Voter by voter, GOP super PAC tries to separate the party from Trump

By ,

Ryan Henriksen For The Washington Post

OMAHA — It was a humid Saturday morning, four hundred and seventy-three days before the next election, and Jack Mowat was walking door to door to support his congressman. At home after suburban home, voters heard a knock, then heard the pitch.

“I’m with the Congressional Leadership Fund,” Mowat, 17, told a voter in workout gear. “Do you support Congressman Don Bacon?”

The answer was yes. “Awesome,” said Mowat, updating his doorknocking phone app. “And what would you say is your most important issue?” The answer: Bacon was a “military guy.”

That was all Mowat needed to hear. As one of dozens of volunteers for the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), the deep-pocketed super PAC backed by Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), he was on a months-long mission to knock on the doors of semi-frequent voters and tell them that their congressman was doing what they sent him to do. In Nebraska’s second district, where Bacon narrowly defeated Democrat Brad Ashford last year, the goal was to build up the Republican before Democrats had a chance to try and tear him down.

The CLF’s multi-million dollar campaign, unfolding now in 20 targeted districts and expanding next year to 30, is an ambitious bet that the Republican House majority can be spared from a Trump midterm backlash. If it works, each endangered Republican will be reintroduced to voters as a post-partisan who delivers on their key issues; each Democratic challenger will be framed as a vote for Nancy Pelosi to snatch back the speaker’s gavel, while empowering an anti-Trump “resistance” that only wants to wreck the country.

In an interview at the CLF’s Washington office, where the targeted districts are scrawled on the wall across from his desk, the PAC’s executive director, Corry Bliss, said the strategy was the culmination of what he’d learned in a run of winning campaigns. Veterans of Bacon’s 2016 campaign were running the CLF effort in Omaha; they’d scoured local high schools for volunteers who’d work for free to help their congressmen, gaining political experience while no other campaigns were underway.

Ryan Henriksen

For The Washington Post

Messages in support of Nebraska’s 2nd district Representative Don Bacon line the walls in the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC office.

“We don’t care about the national narrative,” said Bliss. “You can’t control the national narrative. You can control the narrative in 30 districts.”

The CLF spent more than $10 million to rescue Republicans in four special elections this year, investing early in opposition research and get-out-the-vote campaigns. In Georgia’s sixth district, Republicans won just 97,777 total votes in an April 18 jungle primary. Over the nine-week runoff campaign, the CLF complemented its TV ads with get-out-the-vote money; on June 20, Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.) won 134,799 votes, beating Democrat Jon Ossoff. In the CLF office, the race is commemorated with a banner that waved outside the final candidate debate: “San Francisco Loves Ossoff.”

For 2018, the strategy is to do more of the same, framing races as a choice between local heroes and “resistance”-obsessed Democrats, on a hoped-for $100 million budget.

“Donors get really excited about this,” said Bliss. “For the cost of one TV ad buy, you knock on tens of thousands of doors. We do a microdata survey in every district, and our goal is to come out of it in the 60,000-80,000 voter range. If we can switch 20,000 votes in the district, that’s the difference between winning or losing.”

The ads and materials being distributed by the group make no mention of the president or which party currently runs Congress. A door-hanger for Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), whose district voted heavily for Hillary Clinton last year, tells the story of how his family built a successful dairy farm and how he wants to “fix our broken immigration system.” A door-hanger for Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), who represents a swing seat in upstate New York, calls him an “independent voice” who’s “working to combat the heroin and opioid crisis” and ensure “clean, safe drinking water.”

In Omaha, there were already targeted ads, aimed at Trump supporters, reporting that “Don Bacon is fighting for President Trump’s agenda.” But most of the campaign for Bacon was built around his long military service, especially his years commanding the district’s Offutt Air Force base. “We have a list of 41,000 people who say: That’s my issue,” said Bliss.

But the effort to portray Bacon as Offutt’s savior had already raised eyebrows. The door-knocking campaign had been complemented by a digital ad campaign that thanked Bacon for fighting to “keep Offutt Air Force Base open.” When the Omaha World-Herald pointed out that there was no serious effort to close the base, Bliss explained that Bacon offered a “stark contrast to Democrats’ opposition, led by Nancy Pelosi, to strengthen our military.”

Ryan Henriksen

For The Washington Post

Interns with the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC make calls.

That line was familiar to Ashford, the defeated Democrat who announced last week that he would run again in 2018. In an interview in the district — interrupted, briefly, by a barista who recognized him from an Obama rally — Ashford suggested that the early CLF buy was a sign that opponents took him seriously. In 2016, CLF was among the groups that battered him for supporting Pelosi. Asked if he would support her again, Ashford said it wasn’t clear whether she’d even run for speaker again and pivoted to a criticism of Ryan.

“For me, the criteria is a willingness to work with the other side,” said Ashford. “I don’t think you can overstate how ineffective these guys are at that. Paul Ryan and his team can come in here with guns blazing, like they did before, but they have nothing to show for it. They can’t govern.”

The CLF’s strategy, though, was to convince voters that Bacon could govern — and that as loyal Republicans, they should want an ally instead of a Democrat who would wreck everything they loved. Ashford, said Bliss, would be driven to the left to please Democratic activists and put away a primary challenger, making a contrast race even easier.

Democrats, not cocky, were also not convinced. The CLF’s well-funded campaign was limited by laws that separate campaigns and super PACs and some of its voter targeting might duplicate what Republicans were doing already. “Resistance” groups, demonized in TV ads, were also organizing in Nebraska’s 2nd district like they were across the country — hence the CLF’s need to counteract them.

Veterans of the 2010 and 2014 Democratic routs were also skeptical that Republicans could divorce themselves from Trump. Jesse Ferguson, who joined the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2010 cycle, watched dozens of southern and midwestern Democrats run on local issues and get dragged under by an anti-Obama wave.

“Candidates can sometimes be successful creating their own brand and demonstrating to voters their independence but political parties can’t separate themselves from their political leaders,” said Ferguson. “For most people voting in 2018, the election will be a referendum on President Trump and whether Republicans in Congress have done their job to be a check and balance. Spoiler alert: they haven’t.”

On Saturday, on the trail and in the CLF’s western Omaha campaign office, Trump was an afterthought. At the doors, Mowat met fan after fan of Bacon; a voter named Gina Engel praised him for acting fast on a VA issue, while a voter named Brad Schroeder said the whole Republican agenda was on track.

“I’m not worried about Obamacare,” Schroeder said. “That’s going to collapse by itself.”

At the office, decorated by home-made Bacon signs, around 20 volunteers were making calls from the CLF’s script, which focused on how “Congressman Bacon knows what it takes to protect our country.” Asked how he’d rate Trump’s performance in office, Mowat emphasized the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and the unfurling of regulations that didn’t always get coverage.

“The way Trump has gone about the business of passing legislation has been a problem sometimes,” said Mowat. “You’ve got voices like Sean Spicer, who were really boisterous. I wish Trump would speak a little bit less and focus a little bit more on his policy.”

Mowat sat down to make calls, his fellow volunteers kept reading the script, which did not mention the president at all.

Read more at PowerPost

© The Washington Post Company

Kelsie McBlain, 15, left, and Jack Mowat, 17, interns with the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, talk with Brad and Laura Schroeder while canvassing door-to-door in Omaha on Saturday.

Trump's transgender military ban looks like another political blunder

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) departs after returning to the Senate to vote on health-care legislation on Tuesday. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)

As President Trump rolled out his decision to reinstate the ban on transgender members of the military, anonymous White House officials gossiped about what a tough spot they were putting Democrats in. “This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to take complete ownership of this issue,” one told Axios. Another added that it would “be fun to watch some of them have to defend” having transgender soldiers.

It turns out they didn’t even need Democrats to do it; some high-profile Republicans were happy to. And while they and other senators were seeking answers Wednesday, the White House was providing basically none.

“Any American who meets current medical and readiness standards should be allowed to continue serving,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who criticized Trump for announcing the new policy on Twitter. It’s worth emphasizing that McCain was among the final holdouts on repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy for gays in the military late last decade.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said Ernst opposes Trump’s new policy. While the senator and former Army Reserves commander doesn’t support the government paying for gender reassignment surgery, spokeswoman Brook Hougesen said, “Americans who are qualified and can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded that opportunity.”

Critical statements came even from GOP senators from heavily conservative states.

“You ought to treat everybody fairly and give everybody a chance to serve,” Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R) said on CNN.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said, “I don’t think we should be discriminating against anybody.” He also responded to a question about whether he stands with transgender Utahns with a simple “Yes.”

Perhaps as illustrative as these critical statements is the lack of many supportive ones. A few GOP House members announced their approval of the ban, but thus far big-name Republicans seem to be staying far away from this decision — except to oppose it.

Asked for his position, Ernst’s Iowa colleague Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) declined to take one. “I have respect for what she has to say, and I think I would let it go at that until I’ve looked into it deeper and had conversations with her,” Grassley told the Des Moines Register.

As with Grassley’s, some of these statements were couched as wanting to better understand the White House’s policy — perhaps giving the White House a chance to walk this back. But it’s also clear the party was not prepared to embrace a ban on transgender soldiers in a way some in the White House assumed. The White House thought this would put Democrats on the spot, but it has put their own party on the hot seat as it wrestles with whether to wade into the LGBT issues it has studiously avoided for years.

Even if you set aside the political calculation, the fact that the White House failed to inform key stakeholders about the decision — even simply to make sure they understood it and to see if they could support it — is a pretty stunning indictment of how this was handled. As late as Wednesday afternoon, the White House still couldn’t even say whether thousands of existing transgender members of the military would be allowed to continue to serve, with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying there wasn’t yet a plan for implementation. And keeping McCain, the chairman of the relevant committee, out of the loop constitutes political malpractice.

That said, this is pretty par-for-course for the White House. The travel ban was a mess from Day One, with members complaining about not being consulted. Grassley, who as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee is in charge of confirming Christopher A. Wray as FBI director, said he only learned about the nomination via Twitter. And then there was arguably the White House’s worst political moment: The way it handled the firing of the old FBI director, James B. Comey, and the many conflicting reasons offered for it.

The lesson from this latest episode is that the White House either doesn’t understand the current political paradigm or is simply really bad at selling its policies.


Five things to know about the Senate’s bid to unwind the ACA

By Kelsey Snell,

Senate Republicans undertook the first steps in their plan to repeal the Affordable Care this week, launching a process they hope will yield a GOP health-care bill by week’s end.

Leaders won a key procedural victory Tuesday that allowed them to begin days of freewheeling debate. Senate leaders focused on eventually passing a narrow set of changes to the ACA, known as “skinny repeal,” in hopes of continuing to debate a broader health-care plan in a House-Senate conference. But first, senators need to pass some sort of health-care measure in the Senate.

Over the next several days, the Senate will be in session nearly 24-hours a day — voting on amendments and bickering over the future of the nation’s health-care system while leaders work behind the scenes to finalize the details of that narrow bill.

The process will be unpredictable and chaotic but Senate leaders believe it’s their best shot at passing a GOP-only health care bill this year. We asked top Senate staffers to give us their best forecasts of what will happen over the next several days and we’ve done our best to translate that into the questions and answers below.

Please note: Circumstances can change rapidly.

1. What are Senate Republicans trying to pass this week and why is it so complicated?

Senate leaders are taking advantage of complex Senate budget rules, known as reconciliation, to pass a bill to revamp Obamacare without Democratic support. The measure will need only 51 votes instead of the typical 60 that is necessary for most legislation (there are 52 Republicans in the Senate and Vice President Pence can break a tie).

The only hitch here is that budget bills come with a special set of rules requiring that every piece of the legislation must relate to the budget, spending, taxes and the deficit. The rules also allow for an nearly unlimited number of amendments from either party. That process, known as a vote-a-rama, means leaders can schedule votes all day and all night and they can do so with little or no warning.

The whole process began Tuesday when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promised GOP senators that the only way to keep the health-care debate alive was to vote to start debate on the House-passed bill to unwind Obamcare.

Senators approved the motion to start debate, 51 to 50, after GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine) joined all 48 Democrats in voting against the bill, forcing Pence to break the tie.

Now that debate has started, McConnell’s goal is to keep Republicans focused on passing a “skinny repeal” that would gut the ACA’s individual and employer mandates and roll back at least one of the ACA taxes that Republicans revile. McConnell and his deputies are betting that it will be hard for GOP senators to oppose those basic concepts. If that passes, Republicans would move on to negotiate a broader health-care plan with the House.

Republicans and Democrats can each spend ten hours debating the bill before the vote-a-rama starts. It may not seem like a lot of time — but the countdown clock stops every time they vote and often when they take time out to debate an early amendment. That unpredictable schedule means the whole process could drag out for days.

2. Can the Senate leadership strategy work?

It seems possible. So far, no Republican senators have announced they oppose the idea of “skinny repeal.” Even Collins, who has been skeptical of every proposal leaders have made so far, told reporters that she wouldn’t rule out voting for the bill.

“Until I see what’s in it, I really can’t say,” Collins told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m not ruling it out because I don’t know what it would be.”

That said, Collins and several moderates who hail from states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare remain skeptical of the plan. They worry that the most conservative GOP factions in the House would kill any chance of agreement by trying to force deeper cuts to programs for low-income people.

3. How many different health-care bills will senators vote on this week and how long will the voting last?

That’s entirely up to McConnell and his deputies. The Senate voted down one version of a plan to roll back and replace the ACA on Tuesday night with 57 senators — including nine Republicans — opposing the measure known as the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA).

The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday on a plan to repeal large portions of the ACA, including the individual and employer mandates and most of the taxes included in the law. That version of the bill would also prevent patients from using federal tax subsidies to pay for health-insurance plans that cover abortion and institute a 1-year ban on Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood.

The abortion regulations and the repeal bill itself are both expected to fail. But there is nothing stopping leaders from tinkering with those bills and trying again.

The goal of these votes isn’t necessarily to pass the measures — in fact, top GOP aides say they expect nearly every one of the repeal-style measures to fail. Senators will have a chance to vote on a number of personally significant policies, like the ban on abortion rights, in part to prove that the ideas don’t have the votes to become law. It also narrows the list of options for what could get consensus when “skinny repeal” comes up later in the week.

4. What can Democrats do to stop the process?

Not much, if Republicans decide to stick together. But they can cause headaches for the GOP by forcing votes on amendments that make Republicans cast public votes on a slew of difficult issues, like protecting health care for disabled children and funding programs to combat opioid addiction.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has not yet revealed his full strategy but Democrats are already lining up hundreds of amendments for the vote-a-rama. Democrats are confident that some of their amendments, including a measure that would end debate and send legislation to committees for further debate, could pass and make it harder for any eventual bill to pass.

Complicating matters further is the possibility that McConnell could end the vote-a-rama with an amendment to wipe out any amendments that have been approved, forcing the Senate to revote on a stripped-down bill.

5. Which Republicans are still undecided and what do they want?

While most rank-and-file Republicans say they support McConnell’s plan to pass a narrow bill and keep the conversation alive, the plan risks angering senators on the GOP’s ideological extremes.

Conservatives like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have said they want full repeal. Moderates and those from states that expanded Medicaid, like Collins, Murkowski, Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) don’t want to risk cuts to Medicaid.

The plan would be dead if three of those holdouts voted against the final bill.

Read more at PowerPost


‘We’ve Always Been Here.’ Transgender Veterans Blindsided by President Trump’s Ban

When President Donald Trump sent a series of tweets Wednesday morning announcing that transgender people would no longer be able to serve openly in the military, waves of shock and sadness struck the transgender community. Some of those who reacted most intensely were transgender veterans, many of whom had to hide their gender identity while in uniform and had come to hope that they were the last generation who would have to do so.

“Transgender people are already serving in the military. We’ve always been here,” says Sasha Buchert, an attorney and a transgender woman who served as a scout sniper in the Marine Corps in the 1980s. “It’s an insult to transgender service members to refer to them as distractions. We are people who are willing to lay down our lives for this country.”

In his tweets, Trump said he decided not to “accept or allow” transgender people to serve in the military “in any capacity” because doing so would cause “disruption.” He also expressed angst over the medical costs of providing soldiers, sailors, Marines and other military members with transition-related care. Though there is no exact figure showing how many transgender people are currently serving, estimates range from about 5,000 to nearly 10,000. A 2014 study from the Williams Institute estimated that there are about 150,000 transgender individuals who have served or are currently serving.

One of them is Alaina Kupec, who followed in her father’s and brother’s footsteps by joining the Navy in the 1990s, after leading her ROTC battalion in college. “There are so many transgender people who have served in silence like myself,” says Kupec, now a director of marketing at Pfizer. Kupec previously served as an intelligence officer, briefing pilots before they flew on missions to places like Bosnia and Iraq. “My heart hurts for those sailors and soldiers around the world who are transgender, who have been giving themselves to this country and have had their careers swept out from underneath them with one careless tweet,” she says.

Knowing that she could be discharged if she were open about her feelings of being a woman when she had joined the military as a man, Kupec says that she made the decision not to reenlist after four years. The ban “forced me to make a choice I wouldn’t have otherwise made,” she says. A member of an FA-18 squadron, Kupec says that her gender status had no bearing on her ability to provide information to pilots on which they depended in order to “come home alive.”

Kupec was awarded two medals for leadership during her time on active duty. “The least of anyone’s concerns should be the gender of the person they are serving beside,” she says, noting that transgender troops can serve openly in countries such as Israel and the United Kingdom.

Some transgender veterans argue that Trump’s decision to tweet out a major military policy change will cause more disruption than transgender troops have since Obama ended the ban on their open service last year. They say that the move will confuse commanders who are currently overseeing troops who have come out since that time, as well as transgender troops who are currently deployed overseas. At this point, it is not clear how Trump’s decision will affect the status of transgender Americans on active duty.

“It will disrupt our ability to conduct our mission far more than simply providing medical care,” says Brynn Tannehill, who served as a lieutenant commander who flew helicopters and marine patrol craft in the Navy. “Why are we doing this to people who are doing their jobs today, who want to do their jobs and can do their jobs? This is a disservice to people who just want to serve their country.”

Veterans also argue that Trump’s move will have a chilling effect on LGBTQ people who would otherwise consider a military career. “Trump is not only banning Americans who want to serve, he is discriminating against a minority group who has been having to hide their gender issues in the service,” Madeline Martinez, a former Army infantry member, told TIME via text message. “He is telling the world that transgender individuals in America do not have the same rights as most of the American public.”

Buchert, who now works at LGBTQ advocacy group Lambda Legal, says that she and other advocates are ready to challenge any “step backward” for transgender people who want to serve in the military. It’s unclear how that battle might unfold. “Legally, it’s hard to address changes of policy that come through social media,” she says. But, she adds, “Trans people aren’t going away, and we will beat back these attacks on our community.”


‘I’m Terrified, Please Help.’ Virtual Kidnappers Are Scamming More People

(LOS ANGELES) — The caller who rang Valerie Sobel’s cellphone had a horrifying message: “We have Simone’s finger. Do you want to see the rest of her in a body bag?”

Then came the sound of her daughter, screaming in terror.

“She called me Mom (and said) ‘I’m terrified, please help,’ ” Sobel recalled.

In the hours that followed, the kidnappers talked her into wiring $4,000 for ransom. Only later did she find out there had been no kidnapping. It was a scam.

“I was in bad shape for days,” she said.

On Tuesday, police and federal agents warned that so-called virtual kidnappings are on the rise, and dozens of people already have found themselves terrorized into giving money to con artists.

Los Angeles police alone have received more than 250 reports of such crimes in the past two years, and people have wired more than $100,000, said Capt. William Hayes, who commands the Robbery Homicide Division.

By comparison, actual kidnappings for ransom are rare. Los Angeles police typically receive 10 to 15 cases a year, including kidnappings performed by other family members and acquaintances, Hayes said.

In the fake kidnappings, the callers demand that the victims remain on the phone so they don’t have a chance to call their loved ones, officials said.

“If you get a phone call like this, immediately hang up,” Hayes said. “Contact that loved one.”

The FBI began investigating a spurt of cases in 2013. A multiagency probe dubbed Operation Hotel Tango identified at least 80 people in several states who had received such calls, although not all sent money, said Gene Kowel, acting special agent in charge of the FBI’s criminal division in Los Angeles.

However, many of the crimes go unreported, he said.

“It’s fair to say there have been thousands of calls made to U.S. victims, primarily from Mexico,” he said.

Last week, a Texas woman became the first person in the nation to be indicted in connection with a virtual kidnapping scheme. Yanette Rodriguez Acosta, 34, of Houston is charged with wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to launder money. She is facing up to 20 years in prison for each of 10 counts if convicted.

The indictment alleges that Acosta and her partners used Mexican telephone numbers to call people in Texas, California and Idaho. They allegedly fooled people into giving them tens of thousands of dollars either through money drops or wire transfers.

In some cases, the scammers choose area codes and make cold calls, hoping to catch an unsuspecting victim, officials said. In others, the crooks may use social media to obtain names of children and other facts that can be used to frighten specific victims.

In Sobel’s case, she believes the phony kidnappers obtained her daughter’s voice, perhaps from her voicemail, and then altered it. “I was convinced that this was real,” she said.

Fear for a child’s safety can override skepticism, authorities said.

Even Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. O.C. Smith was victimized. Smith said he received a cellphone call about two years ago while driving on a freeway.

“There was a woman … screaming ‘Daddy, Daddy help me. I’m in a van being taken somewhere,’ ” Smith said.

Although he didn’t recognize the voice, Smith said he couldn’t take the risk that it was his daughter. The callers threatened to “put a bullet in the back of her head” if he didn’t pay a ransom, Smith said.

He talked the phony kidnappers’ ransom demands down from $1 million to a mere $350, although in the end he never paid. While on the phone with them, he managed to flag down Torrance, California, police officers who were able to call and verify that his children were safe at school.