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Most people haven’t even started organizing the 2008 election office pool. After all, the Iowa caucuses are barely over, New Hampshire doesn’t vote until Tuesday, and the general election is still a good 10 months and scores of primaries away. Still, K Street is already betting big on the results. Lobbyists, the savviest political insiders in the country, are laying strong odds on Democrats tightening their grip on Congress, if not also moving into the White House — predictions backed by a wave of Republican retirements in competitive congressional districts and President George W. Bush’s low poll numbers. The 2008 election forecast is a major factor fueling the recent rush of Democratic hiring and the growing trendiness of bipartisanship, a buzzword now as pervasive here as a Louis Vuitton logo on Fifth Avenue. K Street Republicans are still rooting for a GOP victory, and many are forking over campaign donations to the Republican side of the aisle. The chairman of BGR Holding (formerly Barbour, Griffith & Rogers), for instance, donated $2,300 to Republican presidential candidates John McCain and Rudy Giuliani last year. But they’re also bowing to business imperatives. Republican-dominated firms such as Ogilvy Government Relations, the Livingston Group, and BGR — which changed its name last month, playing down its Republican ties — are hiring Democrats and committing to bipartisanship. Of course, plenty of firms — including the biggest moneymakers on K Street — are already bipartisan and have been for years. And with fierce competition for both clients and Democratic talent, it’s worth asking whether there’s room for everyone in the middle. TIME FOR A CHANGE Early in 2006, lobbyists at the Federalist Group decided it was time for a drastic change. Republicans still ruled Capitol Hill, and many political pundits thought the party would retain control of at least one house of Congress. But the Democrats were beginning to surge, and the Federalist Group decided to hire its first Democrat. A year later, the firm took the name of its parent company, Ogilvy — and it kept on hiring. “We made a decision early on that in order to continue to grow as a firm, we needed to continue to become bipartisan in order to add more value to our clients,” says Ogilvy managing partner Drew Maloney. The move seems to have boosted business. The renamed firm climbed two spots on Legal Times‘ Influence 50 list of the highest-grossing lobbying firms, going from No. 24 (with a $13.8 million gross) in 2005 to No. 22 (with a $15.1 million gross) in 2006, an increase of more than 9 percent. And Ogilvy is still hiring Democrats: The firm recently brought Dean Aguillen, a former senior adviser and director of member services for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), on board as a senior vice president. Ogilvy seems to have set off a bipartisan craze, and most firm leaders announcing a decision to go bipartisan echo Maloney: The single-party strategy limits potential growth, and much of the time, it’s just a political fig leaf, anyway. Firms routinely partner with each other. As Barbour, Griffith, BGR frequently worked with Democratic-leaning firms such as the Glover Park Group, and firm leaders say going bipartisan will allow them to keep more of that business in-house. Livingston last year announced a high-profile partnership with the Democratic-leaning Podesta Group under the name PLM Group, a new venture meant to use the staff of both lobby shops in a bid to land high-dollar clients. Last year the PLM Group signed a contract to represent Egypt for $1.1 million a year, and Egyptian Embassy officials stressed that they had limited their search to bipartisan lobbying teams. BGR Chief Operating Officer Loren Monroe says the firm doesn’t set strategies based on which party is likely to win an upcoming election. Still, he says, the firm needs a bipartisan team in order to work toward legislative accomplishments instead of relying on legislative gridlock. Defensive tactics — such as leveraging the closely divided Senate to block unfavorable legislation — don’t help everyone. “Democrats matter,” Monroe says. “Whether they win the White House, or even if Republicans regain the Senate, you need to have a bipartisan team if you want to get something done legislatively,” especially for clients who have what Monroe describes as “affirmative goals.” In other words, obstructionism isn’t enough anymore — especially if the 2008 elections are as decisively Democratic as many observers expect them to be. Even Monroe — a former aide to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) — says that if electoral trends hold this year, Democrats are due to win at least the White House. Domenici, by the way, is retiring — he is one of six Senate Republicans who have announced they are stepping down. Twenty House Republicans have announced they will either retire or run for a different office. Democrats have vulnerable freshmen to defend but raised far more money than Republicans last year. THE BIG TENT Of course, some firms — especially large law firms — have always boasted a big tent. Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Patton Boggs, which topped the Influence 50 list last year, both offer clients established brands, prominent names, lots of manpower, and a deep bipartisan bench. Despite the growing number of bipartisan firms competing for clients, both firms say they don’t plan to radically change the way they position themselves in the marketplace, and they both already boast a roster of prominent Democrats. That’s a key advantage: Demand for Democrats has surged on K Street, and many firms say there’s a shortage of good candidates because political aides are reluctant to leave the Hill now that they’re in the majority. “We have been decidedly bipartisan for a long time,” says Stuart Pape, the managing partner of Patton Boggs. “The trend that you’re observing is among folks that have not been, and are now deciding that they don’t have a choice. .�.�. I think the Republican shops are betting that for sure the Democrats will control the Congress and might, in all likelihood, [win] the White House, and then not being bipartisan has a price associated with it. “ Joel Jankowsky, the head of Akin Gump’s public policy practice, says the firm’s employees often get recruited by other firms and companies, and Democrats are particularly hot right now. Still, he says, “our job is to make Akin Gump a good place to work so they spurn those advances.” The firm continues to hire good candidates regardless of politics, he says, because the staff is already politically balanced. “We certainly haven’t been that sensitive to going back and forth,” he says.
Carrie Levine can be contacted at [email protected].

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