The Koch brothers, David and Charles, on a protest sign
Republicans' most likely path to retaking the Senate in November requires GOPers to pick up seats in six key states: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. Of the six, Alaska—where Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is facing off against former Republican Attorney General Dan Sullivan—may be the closest race. That's why right-wing groups backed by the likes of the Koch brothers and Karl Rove are dumping millions into the state—and why Alaska unions are pulling out all the stops this year to make sure Begich, a fierce supporter of labor, carries the day.
"This is literally the most active we've ever been in an election cycle," says Vince Beltrami, the president of the Alaska AFL-CIO, which represents nearly all unions in the state.
Union members have been working the phones, pushing out mailings, and canvassing on behalf of Begich. Volunteers have even taken the unusual step of door-knocking in areas far outside of Alaska's urban centers, says Jerry McBeath, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Because of the unprecedented level of campaign action this year, Beltrami says, the AFL-CIO had to rent out an extra 7,000-square-foot warehouse.
In addition to boots-on-the-ground support for Begich, unions are also throwing down for TV ads to help ensure the freshman senator gets a second term in office. The political action committee affiliated with the International Association of Fire Fighters, for example, recently spent $165,000 on TV ads against Sullivan. The National Education Association's super-PAC unveiled an ad in early September slamming Sullivan for a misleading claim he made about going after a Wall Street firm that gave the state bad financial advice and cost the public pension fund billions of dollars. Around the same time, four statewide unions—Alaska Professional Fire Fighters, Alaska Public Employees Association, Alaska State Employees Association, and National Education Association-Alaska—held a press conference in midtown Anchorage to respond to the same disingenuous ad.
Labor unions are some of the top contributors to Senate Majority PAC, the organization that provides most of the funding for Put Alaska First, the political action committee that backs Begich and has run a majority of commercials supporting him.
Begich has a solid pro-labor track record. Since his election to the Senate in 2009, he has backed legislation that would give collective bargaining rights to public safety officers, cosponsored the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize for better wages and benefits, and voted against a bill that would have banned Transportation Security Administration employees from collective bargaining. After Begich won his Senate race in November 2008, he delayed his resignation as mayor of Anchorage to oversee the signing of generous five-year contracts with unions representing municipal workers, firefighters, electrical workers, and cops. One out of every four Alaskans is either in a union or has a family member in a union. The state has the second-highest union membership rate in the country.
The giant push by labor this year comes not only because the race is one of the most competitive in the country and could decide which party controls the Senate. The wave of union action is also a backlash against the onslaught of money pouring into the state in support of Sullivan from the billionaire Koch brothers' dark-money group Americans for Prosperity and GOP operative Karl Rove's super-PAC, American Crossroads. The groups—which support the rollback of collective bargaining rights and back right-to-work laws, which prevent unions from compelling employees to join or pay dues to a union—are dumping money into the Alaska Senate race for the first time ever.
"They're up here on the airwaves 24 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to tie Mark to Obama," Beltrami says. "They say things 50 times a day on the airwaves that aren't true. You gotta push back."
Unions have a unique edge when it comes to pushing back, McBeath explains. He says unions could swing this election in Begich's favor because the amount of outside money flowing in means "the airwaves are almost bought out, and other means of campaigning—like door-to-door—are more important than they would be in a typical Senate race."
It makes sense that the unions are going no-holds-barred to make sure Begich wins in November. It'll be rough going all the way though—in part because not all rank-and-file members will fall in line with union leadership at the polls, says Carl Shepro, a former political science professor at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. "There are so many conservative voters in Alaska," he says. Even if they're part of a union, "that doesn't mean that they'll vote liberal."
Update, Sunday, October 19: On Saturday, the Supreme Court upheld Texas' "discriminatory" voter ID law, potentially disenfranchising some 600,000 largely minority voters ahead of the midterms.
Update, Wednesday, October 15: After a federal trial court struck down Texas' "discriminatory" new voter ID law last week, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the state can enforce the restrictive law after all in November. Opponents of the law may file an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court.
On Thursday evening, two separate courts blocked restrictive voter ID laws in Wisconsin and Texas that could have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of mostly black and Latino voters in the upcoming November midterm elections.
Both states' laws would have required voters to provide photo identification before casting their ballots. Such laws reduce minority and youth turnout, according to a Government Accountability Office study released Wednesday.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued an emergency order blocking a voter ID law Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed in 2011. The court cited no reason for its move, which is common for emergency orders. Voting rights advocates challenging the law had charged that if it were in effect in November it would "virtually guarantee chaos at the polls," the New York Times reported, as the state would not have enough time to issue IDs and train poll workers before the election. There are about 300,000 registered voters in Wisconsin who lack an ID. Most of them are black or Hispanic.
Also on Thursday, a federal trial court in Texas struck down that state’s voter ID law, ruling that it overly burdened minority voters, who are less likely to have a government-issued ID, and as such violated the Voting Rights Act. More than 600,000 registered voters in Texas lack appropriate IDs.
The move by the Supreme Court reverses a recent trend by the high court upholding voting restrictions. The court upheld a law in Ohio that cut down on early voting, as well as a measure North Carolina enacted in 2013 eliminating same-day registration and banning the counting of ballots accidentally cast at the wrong precinct.
Both Texas and Wisconsin had claimed their laws would crack down on voter fraud. Confirmed instances of in-person voter fraud are rarer than UFO sightings.
Late last month, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine released a new campaign ad bragging that she tried to avert the government shutdown crisis last year, when tea party GOPers held the federal budget hostage in an effort to take down Obamacare. "On all three votes on those two days, Susan Collins voted against shutting down the government," the ad claims. That's not quite right.
Collins couldn't have voted against shutting down the government because there was never a direct vote on whether or not to close the government at the end of September 2013, explains Sarah Binder, an expert on legislative politics at the Brookings Institution. At the time, the GOP-controlled House would not agree to a government funding bill that was acceptable to President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate. That impasse led to the government shutdown when the two sides couldn't reach an agreement. "Did she explicitly vote against the shutdown?" Binder says. "There was not such an explicit direct vote."
Instead, Collins thrice voted for bills that would have kept the government open only if Obama and Senate Democrats agreed to defund or delay Obamacare.
Here's the background. In late September of 2013, House Republicans passed a short-term spending bill that would have stripped funding from Obama's new health insurance program, even though Obama and Senate Democrats had warned Republicans that they would never support any measure that dismantled the Affordable Care Act. When the Senate took up that bill, Democrats voted to remove that provision defunding Obamacare. Collins voted with every other GOPer in the Senate to keep the anti-Obamacare measure in the bill funding government operations.
The House GOPers tried again. They took up that Senate-approved bill, added new language that would partially delay implementation of Obamacare, and passed it. Back over in the upper chamber, senators again voted along party lines to reject the Obamacare measure, with Collins and her fellow Republicans once more voting to keep an anti-Obamacare poison-pill provision in the spending bill.
The story is not over yet. The House Republicans tried a third and final time. Now they voted for a spending bill that included a one-year delay of Obamacare's individual mandate, and a provision that would have blocked members of Congress and their staffers from receiving government subsidies for health insurance they obtained through the Affordable Care Act. The Senate Democrats once more stripped the anti-Obamacare amendment from the spending legislation—and Collins and her fellow GOPers again voted to preserve it.
Experts on congressional procedure say that even though there was no direct vote on shutting down the government, Collins can claim she tried to prevent a shutdown during this dramatic legislative face-off by voting for a spending bill (even one with a provision unacceptable to the president and the Senate majority). "You can always argue that following the vote the other side would have given up," explains Scott Lilly, an expert on federal budget policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Binder echoes this: "The House version of the [spending bill] would have kept the government open—had Democrats gone along." A spokesman for the Collins campaign makes much the same argument. But that is the same as saying one voted for legislation that would have prevailed had not the majority opposed it.
At the 11th hour, House Republicans asked the Senate to negotiate a final version of the spending bill. Collins and her fellow Senate GOPers voted in favor of negotiating, but Dems rejected the move because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had conditioned negotiations on the House Republicans approving a government funding bill without any anti-Obamacare measures. No such bill passed, and the government ran out of money.
The resulting shutdown caused all manner of chaos, including the suspension of a nutrition program for pregnant women and babies, the temporary shuttering of national parks, and the furloughing of tens of thousands of federal employees.
Eventually, Republicans caved and agreed to a bill without anti-Obamacare measures—which allowed outside observers to wonder if the GOP attempt to defund Obamacare via this spending bill, an effort Collins supported, had all been for naught. But Collins did lead the bipartisan group of senators who crafted the temporary agreement to fund the government and end the shutdown, a fact her campaign has been touting as evidence of her moderate record. The truth, though, about her role in this episode of government dysfunction—she cast no vote against the shutdown—is more murky than her campaign's heroic account.
If the GOP wins the Senate, they'll no doubt use the opportunity to push through a range of measures that are kryptonite to Democratic voters—new abortion restrictions, limits on the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to combat climate change, a relaxation of the rules reining in Wall Street's worst excesses.
But Republicans are particularly keen on handicapping one particular federal watchdog: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the three-year-old agency that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) devised and helped build in the wake of the financial crisis.
The bureau's job is to make sure Americans aren't getting screwed by mortgage lenders, credit card companies, debt collectors, and other financial institutions. It's the first federal agency designed specifically to protect everyday consumers from financial wrongdoing, and Republicans have done everything in their power to hobble the agency—including fighting the confirmation of its director, Richard Cordray. Winning the Senate in November could be their best chance to roll back Warren's greatest accomplishment.
"You just have to watch the House to see what is going to come out of the Senate."
Half of their work is already done. The House has passed a bill that would limit the bureau's power by replacing its director with a five-member panel, and subjecting its budget to the congressional appropriations process—meaning that hostile lawmakers could starve it to death. (Unlike most federal agencies, the bureau is bankrolled by the Federal Reserve, an effort to free it from the whims of partisan politics.) House Republicans have also introduced legislation to let other financial regulators overturn CFPB rules,to eliminate a fund the bureau uses to compensate consumers who've been defrauded by an institution that's gone belly-up, and to restrict the kind of data the bureau may collect from consumers. (Republicans have charged that the CFPB's collection of credit data is a violation of privacy, even though the bureau does not collect any personal details the consumer doesn't volunteer.)
The Democratic-controlled Senate has refused to consider these types of bills from the House, but the floodgates would open with a GOP takeover. "You just have to watch the House to see what is going to come out of the Senate," says a Senate Democratic staffer who works on banking issues.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who is expected to chair the banking committee if his party takes the Senate, has led the charge to water down the CFPB's powers. Financial-reform advocates say he would likely speed the House bills through committee.
President Obama, of course, has his veto power—Senate Dems could block legislation so long as Republicans lack a filibuster-proof majority. But Obama and his party might cave, Hill staffers say, if anti-CFPB legislation were attached to a bill they really had to pass, such as an appropriations bill or a debt ceiling measure.
The financial industry and Republicans are likely to sell these Dodd-Frank rollbacks as "small technical" fixes, a former Treasury Department official told me, and "the White House is more likely to cave" and sign them into law if "they don't have help from a Democratic Senate in blocking and tackling."
A GOP Senate would scale back financial regulations "in so many ways," the Democratic Senate staffer says, "I don't know where to start."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
Last week, Congress once again delayed federal funding to help catch rapists.
Here's the backstory. In March, President Barack Obama asked Congress to fund a new Justice Department program designed to help states and localities test backlogs of rape kits, which include DNA evidence taken after a sexual assault and are used to identify attackers. The funding would likely also go toward investigating and prosecuting rape cases.
In May, the Republican-controlled House passed a massive spending bill for 2015 that included $41 million for the rape kit program, and a key committee in the Democratic-run Senate approved the same spending in June. But after a spat on the Senate floor over unrelated amendments Republicans wanted added to the bill, Democratic leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) yanked the legislation. Consequently, Congress had to resort to a short-term spending bill to keep the government operating until mid-December. The House and Senate approved it last week, and Obama signed it Friday. Because it's a stop-gap spending bill, the legislation continues government spending at current levels, leaving out most new funding—including the money for the rape kit processing program.
More partisan bickering this winter could cause lawmakers to fail to pass a full appropriations bill until February or March, according to experts on congressional procedure, forcing rape victims to wait another six months or so to see the program enacted. That is, if this spending bill does include the rape kit money. (Last Thursday, the Senate approved a separate House-passed bill reauthorizing an existing program designed to process backlogged DNA evidence from all sorts of crimes, including rape kits. But the existing funding, which was first authorized in 2004, has not been sufficient to clear the backlog—which is why advocates were pushing for the new money.)
"The slowdown in appropriating funds for the rape kit program is a classic example of how Congress' legislative dysfunction blocks even the smallest of bipartisan initiatives," says Sarah Binder, an expert on legislative politics at the Brookings Institution.
Spokesmen for both the House and Senate appropriations committees say they are confident that local jurisdictions won't have to wait until next spring to get the federal money they need to process rape kits. They note the consensus on Capitol Hill is that Congress will pass an appropriations bill with the rape kit funding in mid-December. But Binder is less optimistic. If Republicans win the Senate in the midterm elections, she says, GOPers might block passage of a spending bill until they assume control of the Senate in January. At that point, Binder explains, Republicans may be tempted to "use those spending bills as leverage" to force Dems to accept Republican priorities. That could bring things to a halt in Congress and localities may have to wait longer until money is allocated for the rape kit program.
Meanwhile, local prosecutors are struggling to wade through their backlogs. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, has a backlog of 1,650 rape cases requiring investigation and the county won't complete the probes until 2019, according to local county officials. "Our great hope from the federal money is that it would help [counties] like us…hire more investigators and advocates so we can speed that time line," says Joe Frolick, the spokesman for Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty.
Kym Worthy, the county prosecutor in Wayne County, Michigan, plans to apply for a portion of the $41 million grant as soon as Congress approves the funding. "I'd like it to happen tomorrow," she told Mother Jones in August. "Every day that goes by is another day that the victims have to wait for justice. This is the first grant of its kind where they really got what it takes."
"[S]o many of us—mayors, police chiefs, district attorneys, victim advocates, state legislators, and governors—are doing all we can to end the backlog," Sarah Tofte, a prominent victim advocate, says. "Isn't it time that Congress did?"
The federal government does not track the number of untested rape kits. That work has been left largely to advocates and journalists. The states with the largest known backlogs are Texas and Tennessee, which each have about 20,000 unprocessed kits in storage. Detroit has more than 11,000 unprocessed kits, and Memphis has over 12,000. Detroit recently tested 1,600 of its backlogged kits, helping the city identify 87 suspected serial rapists and leading to at least 14 convictions.
Here's a look at the rape kit backlog around the country, via End the Backlog: