West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has gone a notch above pledging to “drain the swamp” during his Senate campaign. “Let’s not just change Washington; let’s blow it up,” the Republican says in an early TV ad, as he drops a mountain on the Capitol dome.
But Morrisey’s outsider campaign cloaks an insider record: Before he was elected attorney general, Morrisey spent eight years as a Washington lobbyist, representing interests including big pharmaceutical companies — a raw subject in a state hit hard by the opioid crisis. The influence industry has rallied to help Morrisey’s campaign, contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Morrisey’s wife is also a lobbyist, and their work in D.C. has been the subject of unforgiving attacks from both of Morrisey’s opponents in the Republican Senate primary.
“Morrisey got filthy rich in the swamp lobbying for special interests,” the narrator says in one of Rep. Evan Jenkins’ commercials.
Morrisey has weathered the attacks, leading the field or running a close second in recent public polls of the Republican primary to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection this year. The race has attracted national attention as Washington Republicans attempt to derail the candidacy of Don Blankenship, the former coal-mining executive who spent a year in prison for his role in a mine explosion that killed 29 men. But next week’s primary will also test whether GOP voters are willing to send a former lobbyist to Washington, despite President Donald Trump’s vow to curb K Street's influence.
"It's going to be challenging, because the word 'lobbyist' has such negative connotations," said Cam Savage, a Republican operative who helped run Sen. Todd Young's (R-Ind.) successful 2016 campaign against former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, whose work for a Washington law and lobbying firm hindered his campaign.
While Morrisey has tried to deflect attention away from his lobbying past, he has embraced it behind the scenes. Morrisey's campaign raised more than $250,000 from more than 200 current and former registered lobbyists through March 31, according to a POLITICO review of campaign finance records — accounting for nearly 20 percent of his individual donations.
Morrisey has raised even more from corporate and lobbying firm PACs, as well as from people who aren't registered lobbyists but clearly work in Washington's influence industry, such as former Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.), who heads BakerHostetler’s federal policy team but isn’t registered as a lobbyist. Of the $250,000, roughly $167,000 of it comes from lobbyists who are currently registered.
Many of Morrisey's lobbyist contributors work for health care and pharmaceutical interests, which Morrisey represented during his own years on K Street. They include Rodger Currie, the top lobbyist for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the powerful trade group for drug companies, who wrote Morrisey's campaign a $2,000 check in December.
Former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.), a former lobbyist elected in 2014, said his lobbying background "was definitely an issue that my opponents tried to use to define me" in the race. He was able to overcome those attacks, he said, because he hadn't lobbied for clients that voters found objectionable.
Morrisey represented about 30 clients during his time at two Washington firms, Sidley Austin and King & Spalding, including big pharmaceutical companies such as Bayer, Novartis and Novo Nordisk. If Jolly had represented such clients, he said, he might have had a tougher race.
"These are very fair and legitimate questions," Jolly said.
Morrisey has shied away from discussing his lobbying days, instead casting himself as an outsider and conservative in contrast with Jenkins, who used to be a Democratic state legislator.
Morrisey refused to say the word "lobbyist" during a debate last week, even as Jenkins and Blankenship attacked him for lobbying for the pharmaceutical industry — a sensitive subject in a state that's struggling to combat an opiate crisis partly fueled by drug distributors. Asked by the moderators at the end of the debate to clear up a misconception about himself, Morrisey said only that he'd "never worked on opiate issues in the private sector."
Morrisey's campaign website uses similar language, describing him as a former "health care attorney in the private sector."
Jenkins, who's facing Blankenship and Morrisey in the three-way race for the nomination, has raised far less from K Street, even though, as a sitting congressman, he has plenty of opportunity to mingle with lobbyists, too.
A review of Jenkins' campaign finance reports turned up only 10 current and former lobbyists who had given a combined $20,000 to his campaign since he filed to run last May. Four of them are currently registered. Jenkins has raised much more than Morrisey from corporate PACs: about $136,000 to Morrisey’s $86,000, according to a POLITICO analysis.
Morrisey's campaign declined to make him available for an interview.
“Patrick Morrisey served as a law partner and practice group co-chair at two of the largest law firms in the country, focusing his practice on health care regulatory matters, legislative issues, compliance, fraud and abuse, administrative law, investigations, and solving client problems," Nachama Soloveichik, a Morrisey campaign spokeswoman, said in an statement.
Preeya Noronha Pinto, a partner at King & Spalding who lobbied alongside Morrisey and gave his campaign $500 last year, said much of their work involved meeting with administration officials and, occasionally, members of Congress in an effort to get Medicare, Medicaid and other government health care programs to cover new drugs and medical devices developed by their clients. She said she hadn’t seen the ad in which Morrisey drops a mountain on the Capitol, but she wasn't surprised he was running a campaign critical of Washington.
"I think everybody in a certain respect, even if they've worked here for years, thinks that D.C. is dysfunctional and there's a lot of room for improvement," Pinto said.
Morrisey's wife, Denise Henry Morrisey, has also been the subject of attacks based on her lobbying work.
"His wife's firm lobbies for Planned Parenthood," the narrator charges in one of Blankenship's TV ads. "The Morriseys won't stop drug abuse or abortions by lobbying for drug companies and abortion clinics."
Denise Morrisey's firm, Capitol Counsel, in which she owns a 15 percent stake, does lobby for Planned Parenthood. But disclosure filings show that Denise Morrisey has never lobbied for Planned Parenthood herself.
Soloveichik, the Morrisey campaign spokeswoman, said Denise Morrisey would stop lobbying if her husband were elected to the Senate. But she declined to say whether Denise Morrisey would give up her stake in Capitol Counsel.
Denise Morrisey declined to comment.
Savage, the Republican operative who worked as a consultant on Young's campaign in 2016, said it was possible to parry lobbying attacks — but only with willingness to answer questions about it.
Savage managed former GOP Sen. Dan Coats’ comeback campaign in Indiana in 2010, when he won back his old seat after working as a lobbyist. Savage credited Coats' victory, in part, to his willingness to be forthcoming about his lobbying work.
"The attacks after that kind of fell flat, to be honest with you," Savage said.
Kevin Robillard contributed to this report.