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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s surprise resignation—reportedly at the strong urging of the White House—will dominate Beltway news in the coming days. But perhaps the much more significant foreign-policy news came early Saturday morning.
The New York Times reported that the United States will expand its mission in Afghanistan in 2015, with US troops participating in direct combat with the Taliban while American airpower backs Afghan forces from above. The shift, leaked anonymously to reporters ahead of a holiday week, is a big “oh, nevermind” to Obama’s very public announcement six months ago in the Rose Garden that US troops in Afghanistan would be shifting into a training and advisory role next year.
The president didn’t even make a glancing reference to the Afghanistan reversal in his remarks announcing Hagel’s departure. The administration would clearly prefer a limited public debate, and based on the media coverage so far, it is getting its wish.
But it is against this new hawkish posture that Hagel’s departure should be understood and discussed. It is possible that it was the subtext to his resignation: Hagel came aboard to help manage a withdrawal from Afghanistan and shrink the Pentagon budget, and an anonymous US official told the Times Monday that “the next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus.”
The retrenchment in Afghanistan reportedly came after a “a lengthy and heated debate” inside the White House that pitted military generals against some administration officials:
Mr. Obama’s decision, made during a White House meeting in recent weeks with his senior national security advisers, came over the objection of some of his top civilian aides, who argued that American lives should not be put at risk next year in any operations against the Taliban—and that they should have only a narrow counterterrorism mission against Al Qaeda.
But the military pushed back, and generals both at the Pentagon and in Afghanistan urged Mr. Obama to define the mission more broadly to allow American troops to attack the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militants if intelligence revealed that the extremists were threatening American forces in the country.
Was the historically dovish Hagel one of these officials? It is certainly curious that his departure directly coincides with the new aggressive plan for Afghanistan.
No reporting yet indicates that for certain, and Hagel is notoriously guarded—one reason cited for his resignation was reportedly that he remained quiet in meetings, supposedly to avoid leaks of his position. It is certainly possible that ISIS’s rapid emergence and other foreign-policy crises contributed to Hagel’s poor standing inside the White House, along with his reported leadership problems.
Ultimately, that’s an academic question for the administration’s biographers. What matters now is that the United States is changing course toward a more aggressive foreign policy: it is recommitting to the war in Afghanistan, which is by far the country’s longest and now promises to span two two-term presidencies. The number of troops in Iraq has doubled, and the administration will soon seek an authorization from a Congress that is extremely unlikely to include a provision that outlaws direct combat by US troops. Even supposed doves like Rand Paul are switching their position on fighting ISIS, and the incoming class of senators has distinct interventionist positions.
Hagel’s departure—and the confirmation of his successor—will hopefully allow for some serious public debate about this new turn, even if the administration prefers otherwise. The real story here is about the policy, not the personnel.
Senator Elizabeth Warren will be part of the Democrats’ leadership team in the Senate, the party decided on Thursday morning. At the urging of majority leader Harry Reid, a new position was created for Warren: strategic policy adviser to the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.
Several outlets have reported Warren will be a liaison to liberal groups, which will indeed be part of her duties—but a source close to Reid stressed to The Nation that Warren was brought into leadership to help steer policy and communications decisions.
Senate Democrats have a number of important decisions to make as the minority party in the coming two years: which Democratic proposals to highlight, which Republican bills to aggressively oppose and what amendments to propose to must-pass legislation. (Soon-to-be majority leader Mitch McConnell says he will embrace an open amendment process.) Senate Democrats will also be an important potential counterweight to any compromises that President Obama may try to work out with congressional Republicans if Democratic votes are needed.
The source close to Reid said Warren will be a “crucial” voice and vote at the leadership table when strategic decisions are being made. It’s hard not to conclude that progressives will thus have a stronger ability to steer the party’s strategic course going forward.
Warren is an outspoken opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal, which is likely to come up for fast-track consideration some time next year. Both McConnell and Obama favor it, while Reid and many (but not all) Senate Democrats oppose fast-track authority.
She also is vocal about closing tax loopholes for corporations and not only protecting Social Security but expanding it. Corporate tax reform is also something Obama and McConnell both ostensibly want, and Social Security could come up during tense budget standoffs between the White House and Congress. (Senate Republicans are already planning a commission to “study options” on Social Security.)
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a major Warren backer, immediately sent a triumphant e-mail blast to one million PCCC members, declaring that “This is a good reminder that when we invest early in progressive leaders, it’s not just about winning elections in the short term—it’s about building power over time.”
Of course, no development involving Warren can happen outside the vacuum of 2016 presidential politics. “Her new role shows that Warren is incredibly influential and is going to be a leader in shaping the Democratic Party and politics in general,” Erica Sagrans, an Obama campaign alum who now runs Ready for Warren, told The Nation the new leadership position “gives her a bigger platform, but an even bigger one would be a presidential run.”
There weren’t many bright spots for progressives on Tuesday, but if you back stronger gun laws, things went even better than you could have reasonably expected.
The big news was in Washington State, where a ballot initiative implementing tough universal background checks on gun purchases and transfers passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote. The vote was already projected to pass and came on the heels of a mass shooting at a Seattle-area high school that left four students dead.
A dueling initiative that would ban such checks failed badly. Pro-gun advocates had at least hoped the two initiatives would confuse voters and perhaps both would pass and create a legally chaotic situation, but they appear to have underestimated Washingtonians’ engagement on the issue.
Now, Washington State will have a model system where virtually every gun purchase—even online and at gun shows—will be subject to a background check. There are very narrow exceptions for antique gun sales and transfers within families, but even lending someone a gun for twenty-four hours would require a check.
The victory is important well beyond Washington state, too—it’s a model for other states to undertake similar reform while DC dithers. Nevada is already going to vote on a very similar measure in 2016, which will no doubt propel the issue into the presidential race since Nevada hosts key primaries for both parties and is also a valuable swing state.
Washington also demonstrated that the National Rifle Association can be beaten—it spent almost half a million dollars against the ballot initiative, but it didn’t matter. Gun-reform groups showed they can come in with big money of their own and win crucial votes.
“[Washington voters] showed that while the gun lobby can intimidate politicians in Washington, it’s a lot harder to intimidate America’s voters,” former US Representative Gabby Giffords said in a statement last night. “This victory for responsibility in Washington State sends a clear message to the other Washington that if Congress is not ready to act to reduce gun violence, voters in states around the country can and will take the matter into their own hands.”
But that wasn’t all. In race after race across the country, gun reform pretty much ran the table:
Three governors signed tough new gun restrictions into law after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy and Colorado Governor Mark Hickenlooper. All had opponents that loudly criticized the gun reforms, but all three incumbents won on Tuesday.
Cuomo’s victory wasn’t in doubt, but Malloy and Hickenlooper faced very tough races. The NRA went particularly hard after Hickenlooper, but he pulled out an unlikely victory—with a lot of help from gun-reform groups like Bloomberg’s Everytown and Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions.
Representative Elizabeth Esty, a Democratic incumbent in Connecticut who represents Newtown, beat back a challenge from a Republican who opposed new gun laws. That would have been a devastating symbolic loss for the gun-reform movement. We profiled that race back in September, here.
Republican Susan Collins of Maine won re-election handily. She was one of only four Republicans to vote for the Manchin-Toomey background-check bill, and it didn’t appear to cost her anything politically. “Senator Collins’ re-election tonight in Maine, a state with a proud history of gun ownership, proves that elected officials can support common-sense measures to reduce gun violence without infringing on the constitutional rights of their constituents,” said Everytown in a statement.
On the flip side, Democratic Senator Mark Pryor lost his bid for re-election in Arkansas despite opposing the background-check bill. The NRA dropped over a million dollars to beat him anyway, and gun-reform groups didn’t give a dime in support. Alaska Senator Mark Begich is in the same boat.
Cook County, Illinois, passed an advisory referendum on Tuesday backing much tougher gun laws, including universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. It passed with a whopping 86.5 percent of the vote.
One final victory may come in the Arizona district that used to be held by Giffords. Her former chief of staff, Representative Ron Barber, faced a tough race against Republican Martha McSally that was riven with controversy over gun control. This seat also carries heighten symbolism for the gun-reform movement.
The race is currently too close to call, with Barber behind by as little as seventy-five votes. Barber declared last night he was confident in victory.
Surely not everything went well for gun reform advocates; Senators like Kay Hagan who voted for background checks were defeated, and Mary Landrieu may join her in a month. But it's hard to look at the final scorecard and see a big victory for reform.
When Iowa and North Carolina were called almost simultaneously a little before 11:30 Tuesdaynight, the seemingly inevitable became official: Republicans will control the Senate and thus the entire legislative branch.
On a variety of fronts, this new alignment is going to be hugely problematic for progressive governance—perhaps for governance, period. These will be the major flash points. The last one is the most important because it’s how the GOP will force Obama’s hand on most of the rest.
1. Staffing the Executive Branch.
For much of the Obama presidency, Republicans in the Senate stymied up dozens of presidential appointments to cabinet slots big and small, as well as nominations to the federal bench. Harry Reid implemented filibuster reform one year ago, and nominations have been handled more quickly—but with Republicans in charge, expect them to grind to a halt. Republicans blocked nominees reflexively under the old filibuster rules, many times without offering a single actual objection, and that’s very likely to resume now.
Republicans well understand that failing to staff the executive branch—and particularly the judicial branch—is a great way to slow down Obama’s priorities now, and even affect the trajectory of American jurisprudence long after he leaves office. There are still fifty-nine vacancies on federal district and appellate courts, a 7-percent vacancy rate, and 35 percent of those empty seats are in areas that have been declared judicial emergency. This problem will get much worse, not better, over the next two years.
2. Filling a Supreme Court Vacancy.
The old filibuster rules still required sixty votes to confirm a Supreme Court nominee, which was going to be a tough lift anyway. But Obama managed it twice already. With Republicans in charge, it may be impossible.
First the nominee would have to clear the GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, which will be chaired by conservative stalwart Chuck Grassley. Then, a Republican Senate has to approve the nominee. In the event Obama sends any kind of discernibly liberal judge to the Senate, it’s easy to imagine the GOP outright blocking him or her. Alternately, Obama could try to avoid that situation by making an opaque nomination with no discernible views on key issues like abortion and money in politics. This might be the more terrifying of the two possibilities.
3. Deregulating Carbon Emissions.
If the GOP’s biggest goal is repealing Obamacare, a close second is blocking the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed limits on carbon emissions. As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse pointed out on All In with Chris Hayes last night, the GOP House has actually passed more bills targeting the EPA than those repealing Obamacare. And unlike with the Affordable Care Act, Republicans have the full and enthusiastic backing of their corporate allies in blocking EPA carbon limits.
When noted climate-denier Jim Inhofe takes the gavel of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee from Barbara Boxer in January, there are many ways he could pass legislation stopping the regulation. He could attach riders to any number of bills that deny funding for those regulations. Or he could simply decline to fund the entire EPA and tell the White House no money would be forthcoming until the regulations are cancelled.
4. Deregulating Everything Else.
The House provided a nice sneak preview of how a GOP Congress would try to deregulate just about anything—passing big bills like the REINS Act which would essentially stop or slow most government regulation, to a plethora of smaller exceptions, carve outs and cancelations for chosen industries. We can expect the Senate to approve many of these moves and force a showdown with Obama.
Dodd-Frank will be one area to watch. While it’s unlikely the GOP will get Obama to go along with a big-ticket deregulatory move like weakening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—though it will surely try—it could go after, and win, some smaller battles.
5. Keystone XL.
This one is easy to predict since Republicans have said outright, several times, that one of their first orders of business will be a binding bill authorizing the pipeline. Now, GOP Senate aides are telling The Hill that they may already have the Democratic votes necessary to pass a filibuster-proof bill approving the pipeline.
Obama would of course have to sign the bill, but if many Senate Democrats end up supporting approval, there is a growing fatalism in environmental circles that the president would go along.
6. Keeping Obamacare Intact.
You can bet your bottom dollar House Republicans will at once pass a full Obamacare repeal, and those in the Senate will spend a lot of time trying. You can just as surely bet Obama won’t sign it if it does somehow pass.
But Republicans might be able to force other changes to the law, like repealing the Medical Device Tax and canceling the Independent Payment Advisory Board, as Igor Volsky at ThinkProgress notes. Both are things that also might gather some Democratic votes. If the GOP is smart, it will pick winnable battles on Obamacare and succeed in at least partially weakening the law they hate so deeply.
Many of the GOP’s desired goals will still be impossible, as they still need to overcome the sixty-vote threshold on legislation. But on budgeting and appropriations that’s not true—only fifty-one votes are needed to pass those under reconciliation that isn’t true.
This is going to create a super-tense showdown with Obama. Many progressives remember when the president was eager to adopt budgetary changes like cutting Social Security benefits through a change in the Chained-CPI formula—something Harry Reid thwarted by literally throwing the proposal in his fireplace.
8. Keeping the Government Open.
This is the big one, and the mechanism through which the GOP might be able to get many of the aforementioned policy wins. Before, the House GOP wasn’t able to clearly put forward its goals, particularly on things like the Ryan budget, because it got all garbled up in conference negotiations with the Senate. House members who wanted to avoid this conversation were fond of telling hard-liners that “we’re only one-half of one-third of the government,” so they had to compromise.
But that’s no longer true. With a deeply red Republican Congress and the word “mandate” dancing through the heads of many elected GOPers—and members of the media—it will be easy to force a simple showdown with Obama. Maybe Republicans go full-Ryan budget, which Obama certainly rejects, and there’s a government shutdown. Maybe they are smart about it and pass a really bad budget that’s just good enough for Obama to sign. Either way, it’s bad news for progressives.
Read Next: Obama should not accept lame-duck status.
new orleans—In places where there is a contested Senate race, chances are it is the most expensive midterm election in state history. Louisiana is no exception. Federal Election Commission filings show well over $30 million spent by candidates and outside groups.
At a raucous gathering for Senator Mary Landrieu on Saturday, Hillary Clinton reminded the crowd of this fact in particularly charged language for New Orleans, where the rally was being held. “There has been a flood of outside money trying to muddy the waters, drown your voice, discourage people from voting,” she said.
If the Senate election here heads to a runoff, there might be actual dump trucks of money coming across the state line, particularly if the seat will end up determining control of the upper chamber. Taking a closer look at who is spending the money—and who isn’t—is an easy way to pick up on some of this race’s unique contours.
Louisiana is one of only two contested Senate races where the US Chamber of Commerce isn’t involved. (The other is Arkansas.) As we noted last week, the Chamber has an enormous footprint wherever it goes, averaging close to $1 million per race. It’s the biggest spender in twenty-eight of the thirty-five contests it is involved with this cycle.
But it hasn’t spent a dime attacking Landrieu nor boosting her opponent, Republican Representative Bill Cassidy. This likely reflects a desire not to make an enemy of Landrieu were she to hold onto the seat, since she is the chair of the hugely powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
It’s a huge boon to Landrieu not to have a heavyweight like the Chamber pummeling her in the state, and it’s one of many ways her chairmanship has become a key asset in the campaign. Speaker after speaker at Saturday’s rally reminded potential voters how important Landrieu’s position is for the state, where over 400,000 jobs rely on the oil and gas industry.
“Nobody can tell the people of Louisiana that ‘Hey folks, we’re gonna vote to replace the chairman of the United States Senate Energy Committee, the most important committee…to the state of Louisiana, with a new first-term senator,’&thin;” said former Senator John Breaux. “We’re not gonna buy that. That would be like saying we’re going to kick Drew Brees out of being quarterback and replace him with a freshman quarterback from some high school.”
Though the Chamber isn’t actively backing Landrieu, many oil and gas companies are. Exxon Mobil, NRG Energy and Dominion Resources are three of the top five contributors to her campaign committee. They don’t even appear in Cassidy’s top twenty.
Landrieu is benefiting greatly from the oil companies’ support, and the non-support of the Chamber. The industry surely expects the favor to be returned if she holds on, which would have long-ranging impacts for the state and national energy policy going forward. (Zoë Carpenter explored this at length in our October 1 issue.)
But not every oil and gas producer has made the same calculation. The Louisiana Oil & Gas Association is supporting Cassidy, citing a bigger picture. “It’s not about the job that Mary has done, it’s about who controls that Senate,” the group’s president, Don Briggs, told Politico.
* * *
The changing politics over gun control are also visible in the FEC filings for this race. Landrieu voted for the universal background check bill that was pushed in the wake of the Newtown shootings last year—something many observers saw as a courageous vote for such a rural, gun-loving state.
Accordingly, the National Rifle Association has dropped almost $2.3 million to defeat Landrieu this cycle. The NRA is the fifth-biggest-spending outside group involved on either side of the race, with $1.7 million, and the NRA Institute for Legislative action is seventh with $529,000.
But sandwiched in between, as the sixth-biggest-spending group, is Americans for Responsible Solutions, the pro-gun reform group founded by Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark. It has spent $570,000 on the race so far, which doesn’t cancel out the NRA, but surely helps blunt its impact.
One needs only to look north to Arkansas to see why Landrieu’s support for background checks was a smart play in terms of campaign finance. (To say nothing of the moral and policy imperatives.) There, Democrat Mark Pryor is also locked in a tough battle. He voted against the gun bill—and the NRA is backing his Republican opponent anyway. And Pryor has none of the money from the Giffords group.
* * *
There is a unique ideological split among conservatives in this race—Tea Party favorite Rob Maness is pulling around 9 percent of the vote in most polls. The GOP base was already skeptical of Cassidy’s ideological purity, and Maness, a former Army colonel, has been boosted by endorsements from conservative icons like Tony Perkins and Sarah Palin.
Maness is unlikely to win (Palin’s prognostications aside) but he could easily force this race into a runoff by denying Cassidy more than 50 percent of the vote. To that end, Cassidy held a rally in St. Tammany Parish on Saturday with Dr. Ben Carson, a conservative icon in his own right who makes headlines by frequently comparing Obamacare to slavery.
Though he might have low poll numbers, Maness is doing better in the outside-spending race. The Senate Conservatives fund has dropped $442,430 into the race to support him, making it the ninth-highest-spending outside group. This is helping Maness with valuable exposure to state conservatives, and if Louisiana’s Senate race does indeed end up in a runoff, that half-million dollars could be a big reason why.
The midterm elections are less than a week away, and money is pouring into contested states and districts at a furious pace. A new analysis from Public Citizen shows the biggest “dark money” spender is none other than the US Chamber of Commerce, a mega-trade group representing all sorts of corporations—and one that is spending exclusively to defeat Democrats in the general election.
The Chamber is a 501(c)(6) tax-exempt organization, meaning it doesn’t have to disclose its donors. We know from looking at its board, available membership lists and tax forms from big corporations that much of the Chamber’s money has generally come from titans in the oil, banking and agriculture industries, among others.
The Chamber is leaving a huge footprint in almost every race it enters. The report shows that, through October 25, the Chamber has spent $31.8 million. The second-largest dark-money spender, Crossroads GPS, spent $23.5 million:
Among the report’s other findings:
The Chamber is averaging $908,000 per race it enters.
The Chamber is the biggest dark-money spender in twenty-eight of thirty-five races it entered.
Of the twelve contested Senate races, the Chamber is the top non-disclosing outside spender in seven of those races, spending an average of $1.7 million per state.
In the twenty-three House races in which the Chamber has spent over $11.5 million, it is the top spender in all but two of them.
The Chamber has spent mainly to either support Republicans or attack Democrats. The only money it spent against Republicans came early in the year during GOP primaries to support business-friendly Republican candidates.
Thanks to weak campaign finance laws, however, we will likely never know who exactly is bankrolling this massive presence in the midterm elections. “When large corporations decide they want to get their own candidates into office but they don’t want to be seen doing it, they call the US Chamber,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “These politicians then push for anti-environmental, anti-consumer and anti-health policies and priorities that hurt everyday Americans.”
Washington State news outlets are reporting that shots were fired inside a high school outside Seattle late Friday morning. KIRO in Seattle reported that around 10:45 am Pacific time, 911 calls and tweets started rolling in about a shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Washington:
shooting at mp
— ƙąɬıɛ (@___katiie) October 24, 2014
Shots just fired at mp
— Mr. Wolff (@CrocManKyle) October 24, 2014
DONT GO TOWARDS THE CAFETERIA
— Miguel Rocha (@Miguel_Rocha34) October 24, 2014
Aerial footage on KIRO shows emergency vehicles massed outside the school, while students are being led away from the building in an all-too-familiar procession. A caller to KIRO said her son relayed that a male shooter opened fire near the cafeteria.
The Seattle Times is reporting that seven people are injured, and the gunman is dead of a self-inflicted wound. CBS News says that three people are at a local hospital with gunshot wounds, and one more is expected. Police have not confirmed any information about the shooting.
In less than two weeks, Washington state will vote whether to implement universal background checks on weapons sales. Outside groups have spent millions of dollars to influence voters to either pass or reject a background check system very similar to what failed in the Senate early last year.
UPDATE, 3:27 pm Eastern: KIRO has confirmed four injuries in the shootings. The Seattle Times is further reporting that one person besides the shooter has died.
UPDATE, 4:07 pm Eastern: Local police confirmed that two people have died, and one is the shooter. The spokesman would not say if the other person was a student.
Read Next: Whatever happened to gun control?
With less than two weeks to go in the Kentucky Senate race, minority leader Mitch McConnell made the unusual choice to bring up his past support for privatizing Social Security. In a speech before the Louisville Rotary Club, McConnell recalled how hard he worked to get then-President George W. Bush’s plan through Congress in 2005. Ace Kentucky reporter Joe Sonka flagged the remarks:
“After Bush was re-elected in 2004 he wanted us to try to fix Social Security,” said McConnell. “I spent a year trying to get any Democrat in the Senate—even those most reasonable Democrat of all, Joe Lieberman—to help us.”
The Bush plan, unveiled in his 2005 State of the Union speech, would have allowed workers under 55 to divert half of their payroll taxes away from Social Security and into a private retirement account. This would have created an even larger shortfall in the Social Security Trust Fund and further hobbled the insurance program—something many people suspected was a feature, not a bug, for Bush and the conservative think tanks pushing his plan.
There was immense backlash to Bush’s proposal, and Republicans never brought it up to a vote. It has since remained taboo even for many Republicans; Representative Paul Ryan dropped the idea from his budgets after the GOP took over the House.
McConnell has been very quiet on the campaign trail about his role in the congressional debate, even though he was no doubt quite active as the majority whip at the time. This appears to be the first time he brought it up since the race began.
It’s a dangerous move for McConnell, who is already being hammered by Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes over bread-and-butter economic issues. She just released an ad featuring McConnell’s remarks to a Koch-network donor conference in which he promised not to allow a Senate debate over raising the minimum wage, enacting student-loan relief, nor extending unemployment benefits:
Sonka asked McConnell after the speech if he would once again push for Social Security privatization if he became majority leader of the Senate. McConnell said only, “We’re not in the majority yet. We’ll have more to say about that later.”
It would not be surprising if video if McConnell’s remarks Thursday end up in another campaign ad very soon.
Read Next: Mitch McConnell will say anything for a ham.
Senator Elizabeth Warren gave an interview to People magazine for this week’s issue and was asked for roughly the thousandth time if she planned to run for president. But her answer to this query was different than all the others:
But is the freshman senator from Massachusetts herself on board with a run for the White House? Warren wrinkles her nose.
“I don’t think so,” she tells PEOPLE in an interview conducted at Warren’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, home for this week’s issue. “If there’s any lesson I’ve learned in the last five years, it’s don’t be so sure about what lies ahead. There are amazing doors that could open.”
She just doesn’t see the door of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue being one of them. Not yet, anyway. “Right now,” Warren says, “I’m focused on figuring out what else I can do from this spot” in the U.S. Senate.
As a veteran Warren-watcher, I can say with certainty this is more ambiguous than she’s ever been on the subject. “I don’t think so,” “amazing doors that could open,” and “right now” are the traditional vernacular of a someone flirting with a campaign—-and someone who wants you to know it.
In the past, Warren has been much more unequivocal. (Examples: “I’m not running for president, and I plan to serve out my term,” and “I am not running for president. Do you want to put an exclamation point at the end of that?”)
It is certainly possible Warren just got sloppy during the umpteenth iteration of this question, and used looser language than normal while speaking with a non-political reporter. But it’s also true that she’s been increasingly explicit in her criticisms of the Democratic establishment and its relationship with big banks. She told Salon last week that the Obama administration “protected Wall Street. Not families who were losing their homes. Not people who lost their jobs. And it happened over and over and over.”
Warren’s Senate office did not immediately return a request for comment.
UPDATE, 10/23: Warren's office responded to our query: "Nothing has changed," said her press secretary Lacey Rose.
Campaign-finance operations are mutating at a frightening pace; each successive election since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has birthed new varieties of independent expenditure groups that deliver even more access for wealthy donors and corporations. This year, single-candidate expenditure groups are pervasive and represent perhaps the apex of this evolution.
Single-candidate expenditure groups are Super PACs or nonprofits that spend unlimited money to support just one candidate (or to attack only that candidate’s opponents). They are a descendant of the candidate-specific groups like Priorities USA that formed to support just one candidate for president in 2012—but now most Congressional candidates in tight races have one at their side.
These are extremely attractive options for donors because they offer the ability to evade campaign-finance limits entirely: if you are a coal magnate that wants to give Mitch McConnell money, you can’t donate more than $5,200 to his campaign this cycle under FEC rules. But if you turn to the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, the 501(c)(4) that is exclusively supporting McConnell, you can give as much as you want. You don’t have to worry about giving money to a national Republican Super PAC that may or may not spend your money on McConnell’s race—you can effectively fund a shadow McConnell campaign in Kentucky.
Moreover, corporations and labor unions that are forbidden from contributing directly to candidates can freely give to these candidate-specific groups. And in the case of the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition and many other similar outfits, the public will never know because those groups are not required to disclose their donors.
“This is the future unfolding before our eyes, and it’s as dangerous as anything that’s going on in money in politics,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance reform group Democracy 21. “It is the end product of a Supreme Court that apparently set out to destroy the nation’s anti-corruption campaign-finance laws.”
A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice lays out how these groups are spending much more than they have in the past, while also disclosing less. Through the end of September, the ten biggest “buddy groups,” as they are sometimes called in the campaign-finance world, have spent $26 million in contested Senate races. Only four of these groups fully disclose their donors; many offer no disclosure at all:
While these groups did exist in 2012, they are far more common for members of Congress in the 2014 midterms. But the truly ominous turn is how many of them now are dark-money outfits that don’t disclose donors. Ian Vandewalker, the author of the Brennan Center report, noted that dark-money single-candidate groups weren’t significant spenders in past Senate races.
Republicans appear to have a monopoly on the biggest of these groups, though the Brennan Center concludes that the Senate Majority PAC, run by former staffers of Senate majority leader Harry Reid, is probably elbowing out candidate-specific PACs for Democrats by serving as a catch-all for endangered Democrats. It is also almost wholly funding Put Alaska First, listed above, which is the second-biggest candidate-specific spending group in the midterms.
In some races, like Colorado, Iowa and Louisiana, buddy groups aren’t very active. In others, like Kentucky and Alaska, they are the biggest non-party spenders in the game, the report shows:
The Brennan Center also says single-candidate spending groups “are a major factor in House races this cycle.” Three of the thirteen toss-up House districts have seen “significant” spending by single-candidate groups, and in two of those races single-candidate groups “dominate” the outside spending.
The heart of the problem is the chance for corruption: big donors are using these groups to supercharge their influence over candidates. The Brennan Center looked at the donors to candidate-specific Super PACs, which must disclose donors, and found seventy-six donors who maxed out to a candidate’s campaign while also donating to a buddy group. For the dark-money groups, it’s reasonable to expect roughly the same pattern.
Looking at buddy groups that accept individual contributions, the Brennan Center found that 99 percent came from double-dipping donors. Only one group had less than 70 percent of donations from such donors.
Federal election law puts donation limits in place to limit potential corruption of candidates by powerful donors, but buddy groups are laying waste to that principle. “It’s as obvious as can be that if someone can give a million dollars, in essence, to directly support a candidate, the million dollars creates the opportunity for quid pro quo,” Wertheimer said.
Moreover, significant corporate and labor union money is no doubt flowing into these groups, which would otherwise be forbidden. Much of the corporate money is hidden; it’s true across the campaign finance world that corporations much prefer 501(c)(4) groups that don’t disclose donors, as opposed to Super PACs.
Even if these buddy groups were operating independently of campaigns, there would be the opportunity for serious corruption. But election law allows these groups to be run by former aides to the candidate. The official campaign and the buddy group are also allowed to share vendors, including for strategy and messaging, and the candidates can raise money for the buddy group. Campaign materials can also be used by buddy groups—that’s why Mitch McConnell put up wordless b-roll of the senator smiling that later became widely mocked.
The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, to extend the example, is run by Steven Law, a former top McConnell aide. In 2012 The Washington Post said Law and McConnell “remain a powerful combined force in Washington.”
Sometimes single-candidate groups can be a family affair. The Post reported earlier this year about some unusual arrangements in the primary campaigns: for example, Mike Turner, running for a House seat from Oklahoma, had by his side a buddy group funded mainly by his mother and grandfather. Ben Sasse, a Republican who is likely the next senator from Nebraska, was boosted in the primary by a buddy group where the sole funder was his 87-year-old great uncle.
Priorities for Iowa, which is solely backing Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst, is run by a consulting firm that also employs a consultant for Ernst’s official campaign, the Brennan Center report notes. They claim there’s a “firewall” in place, but many analysts find this common defense laughable.
“This is a charade. Everyone who’s involved knows what’s going on,” said Wertheimer about single-candidate groups generally. “The idea that this is independent from the candidate’s campaign and therefore you don’t have to worry about campaign limits is absurd.”