT found 68 percent of Democrats wanted her as the nominee and that she polled close behind the Republican front-runner, former Gov. Mike Rounds.

In this light, her history with lobbyists and as a lobbyist ought to be examined.

In May 2010, Herseth Sandlin sponsored the "Advanced Biofuel Investment Act," which would have expanded stimulus grants to include biofuels subsidies.

In January 2012 -- the first month she was eligible to lobby the House -- Herseth Sandlin registered to lobby on biofuels for the California-based Fulcrum BioEnergy Inc. Two months later, Herseth Sandlin registered to lobby on matters of "agricultural biotech" issues behalf of the Maryland-based Council for Biotechnology Information, a trade group representing DuPont, Monsanto, Dow and other biofuel giants.

This subsidize-them-then-work-for-them dynamic shows up elsewhere in Herseth Sandlin's record. As a congresswoman, Herseth Sandlin requested six earmarks for South Dakota State University, totaling $11 million, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2012, SDSU hired her as its lobbyist.

None of this should be understood as a naked quid pro quo. It's natural for a South Dakota Democrat to support biofuel subsidies and earmarks for SDSU. It's also natural for a South Dakota lobbyist with biofuels experience to land South Dakota clients and biofuel clients.

But these arrangements shed a light on the incentives in Congress. And those incentives will be very clear to Herseth Sandlin if she returns to Capitol Hill.

Also complicating things ethically for a would-be Sen. Herseth Sandlin is her husband's job as a corporate lobbyist at the K Street firm Mercury/Clark & Weinstock. His lobbying clients include Alcoa and Air Canada, along with health care and energy companies.

In 2009, at least two of Sandlin's clients -- lighting manufacturer Cree and solar giant NRG Energy -- supported and benefited from green energy subsidies in the stimulus legislation. His wife, then still a congresswoman, eventually voted in favor of the stimulus bill.

Sandlin lobbied for a "New Markets Tax Credit" on behalf of Baptist Health Care, a hospital chain, which benefitted from the measure after it was included in the stimulus bill.

Sandlin also represented the National Association of Broadcasters in 2007 and 2008, according to his firm's lobbying filings, which specify only that he and his colleagues lobbied on "issues relating to the broadcast industry." One of NAB's lobbying causes in those days was supporting the Local Radio Freedom Act. Rep. Herseth Sandlin signed on as a co-sponsor of that bill in March 2007.

"I would call it sleazy," Craig Holman of the liberal clean-government group Public Citizen told Roll Call in 2010. But K Street-Capitol Hill revolving-door marriages are de rigeur among Dakota Democrats, it seems.

While Tom Daschle was a senator from South Dakota, his wife, Linda Hall Daschle, was lobbying for the likes of Boeing, while he proudly supported Boeing subsidies. Daschle, of course, is now a consultant at the lobbying firm DLA Piper.

While Byron Dorgan served as North Dakota's senator, his wife, Kimberly Dorgan, was the top lobbyist at the American Council of Life Insurers. ACLI lobbied to save the inheritance tax, and Byron Dorgan often championed ACLI's side in these fights. Dorgan now heads the Government Relations department of lobbying firm Arent Fox.

Dorgan's longtime Senate colleague, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, married his campaign manager, Lucy Calautti, who then became a lobbyist at BakerHostetler, where she represented the health insurance and financial industries.

Being married to a lobbyist and passing through the revolving door is standard in the Dakotas. Could Herseth Sandlin pass through it again?

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.