(Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ)
The surprising primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Tuesday will reverberate through Washington’s lobbying industry, touching business advocates and lobbying shops with close ties to his office.
The scope will become clearer as the dust settles from Cantor’s loss to economics professor Dave Brat in the Republican primary in Virginia’s 7th congressional district, lobbyists and former lawmakers said. The election upset could also change the trajectory of immigration and voter rights reform and cause lobbying shops to reposition and change strategy.
Marc Elias, a partner at Perkins Coie who often represents Democrats, wrote on Twitter: “In 20 years practicing political law, I can’t think of a bigger upset than Cantor losing tonight.”
Cantor’s defeat likely will reduce the prospect of an aggressive Republican legislative agenda and force GOP members to think about the direction they want to take their conference now, said former Rep. Philip English, R-Pa., a co-chairman of Arent Fox’s government-relations practice.
“My sense is that we’re now entering a period of uncertainty,” English said.
Stephen Ryan, partner and head of the government-strategies practice at McDermott Will & Emery, said Cantor’s defeat could mean more gridlock on Capitol Hill. The passage of even routine legislation becomes an even more difficult task, he said. Republicans in the House and Senate must look ever farther to the right to make sure they are not outflanked, Ryan said.
“It leaves every Republican member with ice in their heart,” Ryan said. “I think that makes it harder to legislate.”
Lobbyists pushing for immigration reform might have lost a key ally, and President Barack Obama could face more roadblocks for his domestic agenda. The Wall Street Journal reported that Obama is now even more likely to take executive action to address immigration reform, such as an executive order to curtail deportations.
Cantor was a high-ranking Republican supporter of the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, which would have repaired the Voting Rights Act following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling struck a key antidiscrimination provision, weakening the law, according to critics of the decision.
Cantor said in June: “I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside … and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”
Looking for work
Cantor’s staff includes three lawyers as senior staff: Nicole Gustafson, senior policy adviser and chief legislative counsel; Aaron Cutler, senior adviser for policy and outreach; and Rob Borden, a special oversight director. Gustafson declined to comment.
Ivan Adler, a Washington-based recruiter for The McCormick Group who specializes in working with lobbyists, said law firms and lobbying shops will want to bring on Cantor staffers. He rejected the notion that a Cantor departure from Capitol Hill would dent the value of present or past Cantor staffers, since working in a leadership office means working with many lawmakers.
“It’s really because they know the three P’s—they know policy, they know process and they know people—and that’s why they’re valued,” Adler said. “There are 435 other people that they know who are still there. Today, I don’t think knowing the one member makes a huge difference.”
There’s some evidence that Cantor’s loss could hurt the revenue of lobbying shops that had close ties to him. A 2010 study found that lobbyists with experience in the office of a senator suffer a 24 percent drop in generated revenue when that senator leaves.
Dentons hired Valerie Nelson, Cantor’s former director of member services, in July as a senior managing director in its public policy and regulation practice. Mike McNamara, U.S. managing partner for Dentons, said in a statement at the time that Nelson’s “years working alongside House leadership and other key members of the House will provide Dentons’ clients valuable insights and perspective as they navigate key policy and legislative issues.”
Cantor himself could look for a post at a think tank, seek another job in government or take up lobbying. If he takes a lobbying position, he must wait one full year after his last day in office to begin navigating Capitol Hill. Lobbyists said it’s likely Cantor hasn’t hashed out a postgovernment plan.
“It was an earthquake last night for him,” said former Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., a K&L Gates government-affairs counselor.
The cause of Cantor’s loss is still being reviewed. But it could end up having a chilling effect on business lobbyists. In April, Politico reported that “the central theme of Brat’s campaign is that Cantor is beholden to business—specifically the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable.”
The article quoted Brat from a meeting saying that: “If you’re in big business, Eric’s been very good to you, and he gets a lot of donations because of that, right?”