INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The lobbying office Dan Coats left in February to pursue a return to the U.S. Senate is only about two miles from the Capitol, but the path from the lobbying world back to Congress is rarely traveled.
In 1940, women's suffragist Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress, won back a House seat after 20 years as an advocate for social causes. But of the nearly 12,000 others who have served, none in recent memory has managed to return after leaving to trade on the political connections and expertise they obtained in office.
Coats' career after leaving the Senate in 1999 has become a key issue in his bid to replace Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, who announced his retirement earlier this year. His ability to shed the image of a Washington dealmaker could help determine how far the Republican Party goes toward closing its 59-41 seat deficit in the Senate.
"If you have spent a lot of your professional career lobbying the government and getting paid by a company or a special interest group, you've got to be able to explain to voters if you are going to be colored by that experience," said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks money in politics.
Coats' Democratic opponent, Rep. Brad Ellsworth, has hammered away at Coats' lobbying in an effort to tap into the dark mood among voters about the way Washington works. The issue is giving Indiana voters something else to think about in a campaign year otherwise dominated by the recession, the deficit and health care.
"People are fed up with politicians. He's a politician persona," said Sam Young, a registered Republican who lives in Franklin south of Indianapolis. Young said he won't hold Coats' lobbying against him but sees why others might.
Coats' background also doesn't sit well with supporters of the tea party, which the Indiana Republican Party is counting on for support.
"It bothers me, but I'm voting for him anyhow," said Sharon Grimes, who helped found the St. Joe County Tea Party Patriots, among the groups sharply critical of the Washington establishment. Democrats are hoping the issue will tamp down tea partiers' enthusiasm and participation in the campaign.
Coats says Ellsworth is only trying to distract attention from the real issue, which is federal spending and the Democrats' agenda. "...Defending their programs that have been pushed over the last 18 months is not something that they want to do," Coats told The Associated Press. "Clearly it's a way to change the subject."
Coats has had little presence in Indiana politics since deciding not to defend his seat against Bayh in the 1998 election. He worked as a lobbyist, then as ambassador to Germany under President George W. Bush before joining the high-powered firm of King & Spalding. He helped lead the company's government affairs division and lobbied for pharmaceutical, defense and energy companies, among other firms.
Many members of Congress have turned to K Street to cash in over the years. But the fallout from recent highly publicized lobbying scandals in Washington, including the Jack Abramoff case, has raised the public's awareness of lobbyists' work in obtaining special treatment for those who can pay for it. A 2008 public opinion poll ranked lobbyists below car salesmen and telemarketers for honesty and ethics.
Any hint of lobbying experience on a candidate's resume has been keenly exploited in this election campaign.
In Colorado, opponents are criticizing Republican Senate candidate Jane Norton for overseeing lobbying for a health care company before she became lieutenant governor. In Arizona, Republican Sen. John McCain is running television ads against primary opponent J.D. Hayworth that declare, "Outsider? A lobbyist is as inside Washington as it gets."
The Indiana Democratic Party set up a website — lobbyistdancoats.com — to portray Coats as the friend of well-funded special interests, not average voters. Ellsworth has proposed a lifetime ban on senators becoming lobbyists.
Coats, who earned $600,000 in his final 13 months at King & Spalding, has worked to distance himself from the profession. He said he was not responsible for all the firm's clients, only those he represented. Democrats say the firm's corporate clients — including Bank of America and Citigroup — were Coats' responsibility as head of the government advocacy and public policy division.
Chris Muylle, who typically votes Republican and lives in the Indianapolis suburb of Fishers, said he's more concerned about Coats' years away from the state. Coats' name was last on an Indiana ballot 18 years ago. "A lot's changed in that time," Muylle said.
Other former lobbyists won office after keeping ties with voters. Republican Haley Barbour, who represented tobacco and other clients in Washington, was elected Mississippi governor in 2003 and 2007.
University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis said condemning Coats just for lobbying doesn't make sense. "It's at least one strike against you, but it really isn't fatal if you're in a decent political environment," Loomis said. "Dan Coats isn't Jack Abramoff."
Jackson reported from Washington, D.C.