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Inside the Koch-Backed Effort to Block the Largest Election-Reform Bill in Half a Century

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Jane Mayer writes in the New Yorker:

In public, Republicans have denounced Democrats’ ambitious electoral-reform bill, the For the People Act, as an unpopular partisan ploy. In a contentious Senate committee hearing last week, Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, slammed the proposal, which aims to expand voting rights and curb the influence of money in politics, as “a brazen and shameless power grab by Democrats.” But behind closed doors Republicans speak differently about the legislation, which is also known as House Resolution 1 and Senate Bill 1. They admit the lesser-known provisions in the bill that limit secret campaign spending are overwhelmingly popular across the political spectrum. In private, they concede their own polling shows that no message they can devise effectively counters the argument that billionaires should be prevented from buying elections.

A recording obtained by The New Yorker of a private conference call on January 8th, between a policy adviser to Senator Mitch McConnell and the leaders of several prominent conservative groups—including one run by the Koch brothers’ network—reveals the participants’ worry that the proposed election reforms garner wide support not just from liberals but from conservative voters, too. The speakers on the call expressed alarm at the broad popularity of the bill’s provision calling for more public disclosure about secret political donors. The participants conceded that the bill, which would stem the flow of dark money from such political donors as the billionaire oil magnate Charles Koch, was so popular that it wasn’t worth trying to mount a public-advocacy campaign to shift opinion. Instead, a senior Koch operative said that opponents would be better off ignoring the will of American voters and trying to kill the bill in Congress.

Kyle McKenzie, the research director for the Koch-run advocacy group Stand Together, told fellow-conservatives and Republican congressional staffers on the call that he had a “spoiler.” “When presented with a very neutral description” of the bill, “people were generally supportive,” McKenzie said, adding that “the most worrisome part . . . is that conservatives were actually as supportive as the general public was when they read the neutral description.” In fact, he warned, “there’s a large, very large, chunk of conservatives who are supportive of these types of efforts.”

As a result, McKenzie conceded, the legislation’s opponents would likely have to rely on Republicans in the Senate, where the bill is now under debate, to use “under-the-dome-type strategies”—meaning legislative maneuvers beneath Congress’s roof, such as the filibuster—to stop the bill, because turning public opinion against it would be “incredibly difficult.” He warned that the worst thing conservatives could do would be to try to “engage with the other side” on the argument that the legislation “stops billionaires from buying elections.” McKenzie admitted, “Unfortunately, we’ve found that that is a winning message, for both the general public and also conservatives.” He said that when his group tested “tons of other” arguments in support of the bill, the one condemning billionaires buying elections was the most persuasive—people “found that to be most convincing, and it riled them up the most.”

McKenzie explained that the Koch-founded group had invested substantial resources “to see if we could find any message that would activate and persuade conservatives on this issue.” He related that “an A.O.C. message we tested”—one claiming that the bill might help Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez achieve her goal of holding “people in the Trump Administration accountable” by identifying big donors—helped somewhat with conservatives. But McKenzie admitted that the link was tenuous, since “what she means by this is unclear.” “Sadly,” he added, not even attaching the phrase “cancel culture” to the bill, by portraying it as silencing conservative voices, had worked. “It really ranked at the bottom,” McKenzie said to the group. “That was definitely a little concerning for us.”

Gretchen Reiter, the senior vice-president of communications for Stand Together, declined to respond to questions about the conference call or the Koch group’s research showing the robust popularity of the proposed election reforms. In an e-mailed statement, she said, “Defending civil liberties requires more than a sound bite,” and added that the group opposes the bill because “a third of it restricts First Amendment rights.” She included a link to an op-ed written by a member of Americans for Prosperity, another Koch-affiliated advocacy group, which argues that the legislation violates donors’ freedom of expression by requiring the disclosure of the names of those who contribute ten thousand dollars or more to nonprofit groups involved in election spending. Such transparency, the op-ed suggests, could subject donors who prefer to remain anonymous to retaliation or harassment.

The State Policy Network, a confederation of right-wing think tanks with affiliates in every state, convened the conference call days after the Democrats’ twin victories in the Senate runoffs in Georgia, which meant that the Party had won the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress, making it likely that the For the People Act would move forward. Participants included Heather Lauer, the executive director of People United for Privacy, a conservative group fighting to keep nonprofit donors’ identities secret, and Grover Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, who expressed alarm at the damage that the disclosure provisions could do. “The left is not stupid, they’re evil,” he warned. “They know what they’re doing. They have correctly decided that this is the way to disable the freedom movement.”

Coördinating directly with the right-wing policy groups, which define themselves as nonpartisan for tax purposes, were two top Republican congressional staffers: Caleb Hays, the general counsel to the Republicans on the House Administration Committee, and Steve Donaldson, a policy adviser to McConnell. “When it comes to donor privacy, I can’t stress enough how quickly things could get out of hand,” Donaldson said, indicating McConnell’s concern about the effects that disclosure requirements would have on fund-raising. Donaldson added, “We have to hold our people together,” and predicted that the fight is “going to be a long one. It’s going to be a messy one.” But he insisted that McConnell was “not going to back down.” Neither Donaldson nor Hays responded to requests for comment. David Popp, a spokesperson for McConnell, said, “We don’t comment on private meetings.”

Nick Surgey, the executive director of Documented, a progressive watchdog group that investigates corporate money in politics, told me it made sense that McConnell’s staffer was on the call, because the proposed legislation “poses a very real threat to McConnell’s source of power within the Republican Party, which has always been fund-raising.” Nonetheless, he said that the close coördination on messaging and tactics between the Republican leadership and technically nonpartisan outside-advocacy groups was “surprising to see.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

29 March 2021 at 1:24 pm

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