On Friday, Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) announced he would retire at the end of his current term, leading to immediate and copious speculation over who would replace him. For Republicans, both Rep. Paul Ryan and Fmr. Governor (and current lobbying firm employee) Tommy Thompson are considering a run. For Democrats, Fmr. Sen. Russ Feingold would be a popular choice, though hasn’t seemed all that excited by the prospect. Right along with these possible candidates, one of the other names most frequently linked with a run for Kohl’s seat has been Rep. Ron Kind, currently in his eighth term representing the state’s western 3rd congressional district.
In Washington, Kind has a reputation as being personable and a bit of a policy wonk. But perhaps his most bankable asset is his ability to tap into the rich coffers of a beltway fundraising circuit dominated by corporate lobbyists. It’s also something that seems to be getting very little attention.
Kind is a vice-chair of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of business-friendly House Democrats I profiled last year for ProPublica. In Congress, the group played a key role in delivering legislative victories for the pharmaceutical and banking industries during healthcare and financial regulatory reform. Outside Congress, the same corporate players who benefited from the New Democrats’ agenda helped generate millions in campaign contributions for the coalition’s members. Through their mutual interests, a long list of revolving door connections, and hundreds of get togethers in the past several years, the New Democrats and their backers had become a community whose members’ fates were intertwined.
Kind summed all of this up in a few words while addressing the crowd at the New Democrats’ annual fundraising retreat last May:
At a Saturday session at the retreat, Rep. Kind acknowledged what had brought the lobbyists and lawmakers together. In these busy legislative times, he said, the New Democrats had become a “powerful voice in policy making,” and the business interests in the room were playing a crucial role in informing that voice.
“We’re working hard with you to get the policy right,” Kind told lobbyists for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and others.
As the race to replace Kohl heats up, the potential candidates will be tested on whether they have the chops to take on an expensive Senate run in a competitive state. In this conversation, fundraising prowess will no doubt be seen as a positive factor, but it is important to remember what lawmakers do in order to collect the big bucks.