When U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, needed help fortifying his campaign war chest against a pesky and potentially dangerous tea party challenger, a small army of lobbyists volunteered.
Government influencers representing Goldman Sachs, Koch Industries and Lockheed Martin ranked among the “bundlers” who helped fill Cornyn’s coffers with nearly $1.1 million during 2013 and early 2014 — about $1 out of every $9 Cornyn raised — according to a Center for Public Integrity review of federal campaign finance filings.
No other politician raised a larger sum from lobbyist-bundlers. And only Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who collected about $357,000 during the same period, raised a similar percentage from K Street-connected fundraisers, according to the analysis.
Cornyn ultimately bulldozed Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, and several lesser-known challengers in a March 4 intra-party battle.
But despite his stature as the GOP’s second-highest ranking senator, Cornyn’s electoral success wasn’t initially guaranteed.
A June 2013 poll sponsored by the University of Texas and Texas Tribune, for example, found that only 54 percent of Republicans viewed Cornyn favorably. In October 2013, Roll Call named him among the seven GOP senators “most vulnerable to a primary.” And after a November 2013 poll, Public Policy Polling warned that Cornyn was in “grave danger of losing a primary next year if a serious campaign is run against him.”
Lobbyists’ previously unreported role in Cornyn’s campaign helped the incumbent avoid, in his own words, a “fair fight.”
Big bundles from Koch Industries, Goldman Sachs
Elite political fundraisers credited by campaigns for raising money from relatives, friends or business associates are known as “bundlers.” Registered lobbyists who bundle campaign contributions above a convoluted financial threshold are required by law to be identified in reports to the Federal Election Commission. The actual donors who compose each bundle, however, need not be revealed.
Critics contend that bundlers have undue influence over politicians by gaining access through fundraising activity.
In 2007, Congress itself required lobbyist-bundlers to disclose their activity following the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal. Nevertheless, many political leaders in both parties have long benefited from torrents of campaign cash steered their way by lobbyists.
None have received more assistance this election cycle than Cornyn.
Between January 2013, and March 2014, the Cornyn campaign disclosed 21 bundlers who collectively raised about $1.1 million.
Nearly all declined to comment or did not respond to interview requests.
Sen. John Cornyn’s lobbyist-bundlers
Topping the list was William “Kirk” Blalock, a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock.
Blalock, who previously served as President George W. Bush’s “lead staff liaison to the U.S. business community” according to his online biography, raised $153,500 for Cornyn, records show. He also personally donated the legal maximum of $5,200 to Cornyn’s campaign.
Blalock lobbies for dozens of clients, including major companies such as Apple, BP, Coca-Cola, Ford and JPMorgan Chase, as well as trade associations such as the Business Roundtable and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, according to federal records.
Brian Henneberry, a lobbyist for energy conglomerate Koch Industries, ranked as Cornyn’s second-most-prolific lobbyist-bundler, bringing in about $109,000.
Through subsidiaries and associated companies, Koch Industries — which is ranked by Forbes as the nation’s second-largest private company — operates a host of businesses in Texas, including oil refineries, chemical plants, pipelines, a natural gas-fueled electric power plant and a cattle ranch.
Billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, who have pumped millions of dollars into conservative political causes, are the principal owners of the corporation.
No other lobbyists were credited with personally bundling more than $100,000 — although a few came close.
They include Goldman Sachs lobbyist Joe Wall ($98,000), Lockheed Martin lobbyist Jack Overstreet ($96,200) and National Association of Realtors lobbyist Jamie Gregory ($85,100).
Jenny Werwa, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Realtors, declined to comment beyond saying that the organization backs “candidates who support the value of home ownership and the policies that support that.”
In terms of sales volume, seven of the nation’s Top 100 association members were located in Texas, according to the Realtors’ most recent survey.
Officials with Koch Industries, Goldman Sachs and Lockheed Martin did not respond to requests for comment.
An opportunity ‘to educate’
Airlines for America lobbyist Christine Burgeson was also among the bundlers identified as Cornyn’s campaign, being credited with raising $23,500. She also personally donated $3,100 to Cornyn’s re-election bid.
Burgeson did not respond to requests for comment. But Airlines for America spokeswoman Jean Medina confirmed that the trade group sponsored a fundraising event for Cornyn. She noted that Texas houses the headquarters of two airlines — American and Southwest — and multiple airline hubs.
“We support the re-election of Sen. Cornyn because he understands well the importance of the airline industry to the economy and jobs both in his home state and across the United States,” she said.
Mike Graham, a lobbyist for the American Dental Association, said he doesn’t typically do a lot of fundraising events — but hosting one for Cornyn, whose father was a dentist, was a must.
“The dentists always insist that I be involved in fundraising for the senator so I am,” said Graham, who was credited with raising about $31,400 for the Lone Star State’s senior senator in 2013.
He called hosting a fundraising for Cornyn a “small way” for the American Dental Association to “acknowledge and appreciate” the senator’s understanding of their issues.
“Fundraising gives us an opportunity to educate members of Congress,” Graham continued. “Getting that message across is not always easy.”
‘Gotten in well with lobbyists ‘
Why do corporate lobbyists care for Cornyn so much?
For one, he’s good to their clients.
Cornyn has long cultivated a reputation for pro-business and pro-energy politicking. The conservative Club for Growth, for example, gave him a 93 percent rating on “pro-growth” policies during 2013 — tied for eighth among the Senate’s 100 members.
In Congress, Cornyn co-founded the bipartisan Texas Shale Oil and Gas Caucus, and he has called for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, designed to bring Canadian tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast for refining. His official Senate website calls him “an ardent proponent of maximizing Texas’ and America’s energy resource potential.”
He has also advocated for the repeal of President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, for increasing the nation’s border security and for separating defense spending caps from domestic ones, which would allow Congress to propose larger military budgets.
Cornyn — already powerful in the Senate — could also find himself in line for a promotion if Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., loses this fall to Alison Lundergan Grimes, his well-funded Democratic challenger.
A spokesman for Cornyn did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Andrew Wheat, research director of the left-leaning nonprofit Texans for Public Justice, said he was “not shocked” to see Cornyn collecting so much campaign cash from lobbyists.
“This guy has got a long history of taking money from big business and delivering for big business,” Wheat said.
That opinion was shared by Dave Nalle, a regional director of the Republican Liberty Caucus, a conservative group that calls itself “the conscience of the Republican Party.”
“Cornyn has gotten in well with lobbyists,” he said. “He’s done the things they want.”
$150,000 a week
Cornyn’s Washington workload has also included a rigorous fundraising schedule that offers lobbyists and their clients opportunities to meet with him — for a price.
Since December 2012, when special interest groups — including the political action committees of Koch Industries, Boeing and Amgen — threw Cornyn a “campaign kick-off reception” at the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s headquarters, Cornyn has been fêted at more than a dozen known fundraisers in the nation’s capital, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
Because the Sunlight Foundation’s database is not comprehensive, the actual number is likely larger.
Cornyn raised an average of about $150,000 per week from all sources during the 15 months ahead of his primary, federal records indicate.
His strategy, he recently told the Washington Post, “was the same as Norman Schwarzkopf’s in Desert Storm: overwhelming force. We didn’t want to have a fair fight.”
Meanwhile, David Alameel, Cornyn’s Democratic opponent in November, has already pumped more than $9.3 million of his own money into his Senate bid — and spent nearly the same amount.
As of early May, Alameel reported about $65,000 cash on hand compared to the $3.3 million Cornyn had in the bank as of March 31, the date of his campaign’s most recent FEC filing. Cornyn is a heavy favorite to win a third term this fall.
Kathy Kiely, the Sunlight Foundation’s managing editor, says bundlers provide “a concierge service for politicians in need of campaign cash.”
Her organization’s database shows that multiple breakfast fundraisers were held for Cornyn at posh D.C. spots such as Charlie Palmer Steak, Johnny’s Half Shell and the headquarters of BGR Group, the lobbying firm co-founded by former GOP Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi.
There were also fundraising luncheons at restaurants near the U.S. Capitol such as Art and Soul and Bistro Bis. There was even a “birthday BBQ” for Cornyn at the Texas-themed Hill Country Barbecue Market in downtown Washington, D.C., a venue where all-you-can-eat brisket is de rigueur and Lone Star favorites like Shiner Bock and Tito’s Texas Vodka flow freely.
Tom Susman, a lobbyist for the American Bar Association who is not among Cornyn’s bundlers, argued that lobbyists wouldn’t waste their time bundling “if it wasn’t worth something.”
“There’s a tendency to reward someone who does a favor for you,” he said. “That’s human nature.”
Read more in Money and Democracy
Lackluster Congress, election season drive downturn
Mystery political spending to continue unabated through midterm elections