Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Democrat Who Could Win the Seat Once Occupied by Tom DeLay

One year ago, Rep. Cheri Bustos, Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, declared that “Texas is ground zero in 2020.” She was referring to the fact that five House Republicans had announced their retirement following narrow wins in 2018, a phenomenon that became known as “Texodus.” As a result, Democrats targeted their districts to fip in 2020.

The forecast model at FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats a 95 in 100 chance of maintaining control of the House, which is why most of the attention has been on whether Republicans can hold onto their Senate majority. The comments from Bustos, however, indicate that Democrats are actually working on adding members to their ranks in the House—and the one state where that is likely to happen, interestingly enough, is Texas.

One of the districts that is being targeted by Democrats is Texas’s 22nd, which covers the south and southwestern suburbs of Houston. From the late 70s to the mid-80s the district chose Libertarian Ron Paul to represent them. When he decided to run for the Senate, Tom DeLay was elected and eventually became Speaker of the House. In 2008, when DeLay resigned due to his involvement in the Jack Abramoff campaign finance scandal, Pete Olson was elected to represent the district and has held the seat since then. That explains why the Cook Political Report rates this district as R+10. 

Olson announced his retirement back in July 2019 with the usual bromide about wanting to spend more time with his family. But that decision came on the heels of winning reelection by only five points in 2018, after cruising to victory by 20-30 points in previous elections. What is happening in Texas’s 22nd congressional district encapsulates what is going wrong for Republicans in the Lonestar State. 

Fort Bend County is at the heart of the 22nd district and ranks as number ten on the list of fastest growing counties in the country, doubling its population since 2000. With that growth has come diversity. Non-Hispanic whites make up only 32 percent of residents of Fort Bend County, while Hispanics make up about 25 percent, and African Americans 22 percent. But Asian Americans are actually the fastest growing demographic group in Texas and make up about 20 percent of the residents of Fort Bend County. 

According to analysis from Wall St. 24/7, Fort Bend is the wealthiest county in Texas, with a median household income of $93,645. Approxinately 46 percent of county residents have obtained at least a bachelor’s degree. 

What we have then, in the 22nd district, is a suburban community in a major metropolitan area with a growing population that is increasingly diverse, wealthy, and college educated. As Robert Draper wrote at the Texas Monthly, that is why “the GOP is facing a historical reckoning.” 

What has kept Republicans in power is a dominant hold on a proportionately shrinking demographic: non-Hispanic white voters. Yet even that grip has become tenuous, for two reasons. First, the state GOP has maximized its rural turnout—there are few if any voters left to get. Second, and more important, the party is now struggling in the suburbs...“Even more than the robust growth in eligible Hispanic, Black, and Asian American voters, the bigger driver of change in Texas is the migration [in the political views] of professional whites in the suburbs, particularly women,” Cook Political Report congressional analyst David Wasserman told me.

The Republican candidate in Texas’s 22nd district is Fort Bend Sheriff Troy Nehls. Defining his candidacy is difficult because, during a primary against 14 other Republicans, he declared that he would “stand with President Trump to defeat the socialist Democrats, build the wall, drain the swamp, and deliver on pro-economy and pro-America policies.” But two days after he became the Republican nominee, the “Standing with President Trump” page on his web site was removed. Now Nehls is running as a moderate who has prioritized the protection of energy jobs and criminal justice reform. 

Sri Preston Kulkarni, the Democrat in the race, left his career in the U.S. Foreign Service to run for Congress. His father is an Indian American who taught creative writing at Rice University and his mother, who worked at Exxon as a system analyst, is a direct descendant of Sam Houston’s grandfather. 

Kulkarni is running on a platform to expand the Affordable Care Act, invest in renewable energy sources, and pass common sense gun safety measures. But what makes his candidacy unique is that he is reaching out to voters in 27 different languages. Kulkarni himself speaks six fluently, including Hindi, Chinese, and Spanish. The candidate says that “seventy-two percent of the [Asian-American voters] we reached out to had never been called by either a Republican or a Democrat—and they’re the fastest-growing group in Texas.”

The race in Texas’s 22nd congressional district is listed as a toss-up by Cook Political Report. But heading into the home stretch, Kulkarni has a massive edge over Nehls in fundraising. According to Open Secrets, the Democrat has raised $4.5 million to the Republican’s $1.3 million.

There is obviously something unparalleled going on in Texas, a state that has typically exhibited abysmal rates of voter turnout. First of all, the number of registered voters in the state has increased by 1.9 million since 2016—an increase of 11 percent. Secondly, as of Sunday, over 4 million Texans have already voted. According to Dan Solomon at the Texas Monthly, “the counties that have seen the biggest spike in turnout are suburban ones with populations of less than a million.” Fort Bend County in the 22nd district fits that description perfectly. 

This is clearly a race to keep an eye on. It is very possible that a Democrat could win the House seat that was once occupied by Ron Paul and Tom DeLay. There is no better example of the dramatic change that is underway in Texas.


Friday, October 16, 2020

Biden's Closing Argument

Joe Biden is running on a more progressive policy platform than any Democratic presidential nominee in modern history. His proposals include major investments in healthcare, climate change, housing, education, and infrastructure. In addition, he supports comprehensive immigration reform and an overhaul of our criminal justice system. His web page contains policy proposals in 48 different areas, indicating that—much like Sen. Elizabeth Warren—he “has a plan for that.” 

The former vice president demonstrated his mastery of those plans at the ABC town hall forum. But this was his final statement Thursday night. 

Last week Biden went to Gettysburg to give a speech that his aides say was prompted by Trump’s remarks during the first debate telling white supremacists to “stand down and stand by.” He took the opportunity to lay out his closing argument.

There’s no more fitting place than here today in Gettysburg, to talk about the cost of division. About how much it has cost America in the past, about how much it is costing us now, and about why I believe in this moment, we must come together as a nation...

[Lincoln] believed in the rescue, redemption, and rededication of the union. All this in a time, not just of ferocious division, but of widespread death, structural inequity, and fear of the future. And he taught us this: a house divided could not stand. That is a great and timeless truth. Today, once again, we are a house divided, but that my friends can no longer be. We’re facing too many crises. We have too much work to do. We have too bright a future to have it shipwrecked on the shores of anger and hate, and division…

Today we’re engaged, once again, in the battle for the soul of the nation, the forces of darkness, the forces of division, the forces of yesterday are pulling us apart, holding us down and holding us back. We must free ourselves of all of them. As president, I will embrace hope, not fear. Peace, not violence. Generosity, not greed. And light, not darkness. I’ll be a president who appeals to the best in us, not the worst.

That message was punctuated by the release of this television ad that is now airing all over the country.

To policy wonks and political junkies, that can sound saccharine. But I am reminded of what a staff person from Cambridge Analytica said about the battleground on which elections play out.

The two fundamental human drivers when it comes to taking information onboard effectively are hopes and fears and many of those are unspoken and even unconscious...And our job is to get, is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns.

It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion. The big mistake political parties make is that they attempt to win the argument rather than locate the emotional center of the issue, the concern, and speak directly to that.

Of course, the specialty of Cambridge Analytica was to tap into our fears. That is what Republicans have been attempting to do for the last several election cycles. It worked to engage enough of the GOP base for Trump to eek out an electoral college victory in 2016. 

But after four years of lies, bullying, and fear-mongering, Americans are exhausted. Trump may be able to inflame his ever-shrinking base with attacks and divisiveness, but the majority of people are growing increasingly disgusted by his antics, which is why Biden’s lead has been growing.

There are some progressives who suggest that, in this closing argument, Biden is abandoning the far left of his party in search of support from moderates. They would have a point if Biden was abandoning his progressive policy proposals. But he’s not. As he said in response to Trump’s efforts to brand him as a radical, “What the president keeps trying to do, he’s trying to run against somebody other than me. I’ve said to the left, the right and the center exactly where I am on each of these issues.”

In other words, the policy proposals Biden has put forward stand. But his closing argument is designed to develop the largest possible coalition of voters who are committed to the kind of leadership that calls out “the better angels of our nature.” It is a message of hope about what is possible if, as Biden said at Gettysburg, “we do our part, if we stand together, if we keep faith with the past and with each other.” 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Dark Money Interests Are Buying the Supreme Court

According to John Cheves, a reporter with The Lexington Herald-Leader, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell taught a college course on politics back in the 1970s, he identified the three things you need to succeed in politics: money, money, and money. Over the course of his 35-year Senate career, McConnell hasn’t simply blocked attempts to reform the campaign finance system, he’s actually argued for more money in politics. Perhaps the crowning glory of his efforts was the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v FEC, which allowed the flow of unlimited dark money into politics.

But when it comes to congressional elections, McConnell’s efforts aren’t producing what he expected, as journalists James Larkin and Elena Schnieder noted in Politico about the “green tsunami” Democrats are building via small donor contributions online. According to an article in the New York Times, McConnell recognized this when, during a phone call with lobbyists this week, he “vented that the party’s Senate candidates are being financially overwhelmed because of small-dollar contributions to ActBlue.”

Not to be deterred, McConnell has switched gears. As I’ve written previously, he is now content to neuter the Senate and empower the courts to legislate from the bench. That is why, over the last few years, he has touted stacking the courts with conservatives as the most consequential accomplishment of his political career. In an interview with Sean Hannity last year, McConnell even gave his efforts a name, calling them the “Judicial Project.”

That is the context for an extraordinary presentation by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse at the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett on Tuesday. Majority Leader McConnell is the legislative arm for a scheme the Democrat from Rhode Island outlined. Dark money is pulling the strings of the puppet show being played out in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, said Whitehouse, a former prosecutor.

Whitehouse charged three groups with leading this scheme. The first is the Federalist Society, which selects conservative candidates for Republican court nominations. The second is the Judicial Crisis Network, which mounts a public relations effort on behalf of the nominees. Finally, a group of “legal” organizations—like the Pacific Legal Foundation—bring cases and orchestrate a chorus of amicus briefs to tell the courts what to do. 

These aren’t three separate groups, but one scheme pulling the strings behind the scene, which was demonstrated when Leonard Leo gave up leadership of the Federalist Society and Carrie Sevarino, who had previously been in charge of the Judicial Crisis Network, easily took his place. But what ties these efforts together, Whitehous explained, are the same sources of dark money that fund their activities. It comes from conservative benefactor organizations like the Bradley Foundation and something called the Donor Trust Fund, which the 64-year-old Yale Law grad described as a “gigantic identity scrubbing device for the right wing.”

This network of dark money is the same one that Washington Post reporters Robert O’Harrow and Shawn Boberg found when investigating the Federalist Society’s Leo. They were able to identify an interlocking system of nonprofits Leo had set up to funnel over $250 million in dark money aimed at efforts to “remake the nation’s courts.” 

Whitehouse ended his presentation by addressing what these dark money donors want from the court in return for their investment. While it’s true that someone like Barrett was nominated to overturn the Affordable Care Act, Roe v Wade, and Obergfell v Hodges, that is hardly the only agenda. Whitehouse reviewed 80 Supreme Court cases since John Roberts became the Chief Justice that had these things in common:

  1. They were decided 5-4

  2. The 5-4 decision was partisan, with Roberts and the four justices nominated by Republicans in the majority 

  3. There was an identifiable Republican donor interest in the case

In every case the Republican donor interest prevailed. All of those cases were about power, explained Whitehouse, noting that they generally fit into four categories.

  1. Allowed unlimited and dark money in politics

  2. Knocked the civil jury system down

  3. Weakened regulatory agencies

  4. Suppressed the vote

Sen. Whitehouse shared his fellow Democrats' anger that Republicans are hypocritically rushing through Barrett’s  confirmation days before the election after refusing to even hold hearings when Obama nominated Merrick Garland 10 months before the 2016 balloting. “My experience around politics is that when you find hypocrisy in the daylight, look for power in the shadows,” Whitehouse said. Dark money interests are lurking in the shadows, exploiting the Supreme Court to maintain their power. Amy Coney Barrett is simply their latest tool to do so. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Democrat's Small Donors Overpower McConnell's Billionaire Buddies

I have to admit to a pretty heavy dose of schadenfreude when I got to this paragraph in an article about how Trump's campaign is struggling in the Sun Belt.

On Thursday, in a conference call with a group of lobbyists, Mr. McConnell vented that the party’s Senate candidates are being financially overwhelmed because of small-dollar contributions to ActBlue, the online liberal fund-raising hub.

McConnell is, after all, more responsible than anyone else for the corrupting role of big money in politics. 

But then the news just kept getting better and better. First there was this:

South Carolina Senate candidate Jaime Harrison's campaign announced Sunday it raised $57 million in the third quarter of 2020, shattering the quarterly fundraising record for a Senate race set by Beto O'Rourke in 2018 by almost $20 million.

Harrison isn't the only one.

James Larkin and Elena Schneider explained what's going on.

The online fundraising edge that Democrats have enjoyed for years has mushroomed into an overpowering force, with small-dollar donors smashing “donate” buttons over the last three months to process their disgust for President Donald Trump, fury with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and grief for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg...

Josh Holmes, a top McConnell adviser, said every news development activates Democrats’ donor base and “their default is to give $5 every time something angers them.”

So every time right wingers think that Trump has "owned a lib," what Democrats do is head to ActBlue and donate more money. Keep it up, folks!

What do Republicans do in response to all of that? They continue to go back to the same well over and over again.

Last month, Republicans were lifted by the news that Sheldon and Miriam Adelson had upped their contribution to Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with the Senate GOP, to a whopping $50 million for the year. 

Here's the catch:

But days later, ActBlue’s FEC report showed that the top nine Democratic Senate candidates raised over $50 million online in August alone.

In light of all of this, I'd like to dedicate this song to the Adelsons, the Kochs, the Mercers, and all the rest of McConnell's big donor buddies.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Role of Media in Spreading Trump's Lies About Mail-In Voter Fraud

At Wednesday’s debate, when Pence was asked what his role would be if Biden won the election and Trump refused a peaceful transfer of power, the vice president packaged several right wing lies into a grand evasion of the question, ending with a suggestion that mail-in voting creates “a massive opportunity for voter fraud.” In doing so, he affirmed the lie Trump will use to create chaos about the outcome of the election.

While fact-checkers have debunked that lie over and over again, polling shows that nearly half of Republicans believe that mail-in voter fraud is a “major problem.” If Trump is able to convince a large share of his supporters that counting mail-in ballots amounts to Democrats stealing the election, it could pave the way for massive civil unrest.

According to a recent report published by the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard, those poll results stem from the fact that Donald Trump, his campaign, and the Republican National Committee have engaged in a strategic disinformation campaign about mail-in voter fraud that has been “elite driven and mass media led.” 

Our findings here suggest that Donald Trump has perfected the art of harnessing mass media to disseminate and at times reinforce his disinformation campaign by using three core standard practices of professional journalism. These three are: elite institutional focus (if the President says it, it’s news); headline seeking (if it bleeds, it leads); and ​balance​, neutrality, or the avoidance of the appearance of taking a side.

The report documented activity from major media outlets, right wing news sites, and social media related to mail-in ballot fraud from late March through August 2020. In just one example, the report notes that, during a press briefing on April 3, Trump said that “a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting.” That tapped into the first and second core standard practices of professional journalism: the president publicly said something explosive. 

The Associated Press—which is syndicated both nationally and in local papers all over the country—demonstrated the observance of neutrality with a headline the next day that read: “Trump, Dems clash on boosting mail-in voting during the pandemic.” Instead of pointing out that the president was lying, the issue was framed as a “clash” between Republicans and Democrats over how to vote during a pandemic. It was a classic case of bothsiderism. 

The Berkman Klein Center found that every piece of disinformation about mail-in ballot fraud during that time period originated with the president, his campaign, or the Republican National Committee—with one exception. On April 24, RealClearPolitics published an article by Mark Hemingway titled “29 Million Mail-In Ballots Went Missing in Last Four Elections,” which I wrote about here at the Washington Monthly at the time. Hemingway based the entire piece on data from the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), a conservative organization dedicated to purging voter rolls and spreading claims about voter fraud. His story was initially picked up by conservative outlets like the New York Post and Gateway Pundit. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, wrote a similar piece that was syndicated at several right wing sites. On April 30, Hemingway’s article was tweeted by his wife, Mollie Hemingway, who writes for The Federalist. It was retweeted by Trump the next day.

While news sites like RealClearPolitics and the Federalist were previously considered to be reputable center-right publications, they are now firmly rooted in the kind of conspiracy-mongering that has infected conservative media during the Trump presidency. 

Here is how the Berkman Klein Center report concludes:

When President Trump concluded his performance in the first presidential debate on September 29, 2020, he reiterated the false claim that mail-in ballots were subject to mass election fraud, and cited this concern to justify his refusal to commit to accepting the results of the election should he be defeated. This assertion capped a six months long disinformation campaign waged by the president and his party against expansion of mail-in voting during the pandemic of 2020. ​There is no disinformation campaign more likely to affect voter participation in the 2020 U.S. election and perceptions of the election’s legitimacy than the repeated false assertion that mail-in voting is fraught with the risk of voter fraud.

Since that report was published, Vice President Pence also closed his performance in a debate by repeating the false claim that mail-in ballots are subject to fraud. We now know the strategy they’ve used to spread that disinformation campaign and can be sure they will continue to employ it as long as it works for them. That’s why the report ends with advice for the mass media outlets whose standard practices have been exploited by the president.

In the coming months, it will be critical for editors of these national and local media...not to fall for the strategy that the president has used so skillfully in the past six months, not to capitulate to the inevitable charges of partisanship that will befall any journalists and editors who call the disinformation campaign by its name, and not to add confusion and uncertainty to their readers, viewers, and listeners by emphasizing false equivalents...

That is obviously a lesson that some, but not all members of the media have learned over the last four years. In the case of Trump’s disinformation campaign about mail-in ballots, the stakes are too high for them to get this one wrong.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Donald Trump's Delusion of Dominance

Trump’s latest delusion is that he can ignore science and dominate a virus. Just before leaving the Walter Reed Military Medical Center on Monday, the president tweeted that he was feeling really good and advised others to not let Covid dominate their lives. He then
released a statement suggesting that contracting the disease was a sign of bravery.

Trump’s enablers followed suit. Mike Huckabee said that Republicans are “the party of the emancipation proclamation, not the emasculation proclamation” and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R- FL) opined that “President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump.” But the most bizarre pile-on came from Senator Kelly Loeffler (R-GA).

Where this is all heading is that Trump and his supporters will mock Biden for being weak if he follows CDC guidelines and refuses to debate the president before his quarantine period is over—just as they’ve mocked him for wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. 

Even as COVID-19 is spreading throughout the White House, the message is that, in order to be a manly man, one has to not only pretend to dominate a virus, but be willing to spread a disease to everyone with whom you come in contact. In a sane world, that would be a skit on Saturday Night Live making fun of hyper-masculinity. But we’re not living in a sane world right now and given that lives are at stake, the whole scene is more pathetic than parody.

The president’s response to coronavirus reminds us that he views every interaction in life as a test between dominating or being dominated. It wasn’t that long ago that he was telling governors that they needed to “dominate the streets” or he would come in with federal troops and “solve the problem” of people protesting against police brutality. Going back to the early days of Trump’s presidency, this is something Josh Marshall understood better than anyone.

Trump lives in a psychic economy of aggression and domination. There are dominators and the dominated. No in between. Every attack he receives, every ego injury must be answered, rebalanced with some new aggression to reassert dominance.

But it would be a mistake to simply write this off as yet another indication of the president’s mental health issues. It is also what animates his supporters. That’s why “owning the libs” has become a rallying cry on the right. As Eve Peyser explained, “To ‘own’ someone on the internet is to dominate and humiliate them, and the ‘libs’ can loosely be defined as anyone to the left of Sean Hannity.”

In order to understand what Trump is tapping into, it is helpful to remember what Riane Eisler pointed out in her book, The Chalice and the Blade

Underneath all the complex and seemingly random currents and crosscurrents, is the struggle between two very different ways of relating, of viewing our world and living in it. It is the struggle between two underlying possibilities for relations: the partnership model and the domination model.

Eisler went on to study cultures all over the globe and came to the conclusion that conventional classifications such as religious versus secular, right versus left, East versus West, and developed versus developing don’t capture the trend towards authoritarianism because they fail to distinguish those that rely on domination backed up by fear and force. That is the tie that binds Stalin’s Russia to Hitler’s Germany, as just one example. 

What we are witnessing in this country (as well as other places around the world) is a resurgence of dominance in reaction to change. At the heart of that resistance are Christian nationalists who, imbued in patriarchy, view all relationships as hierarchical, insisting that men must submit to God, women must submit to men, and children must submit to their parents. Here is Eisler talking about how that weaves dominance and control into gender stereotypes.

In dominator cultures, to accuse a man of exhibiting stereotypes commonly associated with femininity is the ultimate insult. So, for example, when Tomi Lahren responded to Biden’s insistence on wearing a mask by tweeting that he might as well carry it in a purse, she was “owning a lib” with the ultimate put-down: he’s a wimp, just like a girl.

As Katherine Stewart pointed out, it is Donald Trump’s embrace of dominance that makes him the leader Christian nationalists have been looking for.

As the Trump presidency falls under siege on multiple fronts, it has become increasingly clear that the so-called values voters will be among the last to leave the citadel. A lot of attention has been paid to the supposed paradox of evangelicals backing such an imperfect man, but the real problem is that our idea of Christian nationalism hasn’t caught up with the reality. We still buy the line that the hard core of the Christian right is just an interest group working to protect its values. But what we don’t get is that Mr. Trump’s supposedly anti-Christian attributes and anti-democratic attributes are a vital part of his attraction…

Today’s Christian nationalists talk a good game about respecting the Constitution and America’s founders, but at bottom they sound as if they prefer autocrats to democrats...This isn’t the religious right we thought we knew. The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core. They aren’t fighting a culture war. They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself.

This country’s great experiment with democracy was an attempt to break away from a long history of autocratic kings who ruled via dominance. But it’s been a work in progress for almost 250 years because the marriage between patriarchy and dominance has been difficult to overcome. Every social justice movement—from labor rights to women’s rights to civil rights—has been rooted in the power of partnership and taken direct aim at the dominance of rich white men.

The reason that President Barack Obama further ignited a resurgence in dominance is not simply because he was our first African American president. Perhaps due to his history as a community organizer, his entire world view was shaped by the power of partnership. That is why, when it became clear that we were in the midst of a pandemic, I pinned this quote from his 2009 speech in Cairo to the top of my Twitter feed. 

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere.  When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk.  When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations.  When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean.  When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century.  That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace.  For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes -- and, yes, religions -- subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests.  Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating.  Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.  So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it.  Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

For eight years this country had a president that challenged the dominance of white patriarchy. The backlash was so severe that we now have a delusional president who has convinced his supporters that manly men can ignore science and dominate a virus. The inflection point we face as a country is whether we will continue perfecting our union via democratic processes that demonstrate the power of partnership.  

"With fear for our democracy, I dissent."

My title is how Justice Sonia Sotomayor concluded her dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court case granting presidents criminal immunity for...