WASHINGTON – In one of the most hard-hitting ads of the 2018 election cycle, Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-2nd CD, castigates her Democratic challenger, Mel Hall, for his association with a Washington law firm that also does a substantial amount of lobbying.

The ad mentions a pharmaceutical manufacturer that it asserts engaged in price gouging on a medicine that prevents premature births. “Mel Hall’s D.C. firm lobbied for this evil drug company,” the narrator says.

The D.C. firm alluded to in the ad is Dentons, which has become the largest law firm in the world under the leadership of former Indiana Democratic Chairman Joe Andrew. In Dentons’ sprawling operation, you’ll find many different activities, including lobbying.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone under the Dentons roof is a lobbyist. In fact, a Dentons spokeswoman said in an Oct. 8 statement said that Hall worked as a senior adviser to the firm from 2012 through 2014 after he left Press Ganey in South Bend.

“During the time with our law firm, Mel was not a registered lobbyist,” the spokeswoman said.

The Walorski campaign said that it is irrelevant that Hall never lobbied because it never asserted he did.

“Mel Hall’s campaign just confirmed what we already knew: He worked for a big D.C. firm that lobbied for a fraudulent pharmaceutical company, predatory payday lenders and other special interests,” Walorski campaign manager Stephen Simonetti said in an Oct. 9 statement.

He added: “Mel Hall is…lying about the campaign contributions he’s taken from lobbyists.”

But when you throw your opponent in the lobbying swamp, beware of alligators that could bite you.

If an association with or taking money from a lobbying firm links you to all its clients, most politicians will run into trouble. Take the explosive situation with Saudi Arabia, a country being accused of brutally assassinating a dissident journalist earlier this month.

Walorski is one of many Hoosier politicians who have received campaign donations from lobbying firms that have had contracts with the Saudi government, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

In addition to Walorski, Rep. Susan Brooks, R-5th CD, Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-9th CD, Republican House candidate Greg Pence, Republican Senate nominee Mike Braun and Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly have all raised money from lobbying firms such as Glover Park Group, BGR Government Affairs, CGCN Group and Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

In the wake of the allegations about the death of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, some of those firms have ended their Saudi lobbying contracts. Nevertheless, when they made their contributions to Hoosier office holders and aspirants, they were working for the Saudis.

In today’s campaign atmosphere, that means that it would be conceivable for an opposing campaign to cut a commercial casting aspersions on a Hoosier politician or candidate related to Khashoggi’s death.

Would that be logical or fair? No. But it would it be similar to the attack linking Hall to Dentons’ clients.

“You could make up any kind of twisted connection like that,” said a Washington lobbyist and former Senate aide with ties to Indiana.

It’s currently in fashion to attack “the swamp,” which has become shorthand for Washington and its denizens. But it’s a political cheap shot to demagogue lobbying.

For one thing, most former politicians follow Hall’s approach and assiduously avoid registering as lobbyists. 

Former Hoosier Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, for instance, was never a lobbyist when he worked for Faegre Baker Daniels, according to David Gogol, vice chair of the firm’s consulting division. “We made sure he was never put in a position to lobby at his request,” Gogol said.

In fact, there’s been a general decline in the population of lobbyists over the last several years. Most register to lobby when representing particular clients rather than registering to lobby in general.

Like Hall, former politicians often join firms as advisers in particular areas in which they are experts. For instance, Gogol points out that former Indianapolis deputy mayor Skip Stitt, a Faegre Baker Daniels Consulting principal, works on projects involving local governments. He does not lobby.

When accusations fly about the dark arts of lobbying, it’s a good time to remember that the activity is enshrined in the Constitution, where it goes by its most fundamental definition: Petitioning the government.

Politicians who attack lobbyists often have industries in their states or districts or favorite social causes that benefit from hard-nosed lobbying. In Walorski’s case, RV manufacturers employ D.C. lobbyists.

Another example is the Right to-Life movement, which brings hundreds of advocates to the nation’s capital each year. Who is setting up their meetings with lawmakers and leading them around the Capitol? Professional lobbyists.

There will always be opposition to the policies some lobbyists promote. The answer is to deploy lobbyists fighting for the other side – not to cast the lobbying process into the swamp.

Schoeff is HPI’s Washington correspondent.