Republican voters around Peoria, Illinois, get a choice this weekend between a candidate sent from K Street and the Republican establishment, and a candidate who hails from the conservative movement.
In the special election to replace former Rep. Aaron Schock, the state and national Republican establishment has chosen Darin LaHood, son of former Rep. Ray LaHood, who also served as President Obama's transportation secretary. LaHood's conservative opponent is Mike Flynn, formerly of the libertarian Reason Foundation and the bomb-throwing Breitbart.com news website.
The seat is in a safe Republican district, meaning the GOP primary is nearly the general election.
It's another battle pitting the K Street wing of the GOP against the Tea Party wing. LaHood's past and his donor list show his close ties with the Beltway lobbyist class.
LaHood first came to office when he was appointed to a vacant State Senate seat a few years ago. In 2011, running for his first full term in the State Senate, LaHood came to Washington for a fundraiser. The fundraiser was hosted by Democratic lobbyist Bernie Robinson, the former chief of staff to liberal Democrat James McGovern of Massachusetts.
Why would a chief of staff for a Massachusetts Democrat throw a fundraiser for a Republican state senate candidate? "Darin is my friend," Robinson said at the time. LaHood had worked in D.C. for years, as a congressional staffer and at the Justice Department. Robinson also has Illinois GOP ties, having been the state's lobbyist in Washington for two years when Republican George Ryan was governor.
Oh, and also Robinson was a transportation lobbyist who was lobbying the U.S. Department of Transportation, at that point run by LaHood's father.
Robinson is a partner at the Livingston Group lobbying firm. Among his practice areas, according to his bio on the firm's website, is "Transportation, Shipbuilding, Shipping and Ports."
Robinson's firm "made at least $280,000 in the first quarter of this year from transportation and construction interests that could be impacted by decisions from the Department of Transportation," the Center for Public Integrity reported around the time of the fundraiser. Robinson himself represented two clients on transportation issues, according to lobbying disclosure forms. Robinson, the forms indicate, lobbied DOT to win federal funding for clients.
This proximity to K Street and big business is the norm for LaHood.
Comb through LaHood's PAC donors, and you see plenty of transportation PACs: Warren Buffett's BNSF railroad contributed the maximum $5,000 as did Caterpillar. The Union Pacific Corporation's PAC gave $2,500.
Among LaHood's other PAC contributions are the ethanol champion, the Corn Growers Association, and politically connected energy giant Exelon, a leading advocate of carbon dioxide taxes and green-energy mandates. The Florida Sugar Cane League, which exists to lobby for special-interest sugar subsidies that increase the price U.S. consumers pay, is a LaHood donor.
LaHood says he would vote against crony capitalism, including the Export-Import Bank, but his FEC filings suggest his donors don't believe that. The PACs for Boeing, Caterpillar, John Deere — all top Ex-Im beneficiaries — are all LaHood donors. Sean Mulvaney, who sits on the board of Ex-Im, also donated to LaHood.
K Street is coming out in droves for LaHood. Lobbyist Robinson has donated to LaHood again. Eight lobbyists from the Podesta Group — founded by Obama chief of staff John Podesta and run by John's brother Tony — have donated to LaHood. LaHood has raised money from lobbyists at K Street giants like DLA Piper, BGR Group, Cassidy & Associates, Holland & Knight and Hogan Lovells.
And of course, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed LaHood.
The Tea Party-K Street split isn't necessarily ideological. LaHood has a fairly conservative record. His defense of gun rights has earned him the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. LaHood describes himself as more conservative than his father, who was an outspoken and well-known moderate in Congress.
But in Washington, the circles you run in are often a better predictor of future performance than your stated ideology, or even your past voting record. If you hang out with lobbyists and former Republican members, and if your friends spend their days at DLA Piper and the Podesta Group, the conventional wisdom you pick up will be different than if your friends are GOP dissidents and grass-roots agitators.
Specifically, when issues of corporate welfare and government spending arise, if you see K Streeters and big business as "our guys," you will be dragged to the Left.
You can predict what sort of congressman Darin LaHood would become, not necessarily by looking at his father's record, but by looking at his friends' occupations.