New details on how the Koch brothers boosted Joni Ernst's campaign

Kenneth P. Vogel reports new details at Politico today on how the billionaires David and Charles Koch provided indirect financial support to Joni Ernst’s 2014 campaign for U.S. Senate. Politico’s headline "How the Kochs created Joni Ernst" (changed after a few hours to "How the Kochs launched Joni Ernst") overstates the case somewhat. Arguably, the dark money employed to attack Ernst’s main rival for the GOP Senate nomination would have been less effective if either 1) Mark Jacobs hadn’t chosen to live outside this state for 30 years. fatally wounding his candidacy in my opinion; or 2) the other Republicans in the race had raised enough money to become credible alternatives to Jacobs themselves.

Still, money funneled through the Kochs’ network was a big help to Ernst. We already knew that the Kochs invited her to their 2013 summer "seminar" a few weeks after she kicked off her Senate campaign. We already knew that in the summer of 2014, the Koch brothers front group Concerned Veterans for America kicked off what became a sustained attack on Bruce Braley’s Veterans Affairs Committee hearings attendance. Vogel has shown that Ernst got more assistance before winning the primary than was previously known.

I enclose below excerpts from Vogel’s article, but I recommend clicking through to read the whole piece. Vogel concentrates on the Trees of Liberty PAC, which raised funds through the Koch network and spent most of that money to air a tv ad attacking Jacobs. You can view that ad here. It masquerades as non-election communication by ending with the line, "Call Mark Jacobs. Tell him Iowa families can’t afford higher energy costs from Washington," instead of urging viewers not to vote for Jacobs.

Vogel does not address the role of American Heartland PAC, a single-candidate super-PAC supporting Ernst. American Heartland PAC piled on with more tv ads targeting Jacobs less than a week after the Trees of Liberty statewide ad buy ended on May 2, 2014. The super-PAC did disclose its donors (longer list here). The largest contributors were Robert McNair, owner of the Houston Texans football team, and hedge fund operator Robert Mercer.

P.S.-It’s worth recalling on "Throwback Thursday" that Governor Terry Branstad helped launch Ernst when he picked the little-known Kim Reynolds as his running mate in 2010. Reynolds’ election as lieutenant governor that year opened up the Iowa Senate seat Ernst won two months later. If Branstad had chosen a different running mate, Reynolds would have stayed in the state legislature, and Ernst would likely still have been the Montgomery County auditor in 2013—not a promising springboard for a statewide candidate.

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Where are they now? Mariannette Miller-Meeks edition

GOP county leaders in the second Congressional district elected Dr. Mariannette Miller-Meeks to the Republican Party of Iowa’s State Central Committee on August 1, the Iowa GOP announced in a press release. An Army veteran and ophthalmologist, Miller-Meeks was the Republican challenger to Representative Dave Loebsack in IA-02 three times: in 2008, 2010, and 2014. She also served as director of the Iowa Department of Public Health in Governor Terry Branstad’s administration from January 2011 to January 2014, when she stepped down in preparation for her third Congressional campaign. She currently lives in Ottumwa.

Although Miller-Meeks was not able to unseat Loebsack, she left a lasting mark on Iowa politics in at least one way. I am convinced that her coattails in the Ottumwa area pulled Mark Chelgren over the line in his 2010 Iowa Senate race against Democratic incumbent Keith Kreiman. Chelgren won that election by ten votes in a district considered so heavily Democratic that neither party spent any serious money there. Don’t get me started on how Chelgren managed to win re-election last November. Democrats should have been able to get Iowa Senate district 41 back. Chelgren may be the GOP nominee against Loebsack in IA-02 next year.

The Iowa GOP just opened a field office in Ottumwa, signaling that Republicans view that part of southeast Iowa as fertile ground. Thanks in part to a strong history of organized labor at area factories, Ottumwa has traditionally supported Democratic candidates. In fact, Wapello County was one of just five Iowa counties to vote for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election as well as one of just four counties to vote for Bonnie Campbell in her 1994 gubernatorial race against Terry Branstad.

Joni Ernst breaks a promise to military victims of sexual assault

"Alarming rates" of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military, most of which go unpunished, are an ongoing scandal. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has been the leading voice in the Senate for reforms to address the "vastly underreported" problem. Last year, Iowa Senators Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin both supported a bill Gillibrand introduced, which would have taken sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command.

While former Representative Bruce Braley served in the U.S. House, he repeatedly introduced legislation aimed at reducing rates of sexual assault in the military and removing “decisions over investigating and prosecuting sexual assault allegations […] from the normal chain of command.” Braley’s guest at the 2014 State of the Union address was Service Women’s Action Network executive director Anu Bhagwati, whose group “has been at the center of the national effort to reform the military’s handling of military sexual assault.”

As the Republican nominee facing Braley in last year’s U.S. Senate campaign, Joni Ernst talked a good game on this issue. After disclosing that she had faced sexual harassment while serving in the Iowa National Guard, Ernst promised to support reforms that would remove sexual assault cases from the military chain of command, even if she got “push-back” from Pentagon leaders or GOP Senate colleagues. She also said ensuring “sexual crimes in the military are both independently investigated and prosecuted […] should not be a partisan issue, and as a woman in uniform, I know that we must act now.”

Last week, Ernst had a chance to walk the walk. Instead, she helped kill Gillibrand’s amendment to the 2016 defense authorization bill, going back on her campaign pledge and casting a rare vote in opposition to her fellow Iowa Republican Grassley.

Follow me after the jump for more background and details on Ernst’s broken promise.

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New bipartisan group will battle "overwhelming influence of big money" in Iowa politics

A new bipartisan group emerged this week, on a mission "to educate Iowans on the need for meaningful reform to address the issue of money in politics." Two Democrats, two Republicans, and a no-party voter are co-chairing Iowa Pays the Price. The most prominent co-chair is Brad Anderson, who ran President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign in Iowa and was the Democratic nominee for Iowa Secretary of State in 2014. The Republican co-chairs are Franklin County GOP chair Shawn Dietz, who unsuccessfully challenged State Senator Amanda Ragan in 2014, and David Niffenegger, who directed operations for Sam Clovis’ 2014 state treasurer campaign. After the jump I’ve enclosed the full statement on the Iowa Pays the Price launch and more background on Issue One, the organization behind the Iowa project.

Speaking to Catherine Lucey of the Associated Press, Anderson said,

“I cannot tell you how many doors I knocked on in 2014 where voters said they were so tired of the mudslinging that they were going to sit out the election.”

Communications research going back to the 1980s and 1990s has produced mixed evidence on whether negative campaigning on television discourages Americans from voting. My impression is that current opinion among political scientists tends toward the view that negative ads do not depress turnout. However, I suspect the avalanche in outside spending following the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United may have changed the equation, because the relentless attack ads run on television, radio, and social media for many months (rather than just a few weeks before election day). The Iowa Pays the Price press release notes,

According to an analysis by Maplight, a nonpartisan research organization that reveals money’s influence on politics, a record $111,770,953 in federal campaign spending was spent in Iowa in 2014. This represented a 350% increase in campaign spending when compared to the $31,901,404 in federal campaign spending from the previous 2010 midterm election.  In addition, for the first time in Iowa history a majority of the 2014 election spending was by outside groups rather than by candidates’ campaigns.

The largest share of that spending was seeking to influence the election for Iowa’s open U.S. Senate seat, but substantial outside spending came into play in some of the Congressional districts, especially the IA-03 race between David Young and Staci Appel.

Good resources for hard facts about big money in American politics include Open Secrets, the Sunlight Foundation, the Brennan Center for Justice, and Common Cause.

P.S.- Contra Shane Vander Hart, it’s not “hypocrisy” for a person to raise lots of money for his own election race (which must be a priority for candidates under our current system) and to believe that campaign finance reform would improve our political culture.  

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One reader's feedback for new Des Moines Register publisher David Chivers

David Chivers started work yesterday as the Des Moines Register’s president and publisher. The Des Moines native comes from a strong background in digital marketing. Speaking to Register employees on the day Gannett announced his hiring, Chivers acknowledged he has a lot to learn about the newspaper and said he welcomed "candid discussions" on how to "push the brand and the business forward."

In that spirit, I offer my thoughts on ways the Register could better serve readers who rely on the paper for political news. Balanced, fact-based reporting is central to the Register’s brand as “the newspaper Iowa depends upon.” Unfortunately, last year’s election coverage hurt the Register’s reputation among many politically-engaged Iowans. Acknowledging the problem is essential to avoid compounding the damage during the upcoming Iowa caucus campaign.

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