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'Uncharted Waters': DC Lobbyists Panic Over Possibility of Sanders Win

"Senator Sanders is breaking the mold in presidential politics with every gain he makes in the primary process."

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to the media after the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to the media after the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami. (Photo: Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

Federal government lobbyists told The Hill Friday that they are increasingly concerned that a Bernie Sanders presidency could be "uncharted waters" for their clients given the Vermont senator's history of antipathy toward big business and the role of corporate power in U.S. politics. 

"In our lifetime we have not had a [presidential candidate] so openly hostile towards corporations," said lobbyist Kevin O'Neill, a partner with D.C. firm Arnold & Porter. 

Sanders, the frontrunner for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, regularly rails against big business and American capitalism on the campaign trail. The candidate has suggested raising taxes on corporations and instituting a wealth tax to pay for large public service plans like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. 

"That's the whole crux of his message," Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck lobbyist Al Mottur told The Hill. "Washington is rigged and it's rigged in part from the wealthy and the powerful. You would expect businesses to have concerns with him."

The senator also plans to change how K Street, Washington shorthand for the city's massive federal lobbying infrastructure, does business.

According to The Hill:

Sanders has vowed to shake up how the influence world does business, with proposals to ban donations from federal lobbyists and corporations and to prohibit the corporate funding of party conventions.

Lobbyists panned those ideas, but they could gain new momentum with Sanders as the Democratic party's standard bearer in 2020.

In a memo (pdf) to clients on Sanders' rise in the polls, lobbying firm Monument Advocacy warns that the senator's fundraising model, volunteer army, and popular national surrogates were a potent weapon against corporate interests. 

"Senator Sanders is breaking the mold in presidential politics with every gain he makes in the primary process," the memo explains. "And, like another unconventional candidate who today sits in the Oval Office, you can throw out the typical playbook for what American businesses should expect over the coming months or more."

At least one strategist, an unnamed Republican lobbyist, felt the Bern—if only because a Sanders presidency would be good for business.

"You also have to remember that a Sanders presidency could simultaneously be terrible for corporate America and great for K Street," said the lobbyist. "Nothing drives our business like being on defensive 24/7."

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