Sadly, we’ve all grown used to the idea that nothing gets through the U.S. Senate these days without the support of at least 60 senators. Procedural tricks and a misuse of the filibuster rule has ground legislation to a near halt in the years since President Barack Obama took office. But when it came to a vote to ensure that disabled persons have the same rights as anyone else—including the right to avoiding pregnancy or terminating unwanted ones—even 60 votes wasn’t enough.
The Senate voted 61 to 38 to ratify the United Nations Rights of Persons with Disabilities Treaty, which stated “nations should strive to assure that the disabled enjoy the same rights and fundamental freedoms as their fellow citizens,” according to the Associated Press. The treaty was modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act, but anti-choice activists rallied against it, claiming it “sacrifices the most vulnerable—the disabled and the unborn—all in the name of population control,” according to Bradley Mattes, president of the International Right to Life Federation.
Although anti-choice activists claimed concern that the treaty, if ratified, could expand access to abortion and somehow impede their efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, many of those who voted against the measure, such as Utah Sen. Mike Lee, pointed to fear of losing United States “sovereignty” as their reason for opposing the treaty.
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Last year, Republican senators, led by far-right ideologues Michael Farris and Rick Santorum, defeated ratification of a UN treaty based on the Americans With Disabilities Act. Will they succeed again this year?
If a note of exasperation sounded in the voice of Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday during his testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, perhaps it’s because he had seen this movie only a year before, but from a different vantage point.
In November 2012, Kerry presided over the Foreign Relations Committee when the Senate, failing to muster the two-thirds majority required to ratify a treaty, kept the United States from joining the United Nations Convention on Persons With Disabilities, to which 138 nations have signed.
The convention is supported by a range of veterans’ groups, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, disability-rights groups large and small, and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In his new role as secretary of state, Kerry said, “I am seeing, first hand, the need for this treaty in ways I never have before. It is not an abstract concept. This is not just a nice thing to do. It really raises the standards for many, and in countries where children with disabilities are warehoused from birth, denied even a birth certificate; they’re not even a person.”
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It’s comforting to dismiss the paranoid strain in right-wing ideology as the work of an inconsequential fringe, but one need only take stock of the questions asked of Kerry by committee members to see how deeply such outer-orbit groups as the John Birch Society and the Christian Reconstructionist Chalcedon Foundation have come to influence U.S. politics.
Last year, ratification of the convention was scuttled by false assertions by such far-right figures as Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, and Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Both have deemed the treaty to be a threat to the parents of home-schooled children, and a danger to the very sovereignty of the United States.
American children who wore glasses, Farris said, could, under the convention, be snatched from their homes by the United Nations. (Farris was a bit less hyperbolic in his appearance before the committee earlier this month.) Santorum then claimed that the treaty could prevent him from home-schooling his disabled daughter, Bella, who has a chromosomal disorder.
[p]rovide persons with disabilities with the same range, quality and standard of free or affordable health care and programmes as provided to other persons, including in the area of sexual and reproductive health and population-based public health programmes …
In other words, whatever kind of reproductive health benefits and access a nation grants to people who are not disabled, it must also grant to disabled people. That means that in a nation in which a state-sponsored reproductive health program includes abortion or birth control, access to that program must include disabled people. To obscure the fact that groups such as Personhood USA, Concerned Women for America, and the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM) apparently wish to deprive disabled people of the same benefits as the non-disabled, they wrongly claim that section guarantees a right to abortion. Alas, it does not.
What the convention does, ultimately, is assert the kinds of provisions guaranteed under the Americans With Disabilities Act as fundamental human rights. It has no provisions for enforcement, only a commission that can make suggestions to party nations.
Still, that did not stop Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who voted against the convention when it came up for ratification last year, from asking Kerry to refute right-wing claims. The right’s love affair with Rubio ended abruptly when the son of Cuban immigrants embraced a plan for comprehensive immigration reform. Then, in July, news broke that, in order to make up for his immigration faux pas, he would be the lead sponsor on the 20-week abortion ban recently introduced in the Senate. But, for some reason, he declined that role, leaving it to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who will likely face at least one Tea Party-allied primary challenger in 2014. (Rubio has signed on to Graham’s 20-week ban bill as a co-sponsor.)
At Thursday’s hearing, Rubio made a point of noting all the email he has received from constituents regarding that pesky section of the UN convention referring to reproductive health, and expressed a desire that an “understanding”—a “RUD” in treaty-speak, for “reservations, understandings or declarations”—be attached to the convention to make clear the U.S. position on Article 25.
Kerry replied that he thought the committee had done a pretty good job crafting an RUD on that issue in 2012 (when Kerry chaired the committee), “by making sure that it didn’t include any language regarding any medical procedure. I think we used the words, ‘medical procedure. … I thought we had threaded that needle very effectively.”
He continued, “But I do want to make it absolutely clear: Nothing in Article 25, or anywhere else in this treaty, creates a right to abortion. That is a domestic legal issue, and nothing in this treaty changes that.”
Rubio, clearly intent on articulating the far right’s greatest hits against the treaty, next moved on to the issue of home-schooling, a false flag hung on a provision in Article 7 of the convention, which states, “In all actions concerning children with disabilities, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”
In right-wing circles, focus is trained on the phrase “the best interests of the child,” which is misrepresented to the suspicious base as a determination to be made about individual children by the United Nations, which the leery authoritarians assume seeks to indoctrinate children in global-government-run schools.
“U.S. ratification of this treaty will have no impact on parental rights, home-schooling, or any other aspect of U.S. law,” Kerry replied to Rubio. “Now, we added, during the mark-up last year, RUDs—including an understanding proposed by [then] Sen. [Jim] DeMint (R-SC)—to allay the concerns of home-schoolers. I continue to support such an understanding if that will help address their concerns.”
(DeMint resigned from the Senate last year in order to take the helm at the right-wing Heritage Foundation.)
The overarching problem for the right, though, is that matter of national sovereignty—the thing the John Birch Society claims the UN was formed to destroy.
Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) offered Kerry, in the chairman’s opening round of questions, an opportunity to refute that notion.
“There is no impact on the sovereignty of the United States,” Kerry said. “In fact, we are exercising our sovereignty right now by doing what the Framers of the Constitution envisioned, which is ratifying a treaty. And the treaty doesn’t have any negative consequences on the United States … joining this treaty doesn’t require a change in U.S. law.”
After the hearing, I spoke briefly with Marca Bristo, president of the United States International Council on Disabilities, an umbrella organization for a number of mainstream groups representing disabled constituencies, including the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and Easter Seals, Inc.
Bristo expressed frustration that the false narrative about abortion continued to present an obstacle to getting the convention ratified. “As a feminist, it’s been so hard to watch something that we’ve worked so hard on … find itself in the middle of this very contentious issue,” Bristo said, “and we’re really hopeful that we’ll be able to get past that.”
The Article 25 language on reproductive and sexual health, Bristo said, is “a non-discrimination provision put in place because people with disabilities, all over the world, are denied the same access to health services of their non-disabled counterparts. That includes women with disabilities, so the only thing that that provision says is: If you offer women mammograms, then you have to let women with disabilities have them.” Or gynecological exams, or birth control—or access to abortion, if the nation that has signed on to the treaty offers abortion to women who are not disabled.
But, Bristo notes, another part of the treaty also aims to protect women from being forced to have abortions they do not want, and to ensure that disabled babies will be permitted to live.
“[A]nother part of the treaty … talks about the right to life,” Bristo explained. “The reason that that language was important, not only to the Vatican and to others who were on the ‘right to life’ side of things, but also to those of us in the disability community, is because in many places around the world women with disabilities are not allowed to give birth.” Some are sterilized, or in some countries women who are found to be carrying a fetus with anomalies are forced to have abortions. In some nations, babies born with disabilities are deprived of food and water until they die, Bristo said. And the treaty forbids all of those things.
“So this is a life-affirming, family-supporting treaty,” said Bristo, who uses a wheelchair. “And all we women with disabilities want is the same treatment as women around the world who aren’t people with disabilities.”
The assault had been years, even decades, in the making. But three years ago, a Supreme Court case, the U.S. Census, and anti-Obama backlash set the course for the arsonists who trained their flame-throwers on women's fundamental freedoms.
In the dog days of summer, the “war on women” erupted into a full-fledged conflagration, as heated battles to roll back reproductive rights in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures across the nation were met with protests from women’s rights groups and grassroots uprisings. While the religious right had, over the years, used its influence to restrict access to abortion and contraception and push for feticide and personhood laws, nothing quite like the anti-choice legislative frenzy seen this past summer had taken place before the Koch brothers entered the war, bringing reinforcements from their legion of wealthy associates.
In North Carolina, thousands of activists gathered weekly, throughout the legislative session, at the state capitol in Raleigh for Moral Monday protests of a host of right-wing measures ranging from voter ID laws to rollbacks of reproductive rights. Many were arrested for trying to enter the capitol building.
And in Texas, the state capitol building in Austin was crammed with protesters as state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) earned her place in Lone Star history with her 11-hour filibuster of a draconian anti-choice bill, SB 5, which, after being stopped by Davis and her pro-choice allies with a dramatic run-down of the clock, ultimately passed into law as HB 2 in a subsequent special session called by Republican Gov. Rick Perry.
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Back in Washington, D.C., the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed HR 1797, a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks post-conception.
To the untrained eye, it seemed that a sudden wildfire of anti-choice bills had engulfed the legislative agenda, but in truth the assault had been years, even decades, in the making. It wasn’t until three years ago, however, that conditions became so hospitable for the arsonists who trained their flame-throwers on these fundamental freedoms.
In 2010, three key events created the incendiary political landscape that fueled this summer’s inferno: the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down campaign finance restrictions in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, elections at the state and federal levels that rode the winds of backlash against the 2008 election of Barack Obama, and the subsequent census-year victories of right-wing Republicans whose gains in state legislatures and governors’ mansions gave them control of the process for drawing legislative and congressional districts.
There is little doubt that the rash of anti-choice measures that flooded the legislative dockets in state capitols in 2013 was a coordinated effort by anti-choice groups and major right-wing donors lurking anonymously behind the facades of the non-profit “social welfare” organizations unleashed to tear up the political landscape, thanks to the high court’s decision in Citizens United.
While similarly classified groups exist in progressive circles, they have nowhere near the funding provided to right-wing groups by wealthy, business-focused donors. Of the top-ten outside spending “social welfare” groups engaged in the 2012 elections, all but one were either right-wing or conservative.
Helping to drive the right-wing offensive in the states and in Congress is a network of deep-pocketed business titans convened by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, principals in Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held corporation in the United States. Like the Kochs themselves, many of the donors in the brothers’ networks signaldisinterest in fighting against women’s rights or LGBTQ rights, yet anti-choice groups have seen their coffers swell with millions of the network’s dollars.
“If you want to promote a pro-corporate agenda, you’re only going to get so far,” Sue Sturgis, the Durham, North Carolina-based editorial director of the progressive website Facing South, told Rewire. “But when you start weaving in these social issues like abortion and other reproductive rights issues, then you’re gonna appeal to a broader range of people, and a very motivated voting bloc. They will turn out. So it serves your larger cause.”
The Koch Connection
Rewire’s review of tax records filed by the Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR), taken together with a Politico report on the tax records of Freedom Partners, show these so-called free-market organizations, both linked to the Koch brothers, dispensing tens of millions of dollars to groups whose mission it is to end reproductive rights. CPPR was founded in 2009, and is described by the Los Angeles Times as “a primary conduit for anonymous political money in the 2010 midterm [congressional] election.” Freedom Partners was founded two years later, just in time to help shape the landscape of the 2012 presidential, congressional, and legislative races.
Koch Brothers Funding of Anti-Choice Groups, by Organization
more than $8 million to Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee
$32 million to Americans for Prosperity
$15.7 million to 60 Plus
Freedom Partners via CPPR
Since November 2011, the Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR) has recieved about $115 million from Freedom Partners. CPPR also took in some $11 million from Americans for Job Security, another pass-through group with connections to prominent businessmen Bob Fisher (director of The Gap, Inc.), Charles Schwab (founder and chairman of Charles Schwab Corporation), and Eli Broad (founder, KB Home and Sun America).
CPPR, in turn, has long had deep funding ties to anti-choice organizations. Here is a list of CPPR disbursements to anti-choice organizations by year.
$2.6 million to 60 Plus
$2.25 million to Americans for Prosperity
$250,000 to Independent Women’s Voice
$25,000 to Nebraska Right to Life
$9 million to 60 Plus
$1.9 million to Americans for Prosperity
$1 million to the Susan B. Anthony List
$559,000 to Americans United for Life Action
$45,000 to Americans United for Life
$2.4 million to 60 Plus
$1.5 million to Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee
Through the creation of non-profit organizations under sections 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) of the tax code, the Kochs and other political money-wranglers concocted several layers of obfuscation for their well-heeled friends to hide behind. The tax code protects groups in those categories from having to reveal their donors.
By its name, you might take the Koch-linked CPPR—now apparently defunct, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics—as yet another astroturf group launched to oppose Obamacare. Run by longtime Koch political operative Sean Noble, CPPR was indeed that, but it was much, much more. Known in political parlance as a pass-through group, CPPR was used by big, unnamed donors to pass money to other organizations, apparently as a means of further obscuring the original source of the funding.
Rewire, examining CPPR’s tax filings, confirmed reporting by NARAL Pro-Choice America and American Bridge that in 2010, it granted more than $1 million to the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, about half of the $2 million the group spent that year on advertising for anti-choice candidates and against pro-choice candidates in state and federal races across the country. The CPPR grant accounted for nearly 15 percent of the group’s overall revenues that year.
In Ohio, the SBA List mounted billboards in 2010 making the false claim that Obamacare included taxpayer-funded abortion. (When the Ohio Election Commission ruled that the billboards had to be taken down because the state’s election law prohibits false claims, the SBA List launched a legal challenge, which it has since lost in Ohio courts. The group has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review Ohio’s decision.)
In the 2012 elections, the SBA List upped its game, spending more than $11 million on races across the country, according to a memo reported by The Hill. Because 2012 tax filings were not yet available for public view at the time of publication, we cannot report whether CPPR provided any of those ad dollars.
CPPR’s generosity to groups that push for laws restricting access to reproductive health care and limit women’s rights in pregnancy doesn’t end with the SBA List. In 2010, it provided Americans United for Life Action (AULA) with 39 percent of the group’s operating budget that year. It’s likely that the $559,000 AULA received from CPPR accounted for the $425,374 that it spent, according to AULA’s tax filing, on elections that year. CPPR also gave an additional $45,000 in 2010 to AULA’s sibling organization, Americans United for Life.
In 2011, CPPR gave $1.5 million to the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee (CWALAC); that more than filled the $500,000 hole Mother Jones’ Stephanie Mencimer reported the organization dug for itself after spending $2 million in the 2010 elections—with a cool $1 million left over for the committee’s anti-choice lobbying in state legislatures, and millions more to come from Freedom Partners, another Koch-linked group. CWALAC was deeply involved in pushing the passage of the Texas anti-choice law.
CPPR also dispensed smaller sums to other anti-choice groups, including $250,000 in 2009 to Independent Women’s Voice, which opposes the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act, and $25,000 to Nebraska Right to Life, which the following year helped pass the first state-level 20-week abortion ban, based on a model bill crafted by the National Right to Life Committee.
So where does CPPR get its money? Like other 501(c)(4) non-profits, it doesn’t have to disclose its donors. But tax filings from Freedom Partners, a 501(c)(6) organization, show, according to an investigation by Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, that since November 2011 CPPR took in some $115 million from Freedom Partners, which Politico editors dubbed “the Koch brothers’ secret bank.”
And lest you think CPPR’s $1.5 million grant to the CWALAC was extraordinarily generous, Freedom Partners also gifted CWALAC with more than $8 million since Freedom Partners’ founding in late 2011, according to the Politico report.
That would make Freedom Partners a sort of granddaddy pass-through group, providing pass-through money to another pass-through organization—CPPR—which, in turn, gave $1.5 million of granddaddy’s money to an anti-choice group, CWALAC, to which granddaddy had already given millions.
Until Politicobroke the story of Freedom Partners’ free-spending involvement in the 2012 elections, few in Washington knew of the group’s existence, despite the presence of longtime Koch confidante Richard Fink, a former president of two Koch family foundations, on Freedom Partner’s board. “[Freedom Partners] made grants of $236 million — meaning a totally unknown group was the largest sugar daddy for conservative groups in the last election,” write Allen and VandeHei.
Donors to the group, they report, are drawn from the network that attends the Koch brothers’ super-secret annual retreats, and pay around $100,000 annually in dues.
Americans for Job Security, another pass-through group with a “free enterprise” kind of name, donated some $11 million to CPPR. Donors to Americans for Job Security, according to the Los Angeles Times, include business giants Bob Fisher, chairman of The Gap chain of retail stores; Charles Schwab, chairman of the eponymous brokerage firm; and Eli Broad, the entrepreneur and philanthropist. All are billionaires.
Dark Money and Not-So-Strange Bedfellows
The court’s decision in Citizens United was handed down just as campaigns for the 2010 midterm congressional and legislative elections got under way, allowing the right to capitalize on resentment against the election of the nation’s first African-American president, who, during his presidential campaign, had been vilified with false narratives about his birthplace, religious faith, and ideology.
Now armed with the ability to spend unrestricted sums, yielded from the contributions of unnamed donors, to influence political campaigns, a group such as the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity—one of two major organizations responsible for organizing Tea Party groups in 2009 by ginning up opposition to the Affordable Care Act—was free to spend some $40 million, by its own accounting, on an estimated 100 races across the country in 2010. (The other was FreedomWorks, which was also founded with Koch money, but no longer receives funding from the brothers, according to FreedomWorks leaders.)
The result was a transfer of power in the U.S. House of Representatives from the Democrats to the Republicans, as the GOP picked up 63 seats. At the state level, the Republican gains were even more stark, with Republicans gaining control of an additional 11 state legislatures to the 14 they already held, and winning a net gain of six governors’ mansions, bringing the total number of GOP governors that year to 29.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, since 2011—the year those elected in 2010 took power—state legislatures have passed more than 200 restrictions on abortion. “That’s about the same number that had passed in the prior 10 years combined,” writes Esmé E. Deprez of Bloomberg.
Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner marks the attack on public workers in her state in 2010—spearheaded by the Koch-linked American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the national “free-enterprise” group that also led the charge against public-sector workers and unions in Wisconsin and Indiana that year—as the opening gambit in the right-wing, state-based legislative offensive that culminated this legislative session with the anti-choice measures shoved, last minute, into the state’s budget bill. “It’s not happenstance,” she told Rewire. “It is well-organized.”
It follows that attacks on reproductive rights came on the heels of the assault against labor unions, public-sector workers, and poor people that began, most famously, in Wisconsin, as soon as the Republican right racked up impressive state-level wins in 2010, or that renewed attacks on voting rights ensued at the same time.
Unlike the more homogenous Republican Party, the Democratic coalition includes voters from a range of populations, including members of organized labor as well as members of ethnic and racial minority groups whose participation in elections has historically depended on voting rights protections. If you make it harder to organize those voters, or more difficult for them to pass muster at the polls, as voter ID laws do, you diminish the coalition’s impact.
“So whether we’re going backwards with the ‘war on women,’ whether we’re going backwards with workers’ rights, or backwards with voting rights,” Turner said, “if you look at what is happening across this nation, we are not progressing; we’re regressing.”
Members of the Koch network are primarily motivated by a quest to eliminate worker, consumer, and environmental protections in the interest of reaping even greater profits for their businesses. In order to accrue power in the electoral arena, however, they’re apparently all too eager to feed the fears of white social conservatives—including the fear of government intrusion—who can be counted on to vote against liberals.
While most of the groups behind the attacks on unions claim no official position on abortion or reproductive health, they share an interest with anti-choice groups in depleting the power of Democrats, who are more inclined to support reproductive rights. In most states, in fact, the very same legislators who champion the right’s pro-business, anti-regulatory agenda were the ones who advanced legislation to heap new and destructive regulations on abortion clinics, and to restrict women’s rights.
In the Texas House, for example, Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Murphy), who sponsored the anti-choice legislation that led to Davis’ Senate filibuster, also heads the state chapter of ALEC. (While ALEC’s designation under the Internal Revenue Service code as a 501(c)(3) organization prohibits it from directly participating in elections, the corporations comprising its membership [including Koch Industries] have political action committees that do.)
Even if their business-boosting patrons in the Koch network wanted to stop the Tea Partiers from ramming through draconian abortion restrictions by any means necessary—which the money men clearly don’t, even if party elders might—they probably couldn’t, said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, president of Lake Research Partners. “This is their ideological agenda,” Lake said of the Tea Party legislators. “They really believe in this. … This is what they always wanted to do.”
And they know that the measures they’re pushing are controversial, she said. Why else would they need to sneak them through the legislative process, as was done in the Ohio budget bill or the North Carolina motorcycle safety bill?
“Thieves in the night,” Nina Turner called it.
In Texas, the abortion bill required two special sessions to pass, and, according to state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), a defiance of Senate traditions in the manner in which the bill was brought up.
“Free Market” = Anti-Choice
To focus explicitly on the Koch network’s generosity to groups attacking reproductive rights alone only tells a part of the story of the anti-woman furor that rocked state legislatures and the U.S. House in 2013.
For instance, the $32 million given by Freedom Partners to Americans for Prosperity (AFP)—which describes its mission as “educating citizens about economic policy and mobilizing those citizens as advocates in the public policy process”—was nearly all deployed in support of candidates who are anti-choice, as was the $15.7 million bestowed on 60 Plus, “free-market,” anti-Obamacare group that claims to represent senior citizens.
Both of those groups also received windfalls from the Center to Protect Patient Right; Americans for Prosperity pocketed $2.25 million from CPPR in 2009 and $1.9 million in 2010, while 60 Plus won $2.6 million in CPPR money in 2009, a whopping $9 million in 2010, and another $2.4 million in 2011.
During the 2012 elections, AFP spent some $33 million on ads designed to defeat the reelection of President Obama, but that only scratches the surface of what the group was up to. It’s difficult to track how much was spent in state races, although the Washington Post reported that in Arkansas alone, AFP laid out $1 million for activities and ads in legislative races—and succeeded in turning the state house red.
Overall, AFP engaged in local and state-level issues and races in some 35 states, according to the Washington Post.
During the epic battle in July of the Texas abortion bill, Peggy Venable, director of AFP’s Texas chapter, tweeted, “#SB1 #HB2 will be determined by whether legislators believe a 20-wk-old fetus is a baby or a choice #TXlege #NoMiddleGround.”
So much for that singular economic policy mission.
In North Carolina’s 2012 legislative races, some $14.5 million was spent by the outside groups empowered by the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, a marked uptick from 2010, when 11 outside spending groups accounted for a total of $2.6 million. According to Facing South’s Sue Sturgis, 75 percent of that 2010 money came from groups supported by or affiliated with one man, Art Pope, a wealthy businessman who has also served as chairman of the board of David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity.
The 2010 Republican victories propelled by Pope’s groups yielded a majority in the legislature; the gerrymandered districts rendered by that majority gave the Republicans a veto-proof supermajority. Not that they needed the veto-proof part: Pope helped elect Republican Pat McCrory to the governor’s mansion and took the helm of the new governor’s transition team. The transition team named Pope to the position of state budget director, where he sits today.
Pope also leads and supports a number of North Carolina groups and think tanks, including the Civitas Institute, whose creation of an online database containing personal information about the protesters arrested in civil disobedience actions during the Moral Monday gatherings during the legislative session raised eyebrows, especially for including information about the protesters’ home addresses and the names of their employers.
A regular attendee of the Koch brothers’ retreats, Pope likes to be known as a champion of free enterprise, not an anti-choice zealot. Nonetheless, Pope money helped propel the anti-choice measures that were shoved into a motorcycle-safety bill, with the North Carolina Family Policy Council leading the charge. The Family Policy Council, as it turns out, is the state affiliate of the anti-gay, anti-choice Family Research Council, and Pope’s family foundation donates to both groups.
If 2010 offered the right an advantage in the midterm elections, thanks to Citizens United and the anti-Obama backlash, its place in the decennial calendar was a boon to the Kochs and their allies as they set about making over the Republican Party in their own image. It was a census year, and the U.S. Census, taken every decade in years ending in zero, also sets in motion the boundary-setting process for legislative and congressional districts. In each state house, the party in power gets to redraw district lines. (States each have their own rules about whether the process is conducted by the legislature or the governor’s office.)
Whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge, each party draws the districts to favor its candidates. But 2010’s Republicans are a special breed.
With right-wing Republicans having trounced Democrats in the midterms and several notable Republicans in the that year’s primaries, they gained control of the redistricting process in many states, where they set about redrawing the lines of congressional and legislative districts in such a way that only very conservative Republicans could win, for instance, finding ways to make the votes of Black and Latino populations less influential within a given district.
In some cases, the outcome of redistricting gave the right enhanced sway. In Ohio’s 2012 congressional elections, for example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that even though the state’s population was almost evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters, Republicans enjoyed a 12-4 edge in the outcome of House seat races, while the U.S. Senate seat contested that year was won by a progressive Democrat. (Senate races are statewide elections, not determined by district.)
“This is the reason why, in the State of Ohio, we can re-elect [U.S.] Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), we can re-elect the president of the United States, but we have a different result on the state level,” Nina Turner told Rewire. “It’s absolutely the result of gerrymandering.”
In North Carolina, Sue Sturgis sees redistricting as a factor exacerbating the polarization of her state, where abortion was among a host of contentious issues, including voting rights, that fueled the historic weekly Moral Monday protests.
“That’s certainly how it appears here, where you have a party that’s become more extreme, and is essentially rigging the system to be more extreme,” Sturgis said.
Republicans also won the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, despite the fact that Democrats won a majority of the popular vote.
In Texas, meanwhile, the worst impulses of district cartographers had been kept somewhat in check by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which subjected Texas—because of its history of disenfranchising non-white voters—to “pre-clear” certain changes to its district maps with the U.S. Department of Justice. In fact, without Texas’ place on the list of jurisdictions subjected to pre-clearance under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Wendy Davis would likely have lost her last Senate race because of an attempt to redistrict her voters away.
Davis won a challenge to the new district lines under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Since then, however, the Supreme Court struck down the portion of the act that made Texas subject to added scrutiny, opening the way for more race-based gerrymandering.
But as Justin Leavitt, associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, sees it, redistricting doesn’t tell the whole story, which he sees as one more of political polarization than a simple tale of game-rigging.
How else to explain what’s happened to the U.S. Senate, where candidates run statewide, asked Leavitt, an expert in redistricting. “The Senate’s not districted, and, lo and behold, the Senate’s more polarized, too,” he said.
That’s where the influence of the big-money, right-wing groups really matters.
A major player in Republican primaries is the Koch-linked Club for Growth, which appears to exist almost solely to challenge Republican incumbents its leaders deem to be not right-wing enough. With the group’s ad money looming as a threat, GOP incumbents face primary challenges in statewide races if their legislative votes veer from the playbook prescribed by right-wing leaders. The Club for Growth played a critical role in the election of Ted Cruz (R-TX) to the U.S. Senate in 2012, and Mike Lee (R-UT) to the same body in 2010, both through the Republican Party’s nomination process.
Indeed, the draconian abortion law that passed this summer in Texas had its origins, in part, in Ted Cruz’s Senate campaign. Backed by the Club for Growth and other donors allied with the Tea Party, Cruz essentially won his seat in a primary challenge to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R-Houston), who was dismissed as not conservative enough by the right-wing groups that came to control the Republican primary process.
Now up for re-election to his current office, Dewhurst needed to prove his bona fides to the right, said Texas Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), who chairs the Democratic caucus in the Texas state Senate. “This really comes down to the issue of, if you get primaried, or if you look like a moderate Republican, you can’t play to an extreme base,” Watson told Rewire.
Justin Leavitt says the jury’s out regarding the origins of the polarization that characterizes our current politics.
“Political scientists have an endless, probably unresolvable debate about whether it’s the party elites polarizing more and bringing the people along with them, or the people are polarizing more and bringing the party along with them,” Leavitt said. “But there’s far less cross-over voting or ticket-splitting than we’ve seen in the recent past.”
But what if it’s neither the people nor the party leaders? Could it be that the influence of outside spending groups, bent on challenging the established leadership of one party, has intensified the polarization of the whole body politic?
In red states across the nation, that “extreme base” mentioned by Watson has been nurtured and riled by a steady flow of advertising dollars from, as well as rallies and events sponsored by, the very groups unleashed by Citizens United, including “free-market” groups such as Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and the Center to Protect Patient Rights, and anti-choice groups such as the Susan B. Anthony List, Americans United for Life Action, and the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee.
An Overplayed Hand?
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake can’t help but smile when she thinks back to the soul-searching by Republicans in the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned a strategy document that especially emphasized the party’s need to be more friendly to women and members of ethnic and racial minorities.
“He must think they’ve absolutely gone crazy to jeopardize their status as a major competitive party if they keep at this,” Lake told Rewire.
Sue Sturgis concurs. “The Republicans have really pissed off a broad swath of the North Carolina public,” Sturgis said. “If you look at the people who have been involved in the protests, it’s not all Democrats. There have been Republicans who have been arrested, and independents. And you know this is … a purple state; it’s not a red state.”
A poll by Public Policy Polling taken as the motorcycle abortion bill made its way through the assembly bears out Sturgis’ assertion.
Not every Republican in the Texas state Senate was happy to have to cast a vote on the notorious SB 5 abortion bill filibustered by Wendy Davis, said Kirk Watson. “The truth of the matter is there were a lot of Republicans on the floor with heartache about this because they know they’ve got women that didn’t support what they were doing. It was very difficult for [Lt. Gov. Dewhurst] to even get that to the floor,” he said.
According to one Democrat present in the Texas Senate during the debate over the SB 5 version of the abortion bill, keeping the heat on Dewhurst during the fight over the bill was Elizabeth Graham, director of Texas Right to Life, who the source said was seen in Dewhurst’s office during the proceedings. Texas Right to Life spokesperson Emily Horne said she couldn’t confirm Graham’s presence in Dewhurst’s office, but didn’t deny it. “I wasn’t with her the whole day,” Horne said of Graham, “but I don’t believe that’s true.”
A message left with the lieutenant governor’s staff requesting confirmation of Graham’s presence in Dewhurst’s office during the debate went unanswered.
But given the limitations imposed on pro-choice candidates by the redistricting crafted by hardline anti-choice Republicans, and the vast flows of money from right-wing outside spending groups, how are the current pro-choice minorities in the affected states ever to gain a political majority?
“Statewide offices,” said Nina Turner. “In these states, the districts are rigged to such an extent that it may be nearly impossible to win any of those [legislative and congressional] districts that are extreme. We’ve got to do it by taking back the statewide offices. That is my recommendation to people here in the state of Ohio.”
Turner, it seems, is taking her own advice, launching a 2014 campaign for the office of secretary of state, the office that oversees the conduct of elections, challenging incumbent Republican Jon Husted, whom Turner calls the “secretary of suppression.” (During the 2012 presidential race, the Obama campaign won a challenge to an Ohio law that “blocked early voting in person on the three days before election day,” according to the ClevelandPlain Dealer.)
The offices of governor, auditor, treasurer, and attorney general were named by Turner as examples as positions for which she’d like to see her pro-choice Democratic colleagues run.
In Texas, meanwhile, Wendy Davis is echoing Turner’s strategy, planning a run in 2014 at the governor’s mansion. The Lone Star state may be red, but a majority of Texans were none too keen about the draconian abortion bill that got through the legislature in spite of Davis’ filibuster, according to a poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research before the bill passed into law.
Sue Sturgis noted that North Carolina still has a vestige of the kind of divided government Turner seeks—that the Tar Heel State’s attorney general, Roy Cooper, is a progressive Democrat. But with the state’s new voter ID law coming into play, ground organizing of potential voters is critical, Sturgis said, and it’s already begun in advance of the 2014 midterms.
“You’re going to see efforts to register, efforts to make sure people have the kind of ID they need to have to vote, and you’re going to see big voter turnout efforts,” Sturgis said, adding that the 900 people who were arrested in the Moral Monday civil disobedience actions are being pressed into service as organizers.
For her part, Lake isn’t willing to concede the U.S. House of Representatives to the Republicans or its anti-choice Tea Party caucus. While acknowledging the difficulties posed by the 2010 redistricting, Lake believes enough seats could be in play by November 2014 to give pro-choice Democrats a fighting chance.
Turnout is the key, she said—a notoriously difficult task during midterm elections among the Democrats’ key constituencies, including young people and single women of all races, together with African Americans and Latinos in general.
“[I]f we get the turnout up, they’re gonna overshoot it, they’re gonna overshoot it for suburban women. They already are. This is just going too far,” said Lake of the anti-choice, anti-contraception crusade the Tea Party-driven GOP Congress has embarked on. But the key to Democrats winning in those tough congressional districts, Lake said, will be in raising the money and crafting the messaging to run on those issues.
In Tampa, Florida, at an event sponsored by Americans for Prosperity during the 2012 Republican National Convention, I got a few words with Art Pope, who was being honored at the party, alongside David Koch. Then, he urged caution to his Tea Party allies when looking forward to the 2014 midterm congressional elections. The Tea Party triumph of 2010, he said, “does not signify a permanent realignment.” Rather, he said, “it’s an opportunity.”
If the Democrats meet their turnout goals—and that’s not a given—the 2010 Tea Party victories could signal an opportunity blown. The legislative sessions that closed with vitriol and rights-rollbacks have left a lot of anger in their wake. How that anger manifests on election day is anybody’s guess.