Dark money stains the Senate primary

Susan Nelson spoke to Mike Franken about claims made in an attack ad funded by a group supporting Theresa Greenfield. -promoted by Laura Belin

The polling must be tightening up in the U.S. Senate primary.  A tsunami of dark money is washing up on our TV screens. Women Vote!, the political arm of EMILY’s List, is spending $1 million to attack Admiral Michael Franken on behalf of the Democratic establishment favorite, Theresa Greenfield.

Their ad claims that Mike Franken is a former Republican, an accusation that was flung at Elizabeth Warren every day in the 2020 primary campaign. If true, I am not so sure that would be a bad thing in a general election in Iowa, and it did not seem to hurt Warren. Republican support and donations have not hurt J.D. Scholten either. They also attack Franken for being a defense contractor, and accuse him of being a carpetbagger, an attack Warren received during her first Senate campaign.

I suspect that for the people who want to believe that Elizabeth Warren is a closet Republican, no amount of evidence of her progressive views will satisfy them, and the same is likely true for Mike Franken. But if we want to understand who people are and what they believe, we can start by listening to what they say.

The Des Moines Register’s Richard Doak asked Franken whether he was a Democrat in the interview that led to his endorsement. Franken described his evolution from nonpolitical military officer to Democratic candidate, and his slow realization that his beliefs were aligned with the Democratic Party as “a learned process, which makes me a pretty doggone strong Democrat.” He reminisced about his time as the first military officer to serve on Senator Ted Kennedy’s personal staff, where he “found that [Sen. Kennedy] and I were absolutely aligned on empathy for our fellow humankind on education and labor issues, and the judiciary, science.” In an email to me, he said:

My parents lost their life savings in the S&L debacle, I participated in the dumb ops of invading islands for Reagan, was adored and trusted by Ted Kennedy, was overruled on the Iraq invasion by Bush people, and was Obama’s chief of legislative affairs…does that sound like a Republican?

My grandmother was a McGovern and Humphrey supporter, [but] I was working and couldn’t give a hoot about politics until I did, in my 40s. What is stronger than a learned Democrat? What is stronger than a person who turns to religion, not by birth but by learning?  I’m the candidate who spoke to governments in Muslim and devout Christian Africa that they need to honor human rights and the LGBTQ community. I’m the guy who was part of the idea seed to educate African women on communications tech, from cell phones to satellite communications.  It now has over 2000 graduates, and some of these women are now in cabinet positions in their countries.  I am conservative when it comes to conserving a human resource—lives.

Women Vote! tried to find some evidence in registration records that Franken was a Republican, and could not. Their public record search turned up an out-of-state “no-party” registration, and a Democratic registration in Iowa. The best they could do was an article in the Waterloo Courier that states it as fact, but may have been based on a misunderstanding between Franken and his interviewer. I asked Franken about it. He replied:

I didn’t vote until I retired. When one works for the chief executive, you work for whomever, until you can’t, and that’s why I dropped my retirement letter after the 2016 election.  I voted with my feet.  I do not believe I ever registered for any party before moving to Iowa. I only voted in Virginia and Iowa since retiring and never voted while in the military. It is not what those in the military ought to do in my opinion.  [Thomas Nelson of the Courier] no longer has the recording. I did not say I was a Republican.

Attack ads are nothing new. The DSCC and its connected PACs pour money into positive ads, and they leave the negative attacks to outside groups and their unaccountable dark money donors. In the WHO debate, Theresa Greenfield said: “I don’t control those groups. I don’t even know who they are. I wouldn’t even know who to call.” Franken responded by posting the PAC’s phone number in a video, urging her to “tell your friends to stop attacking me.” But no calls are necessary for candidates to communicate with PACs. Brianne Pfannenstiel wrote for the Des Moines Register:

Greenfield’s campaign, for example, filmed generic images of her interacting with Iowans on the campaign trail and posted the video to YouTube. Her website occasionally posts “important updates” with messaging information. Although super PACs can’t discuss those messages with the campaign, they can use the information and the images to cut television and digital ads that run on the candidate’s behalf.

Everyone knows how the game is played.

While Greenfield has refused to denounce the negative ads broadcasted on her behalf, Senate candidate Kimberly Graham did not hesitate to condemn it. She posted a video on social media, calling on Theresa Greenfield to denounce the negative attacks, and accusing Greenfield of hypocrisy for claiming she does not take corporate PAC money while accepting large donations from lobbyists. You can find the attack ad and Graham’s response hosted at Iowa Starting Line. As Graham pointed out, Greenfield is #26 on the list of congressional candidates who have taken the most lobbyist money in the 2020 cycle, and everyone ahead of her on the list is an incumbent.

Iowans deserve to decide who they want to represent them in Washington without interference by outside special interests. Drawing distinctions is one thing, but we should debate substance and not attack each other.

I asked Franken about the accusation in the ad that he is a defense contractor, and serves as an advisor to defense contractors. His response:

After retiring, I continued to serve, gratis, for work in areas future senators should know—how other nations intend to disrupt civil society using full spectrum cyber techniques. My compensation for two defense contracts was limited to per diem expenses to attend meetings and conferences.

Leidos asked me to attend a meeting because they valued my opinion about future ship design.

Booz Allen asked me to travel to South Asia to contribute to discussions about regional great power relations.

Safe Ports Holdings has not paid me one cent for joining their Board of Advisors. It is a woman-owned small business.  I consult for them for free in the Levant.

And what about the carpetbagger smear? Mike Franken was born here and left Iowa to spend nearly four decades in the Navy. He moved 28 times before he came home to Iowa, to Sioux City, near the hamlet where he was born (Lebanon, pop. 50). Isn’t this what we want, for our most accomplished citizens to come home after service elsewhere, and continue to contribute to our state? Current and retired members of Congress with military backgrounds, from both parties, have denounced the Vote Women! ad as an attack on the hard reality of military service. If you remember the Swiftboat attacks on John Kerry in 2004, this effort to make military service into a negative attribute will be sadly familiar.

Fundamentally, the negative ads reveal how little Mike Franken’s opposition has to work with. He is an Iowan, both by birth and choice. He brings his integrity and character to the race, and decades of experience with war and diplomacy. On policy, he has a lot in common with Warren, and nothing in common with Joni Ernst. He has shown himself to be a formidable debater and campaigner, who can take a punch without getting rattled, and answer a question directly instead of obfuscating. If elected to the Senate he will owe nothing to Chuck Schumer, the DSCC, and the well-heeled donors to the dark money PACs.

Mike Franken will represent Iowa and Iowans the way Tom Harkin did, with independence, integrity and courage.

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