WASHINGTON — During his campaign to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate, GOP nominee Ron Johnson accused Democratic incumbent Russell Feingold of being "on the side of special interests and lobbyists."
"After promising voters that he would reform the culture of lobbying in Washington, instead Sen. Feingold embraced lobbyists and declared himself to be on their side," a Johnson spokeswoman said at the time.
But after defeating Feingold, Johnson himself has turned to K Street for help — hiring homeland security lobbyist Donald Kent as his chief of staff.
Many incoming GOP lawmakers have hired registered lobbyists as senior aides. Several of the candidates won with strong support from the anti-establishment tea party movement.
These cases illustrate the endurance of Washington's traditional power structure, even in the wake of an election dominated by insurgent rhetoric. In addition to hiring lobbyists, many newly elected House Republicans have begun holding big-dollar fundraisers in Washington to pay off debts and begin preparing for 2012.
• Sen.-elect Mike Lee, R-Utah, has announced that energy lobbyist Spencer Stokes will be his chief of staff.
• Tea party favorite Rand Paul, R-Ky., has hired anti-union lobbyist Douglas Stafford as his top senatorial aide.
• Rep.-elect Charlie Bass, R-N.H., has named food industry lobbyist John Billings as his chief of staff. Billings was a senior aide to Bass during an earlier stint on Capitol Hill.
• Rep.-elect Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., has hired former U.S. senator and former lobbyist Rod Grams as his interim chief of staff, though aides have said the posting is probably not permanent. Grams' clients from 2002 to 2006 included 3M, Norfolk Southern and the Financial Services Roundtable, records show.
• Rep.-elect Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, picked John Goodwin of the National Rifle Association as chief of staff.
Other incoming GOP lawmakers who have recruited staff from K Street include Robert Dold of Illinois, Steve Pearce of New Mexico and Jeff Denham of California.
Voters in Indiana chose a former lobbyist, Dan Coats, to represent them for a second time in the Senate. But Coats, also a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, has hired a nonlobbyist as his chief of staff.
Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the Public Citizen watchdog group, said hiring senior aides from K Street gives their former corporate clients an unfair advantage.
"Lobbyists for the most part are hired guns that represent corporations and other special interests that pay for them," Holman said. "Those lobbyists now have direct access to the political agenda of these lawmakers."
Aides to several GOP lawmakers disagreed, saying the staffers were hired for their expertise and will not grant any special favors to former clients.
"Congressman Bass demands all staff adhere to all House rules and ethics guidelines," said Bass spokesman Scott Tranchemontagne. He added that Billings, who has lobbied for the Food Marketing Institute since 2006, "will lead by example."
Jesse Benton, Paul's campaign manager, said Stafford "is not a lobbyist in the sense that people think" because he worked for a conservative advocacy group, the National Right to Work Committee.
In Utah, Lee's new chief of staff is the owner of Stokes Strategies, a Salt Lake City-based lobbying and communications firm. Lee spokesman Boyd Matheson said Stokes' lobbying background was "not a concern" because most of his work was done in Utah.