WASHINGTON -- In a year when most candidates are sneering at the influence of special interests in Washington, Republican Sydney Hay is making what may be the toughest pitch in politics: lobbyist for Congress.
Running to represent northeast Arizona in the House, Hay has faced a barrage of negative advertising over her 18-year-old Arizona lobbying firm, Southwest Policy Group. But being a lobbyist, she insists, shouldn't be an impediment to elected office.
"Without someone like me, taxpayers have no voice," said Hay, who lobbies for an Arizona mining association, a school-choice group and three other interests, state lobbying reports show. "I advocated for the jobs that mattered in this district."
While candidates across the USA, including the presidential nominees, battle for the mantle of reform in this year's election, an analysis by USA TODAY and the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics identified 15 current and former lobbyists who are running for Congress. Nine are challengers; six are current members.
Of the 15, nine are in competitive races, including three incumbents, according to the non-partisan Cook Political Report, which rates the races.
Many of the candidates said the skills they learn as lobbyists — convincing others, finding compromise — will make them strong lawmakers. In almost every case, though, their past work has also provided a political opportunity for their opponents.
In Kansas, Republican Sen. Pat Roberts aired television ads noting that his opponent, Democrat Jim Slattery, worked as a lobbyist for the Washington firm Wiley Rein.
"For the last 14 years he's been a Washington lobbyist," the narrator in one Roberts ad says as Slattery's face is shown next to a mounting pile of $100 bills.
Slattery, a former member of the House, released a list of his clients from 1995 to this year, which included Kansas City Southern Railway, Motorola, Spirit Airlines, the wheat gluten industry and 28 others.
Congress approved a lobbying bill last year that required more frequent reporting of lobbyist expenditures and also forced senators to wait two years after retirement, instead of one, to begin lobbying. House members still may lobby after one year.
The new rules follow the Jack Abramoff scandal, in which a former lobbyist was convicted of plying public officials with gifts in return for political favors.
Watchdog groups have focused on members of Congress who become lobbyists. There are 158 lobbyists who served in Congress — 73 Democrats and 85 Republicans — according to Congressional Quarterly.
Less attention is paid to people moving the other direction.
Brian Bilbray is an example of both. He became a federal lobbyist after losing his House seat in 2000. The California Republican won a special House election in 2006, despite being criticized by opponents for his years as a lobbyist.
In a tight race for re-election, Bilbray again faces criticism. "Brian Bilbray is a lifetime politician, and when he wasn't, he was a lobbyist," Bilbray's Democratic opponent, Nick Leibham, told the North County Times.
Bilbray's campaign manager, Kurt Bardella, declined to comment.
Lobbyists have been maligned in past election seasons, but the rhetoric increased this year as Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain run on themes of changing Washington.
"I imagine this year it's a tougher sell, or it's an easy mark for an opponent," David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said of candidates. "The public perception of lobbyists has never been that great. They rank somewhere around used-car salesmen."
Other lobbyist challengers include Democratic Idaho Senate candidate Larry LaRocco, Alabama House Republican hopeful Wayne Parker and Republican New Jersey Senate candidate Dick Zimmer. LaRocco and Zimmer served in Congress.
In addition to Bilbray, incumbents running for re-election who were lobbyists include Reps. Jason Altmire, D-Pa.; Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo.; Dan Lungren, R-Calif.; and Doris Matsui, D-Calif.
"We definitely view it as a strength," said Jean McNeil, a spokeswoman for LaRocco, who does not mention his lobbying on his website biography. She cited his experience in banking and financial services.
In Ohio, Republican state Sen. Steve Stivers is running against Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy in a seat left vacant by retiring Republican Rep. Deborah Pryce. Stivers served as a lobbyist for Banc One Ohio Corp., in Columbus for seven years, a line on his résumé that Democrats frequently raise.
"Most people see this as just politics," Stivers said, adding that he needs to tell "the rest of my story."