Fearing Trump’s wrath, GOP lobbyists stay on the ’24 primary sidelines

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Republican lobbyists on K Street aren’t rushing to back Donald Trump in his third run for the White House.

But they’re not rallying in full force behind an alternative either. While some lobbyists are doling out cash, others are fearful that any type of public opposition to the former president could make them persona non grata in D.C. should he get back to the White House.

Interviews with nine Republican lobbyists reveal a corner of K Street largely paralyzed during the early GOP primary. GOP influence peddlers, who can help shepherd substantial financial resources behind a campaign, are concerned about the down-ballot effects of having Trump at the top of the ticket. But they are intentionally not getting behind the various candidates, some citing the Trump team’s predilection for revenge on those deemed disloyal or the potential cost on their access should they back alternative candidates.

“Why would I cut my nose off to spite my face?” said one Republican lobbyist, who spoke freely only on the condition they not be named. The lobbyist privately supports South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott but hasn’t donated to his campaign, according to FEC filings. “Other lobbyists may have more morals and principles, and good for them, but I get my calls returned faster.”

The quandary facing GOP lobbyists reflects one facing other Republican operatives writ large. Trump is a uniquely polarizing figure who often uses threats of retribution to sort his enemies from his supporters. Officials not affiliated with his campaign face the prospect of losing out on business should he emerge with the nomination. Already, during this primary, his campaign has threatened to work against Republican firms who use his image and likeness without his consent.

For K Street, there’s a potential payday for staying out of the fray. Those who did so in 2016 saw their businesses boom when Trump scored an upset victory and assumed the presidency. The Republican lobbyist now supporting Scott said their calls were returned regularly throughout Trump’s four years in office.

With Trump now the frontrunner, the fear is that such access could come to a halt if they back a competitor’s campaign. And so, while historically more of K Street is engaged at this point in the primary, operatives there are keeping their powder dry.

“Usually, there’s a team of lobbyists behind [a candidate],” said another GOP lobbyist, who sought anonymity to talk openly about the discussions. “You go back to 2015, 2016. There was the [Marco] Rubio crowd. There was the [Jeb] Bush crowd. … it was popular to get in and see your name, etcetera. Now that’s not the case because everybody thinks it’s still gonna be Trump.”

In the 2016 cycle, lobbyist David Tamasi was able to ingratiate himself with Trump’s camp despite originally supporting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who he is supporting again — in the primary. When asked if a move like that would be possible now, Tamasi responded, “Who knows?”

Tamasi, who stopped supporting Trump after Jan. 6, said there was risk of professional blowback for lobbyists with corporate clients who chose to support the former president this cycle.

“Everybody’s got to manage their own risk,” he said. “They don’t want to be in a situation where they got exposure with clients because they ended up on the wrong side of the card.”

There are some lobbyists who are still giving to the non-Trump 2024 candidates, including Scott and Ron DeSantis. But there has been notable heat placed on some individuals for doing so. For example, one lobbyist who aligned himself with DeSantis was hounded by Trump allies for being part of a fundraiser for the Florida governor. Critics online highlighted his clients, including the pharmaceutical company Moderna.

One Trump administration official turned lobbyist said clients recognize there is downside to having their lobbyist too closely associated with a candidate. The goal is to stay out of the fray, this person said, who, like other lobbyists interviewed for this story, spoke under the condition of anonymity. Fundraising for Trump was a “ballsy move,” one that clients would not look favorably upon, the person also noted.

Trump has never enjoyed strong relations with the establishment Republican class. Though relations improved during the course of his presidency, the insurrection on Jan. 6 left many eager for a new GOP leader to emerge. DeSantis was widely viewed as K Street’s best alternative, owing to his ties to Washington, where he once served in Congress, and his perceived viability in a primary. Scott, similarly, has been a strong fundraiser in the past. And another lobbyist pointed out that supporting him had a benefit: relationship building with a sitting U.S. senator.

But Trump’s early dominance in the primary has changed the calculus for some on K Street. For them, the new thinking is to wait for him to formally secure the party’s nomination. As another Republican lobbyist put it: You’re only one check away from getting as close to Trump as ever.

“Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part,” the lobbyist added.