Inside the Republican Party’s Last-Ditch Scramble to Save Their House Majority

Anne Nelson Looks Behind the Curtain of the 2018 Midterm Elections

The September 2018 Values Voter Summit was focused on the midterm elections. Tony Perkins convened the meeting at its usual venue, Washington’s venerable Omni Shoreham Hotel, a massive brown brick structure that has hosted inaugural balls for every president since FDR, including Bill Clinton’s celebrated saxophone performance.

The summit brought together some 2,000 supporters and 40 networked organizations, ranging from the NRA to the American Society for Tradition, Family and Property of Hanover, Pennsylvania. The event had been heavily advertised on fundamentalist radio networks across the country, offering listeners a chance to hear the rock stars of their movement and to tour an exhibition hall for stickers, leaflets, and swag. Freckled young scouts from Trail Life USA, the fundamentalist alternative to the Boy Scouts, guided participants through the maze of hallways to the meeting rooms. They came from all over the country: burly men in leisure suits and polo shirts, contrasting with the crisply tailored suits of their Washington chiefs; midwestern dowagers in pastels and pearls; stylish young interns in sheaths and spike heels; and a scattering of tagalong teens.

The movement’s clout was demonstrated by the number of the nation’s leaders who took a break from running the country to appear. The crowd warmly welcomed secretary of housing and urban development Ben Carson, who strode the stage with far more confidence and mastery than he’d shown during the primaries. The new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, gave an address, and so did Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. Vice President Mike Pence engaged in cheerful banter, pointing an imaginary trigger finger at people who spoke up from the audience. Donald Trump had spoken at the summit the previous year (the first time a sitting president had done so), but this time he sent his regrets.

The plenary sessions were billed as the main events, but the smaller workshops positioned the attendees for the midterms ahead. The name of the Council for National Policy wasn’t used, but its leadership was much in evidence. Tony Perkins was master of ceremonies; other participating members included Gary Bauer, Ralph Reed, Tim Wildmon, and Richard Bott. Oliver North, the new president of the NRA, responded to recent school shootings with the news that the NRA was ready to send teams to do school “recons” to arm them against future assaults.

The summit opened with the United in Purpose breakfast, “The 2018 Crystal Ball: How Conservatives Can Gain Ground and Prevent a Wave Election.” George Barna and CNP veteran Ralph Reed, the two speakers, focused on recent polls and the upcoming midterms. Barna reported that there had been a drop in engagement among the SAGE Cons, his sector of socially conservative older voters, which would hurt the Republicans. There had also been a major voter registration drive that brought in 1.75 million new Democrats. “The media is our biggest opponent,” he stated. SAGE Cons were looking for a new media universe. “We can point them towards FRC, AFA, and CBN. Social media and blogs have impact, but research shows that radio has the biggest reach of any media.”

As always, they had their eyes on the prize. The House race was tilted against them, but they stressed the Senate contest, which would leave them with the all-important judiciary appointments. The key Senate races, Barna noted, would take place in Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, and Missouri—where the networked apps were already doing their job.

“If you disagree with someone, put your hand on their shoulder and say, ‘I’m praying for you.’”

Ralph Reed emphasized that door-to-door canvassing was the critical factor: every engaged volunteer reaped an average of seven votes. The goal was over forty visits or calls a day per volunteer, in nineteen target states. It was all the more important because their research had shown that Trump underperformed with women and young voters, and considerably more voters described themselves as Democrats than Republicans. Then again, as Barna never tired of saying, it wasn’t about winning a majority. It was about tipping the target districts in the battleground states. A look  at  the electoral map in most of these states showed bright blue dots in cities, surrounded by a sea of suburban, small town, and rural red. Strategy was all.

At the Leadership Institute workshop, staff coached attendees on how to approach nonconservatives, stressing storytelling and “situational awareness.” They should anchor their points with a “handprint”—a gesture or a touch. “If you disagree with someone, put your hand on their shoulder and say, ‘I’m praying for you.’”

They received instructions for their lobbying sessions on Capitol Hill, included in the summit schedule: “Don’t burn bridges, smile. We need to be winsome.Take a page of talking points with you and send a hand-written thank-you letter.” (“Winsome” is a popular term among fundamentalists, describing a display of “childlike charm.”)

The presenters were particularly focused on the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process, and gleeful at the way the opposition had botched its lobbying effort: chanting, shouting, and blocking hallways in the attempt to persuade Susan Collins and other undecided senators. “Planned direct actions on the other side have been ineffective with our members and pushed them back into our arms—their direct actions are helpful to us.” They were confident of their coming victory, and aware of its lasting importance: “Brett Kavanaugh will be Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s age in 2050.”

The presenters announced that the Leadership Institute had scheduled training programs in thirty states, starting with Georgia. Their question was, “How do we get evangelicals out of the pews and into the polling places?” The audience heard, many times over, about the rapid pace of Trump’s court appointments. By February 2010 the Senate would confirm a record number of Trump’s nominees for the circuit courts, subject to lifetime appointments. “If we can hold on for two years,” Mitch McConnell told them, “we’re going to transform the federal judiciary.”

The Values Voter Summit was also a cultural showcase for figures the movement and its media had elevated to celebrity. Jack Phillips, a soft-spoken baker from Colorado, won fame through the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision by the Supreme Court. Phillips didn’t believe in same-sex marriage and declined to make a wedding cake for a gay couple; he added that he also refused other requests, such as “adult” cakes or cakes that denigrated anyone, including LGBT individuals. In a halting voice, he explained that he had welcomed the gay couple to his store, and he was willing to sell other products to the couple. Then he recounted how his business had been ruined by the controversy despite the decision in his favor.

Dr. Lance Wallnau’s speech was more emphatic. A leading proponent of Seven Mountains Dominionism, he drew a dizzying maze of diagrams on the board and informed his audience that their duty was to “go into the den of Goliath” and set up “bands of believers within the halls of influence.” Copies of Wallnau’s new book, God’s Chaos Candidate: Donald J. Trump and the American Unraveling, were available in the exhibition hall. Mammon was represented as well. A firm called Inspire Investing gave a presentation describing how their company organized investor protests against corporate funding for objectionable causes. So far, they reported proudly, they had convinced Chevron to stop contributing to Planned Parenthood, and Costco to stop supporting “divisive issues,” starting with gay pride parades. Inspire Investing was the fifth-fastest-growing investment firm in the nation, they said, which earned them prominent coverage in the New York Times.

“We will continue to fight these battles. It is a never-ending struggle until … the Rapture.”

But the conversation kept coming back to the challenge of the midterms. The political strategy sessions reported that evangelicals were ambivalent about Trump: they didn’t like the man, his values, or his behavior, but they responded to the idea that he had kept his promises. The session leaders reported that they had been testing their messages. They found that immigration, for example, worked best when it was framed as a matter of law and freedom, not racism versus compassion. Other key issues were taxes, economic growth, crime and violence, and national defense. Their best mechanism was to deflect the voters away from the traditional news media and point them toward media generated by the Family Research Council, American Family Media, and the Christian Broadcasting Network.

The speakers alerted the audience to a dozen close Senate races—within two points, they said—where turnout was key.They reported that the voting rate in the 2014 midterms had been 36.4 percent, the lowest since 1942. But they called for a selective turnout. “Don’t get everyone in your church to vote,” Barna warned, echoing Paul Weyrich’s dictum decades earlier. “Some will vote against you.” It was also a question of where they voted.“ The polls didn’t call 2016 wrong,” Barna reminded them. “The lesson is, look at what media isn’t showing you—it showed generic national polls, not states.”

The battleground states were what counted. The strategists highlighted fifteen: the key Senate races in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, and Tennessee, and the competitive races in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.

In the summit’s exhibition hall, the Leadership Institute offered copies of its guide Door-to-Door Campaigning: Everything I Know about Politics I Learned Going Door-to-Door, with sections devoted to data management and “Talking with Liberal Voters.” The Family Research Council provided a fat binder for pastors, including instructions to help their congregations

in “Voting Your Values,” complete with voter registration materials, voter guides, and tips for proselytizing. Liberty University handed out recruiting materials and branded lip balm. The iPray app offered pink plastic bracelets. You could purchase a copy of a book by Ben Carson, MD, titled You Have a Brain. There were lapel pins, Twix bars, and souvenir pens galore.

But the real prize swag came in the form of a shiny disc of base metal, offered on behalf of Lance Wallnau. Wallnau’s “Cyrus-Trump Proclamation” compared “God’s Chaos Candidate” to the pagan king of Persia, who issued the edict for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Many fundamentalists believed that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem was a fulfillment of a biblical prophecy that would lead to the Rapture. In the End Times—which could come at any minute—believers would rise into the air to encounter Jesus, leaving nonbelievers (including Jews) among the “remnants” who faced an eternity in hell. In 2015 Mike Pompeo had delivered a speech at the Summit Church God and Country Rally in Kansas, denouncing the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage and stressing the importance of evangelical Christians in public office.The future secretary of state solemnly declared, “We will continue to fight these battles. It is a never-ending struggle until . . . the Rapture.”

The Values Voter Summit closed with a gala honoring Elsa Prince Broekhuizen. A petite woman with a fluffy white pompadour, she gazed placidly at the masses. But she embodied power: an elite Gold Circle member of the Council for National Policy, mother to Betsy DeVos and Erik Prince, confidante to James Dobson, and major donor to the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Inspired, the two thousand faithful left for home, determined that nobody was going to take flyover country for granted. They left the Omni bearing Voter Impact DVDs to organize church voter registration on Voter Impact Sunday. They passed Tony Perkins’s Values Bus, which would be making a tour to churches and county fairs in a dozen states across the country, with special attention to Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Missouri—Senate battleground states. The Kansas City stop was billed as a rally with Mike Pence at the Hy-Vee Arena, where the vice president would support Josh Hawley’s campaign against incumbent Claire McCaskill.38 Its October 11 Yorba Linda stop in Orange County was billed as a Salem Radio Life Broadcast & Candidate Forum. The bus supported a rally for Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee and joined a Total Christian Television rally in Akron, Ohio. WPAi, the consultancy run by Ted Cruz’s advisor Chris Wilson, was going national too. Its website proclaimed that it “provided analytics and polling for key races at the state and federal level around the country,” including the Ted Cruz–Beto O’Rourke contest in Texas and the Kevin Cramer–Heidi Heitkamp race in North Dakota.

The networked apps entered the fray well before the November elections. The National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action’s app was particularly active. The NRA-ILA app offered extensive training sessions and campaign events focusing on battleground states. In July the app announced a Nevada session that included training in the use of the Koch brothers’ i360 data platform.

Such events were scheduled in all of the battleground states. The coordination was exquisite: members downloaded the apps, the apps fed the i360 database, and i360 informed the canvassers. Morton Blackwell’s Leadership Institute and the NRA worked hand-in-glove. Glen Caroline, the director of the NRA-ILA Grassroots Programs and Campaign Field Operations Division, had taught at the Leadership Institute. He oversaw the NRA’s “campaign field operations, voter registration drives, and Get Out the Vote campaigns at the national, state, and local levels,” while also supervising over two hundred of the Leadership Institute’s “FrontLines Activist Leaders (FALs) nationwide.”

The NRA app offered a stream of events leading up to the midterms. An August 10 meetup in St. Louis served “to recruit new volunteers to help support pro-gun candidates this election cycle.” On August 29 the Wisconsin NRA-ILA team presented “an important FREE Grassroots Activism Workshop” to “provide you with all the tools you need to defend our rights and help elect pro-gun candidates in Green Bay” at the Cabela’s sporting goods shop. On August 31, the NRA partnered with the Cedar Gap Baptist Church in Seymour, Missouri, for a catfish dinner.

It’s impossible to list all of the 2018 campaign activities carried out by groups connected to the Council for National Policy, or to recount all of the ways they complemented the Koch operations. But the available examples are suggestive of the influence the CNP exerted in key races.

In January 2018, the Koch donor network gathered in Indian Wells, California, to commit $400 million to the 2018 midterm election cycle. Much of the meeting focused on a new bid to privatize public education and to break the teachers’ unions. CNP member Tim Phillips, the president of the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity, reported that his organization had created an impressive field operation in thirty-six states to promote its cause. “We have more grass-roots members in Wisconsin than the Wisconsin teachers’ union has members. That’s how you change a state!” he said. Phillips’s presentation was accompanied by AFP’s chief executive, Emily Seidel. She reported that the network was “analyzing” fourteen Senate races and was fully supporting four Republicans racing against Democratic incumbents: Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and Bill Nelson in Florida.“The list will continue to grow,” Seidel said. The effort would begin with a massive direct mail campaign and turn to mass mobilization in the fall. Americans for Prosperity was hiring en masse, and its website promised that its paid “grassroots army” would be supplied with “the best equipment, technology and teammates.” (Unlike the populations it was set on dispossessing, AFP’s “army” enjoyed full medical, education, and retirement benefits, plus paid vacation.)

On June 19 the New York Times’s Hiroko Tabuchi described how the Kochs’ ground troops and the Koch network’s technology converged in a story on AFP’s campaign to defeat public transit initiatives. There was widespread support for a transit plan in Nashville, the Times reported, but then the AFP’s Tennessee division came into the picture. It made almost forty-two thousand phone calls and knocked on more than six thousand doors, arguing that public transit violated liberties, and the measure was soundly defeated. The national campaigns also utilized phone banks, advertising campaigns, public forums, reports, and editorials in local media.

“Central to the work of Americans for Prosperity,” the Times stated, “is i360, the Kochs’ data operation, which profiles Americans based on their voter registration information, consumer data and social media activities. The canvassers divided the neighborhoods into ‘walkbooks’ or clusters of several dozen homes, and broke into teams of two.” The canvassers were equipped with iPads running i360 software. AFP funneled the money for the Nashville campaign through a local organization that was not required to name its donors.

Leading into the midterms, the Koch grassroots army rolled out its social media campaign in full force, inviting supporters to training programs to implement its apps and feed its data platform.

In Ocala, Florida, the Kochs’ Libre Initiative invited Hispanics to free English classes at the Open Door Church. In Lincoln, Nebraska, the Kochs offered a free lunch to high school students who joined their training program.These programs were replicated across the country, recruiting local and national staff and volunteers for their campaigns.

There were additional efforts by CNP partner organizations. One was the Susan B. Anthony List.The antiabortion organization’s website reported that it raised $28 million to send out 1,105 pro-life canvassers in ten states. These visited more than 2.7 million low-turnout pro-life voters at their homes and reached over 350,000 voters with live get-out-the-vote calls. They concentrated their forces on the Senate races that had been highlighted by analysts at the Values Voter Summit, including Indiana, Missouri, Florida, North Dakota, and Tennessee. The Susan B. Anthony List’s PAC, Women Speak Out, had made nine disbursements to the Koch-funded i360 data platform from 2015 to 2016, and four more in the 2017 to 2018 cycle, this time for “operating expense,” “video production,” and “digital ads.” The Susan B. Anthony List wrangled its supporters on its own uCampaign app, Life Impact, launched on October 2, 2017. Its gamification features offered “prizes like pro-life sunglasses” and “precious feet pins” depicting feet at ten weeks. The National Rifle Association’s NRA-ILA app had developed innovative features over the previous two years. One was the use of geofencing: local gun shops and shooting ranges joined as partners, and the app facilitated meetups there among local supporters, reinforcing their activism through social interaction.

The NRA Political Victory Fund app organized volunteers for phone banks and canvassing. (“Please bring a smart phone or tablet along with a comfortable pair of shoes.”)

In sparsely populated or heavily fundamentalist states, the combined forces of the CNP groups and the Koch network could make an outsize impact. Over the week of November 3, the NRA app promoted campaign events in Arizona, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Washington State, and Wisconsin.

Despite the Republican efforts, the Democrats had a window of opportunity.

The NRA was testing the boundaries. An investigation by Mother Jones revealed that the NRA appeared “to have illegally coordinated its political advertising with Republican candidates in at least three recent high-profile US Senate races,” in “apparent violation of laws designed to prevent independent groups from synchronizing their efforts with political campaigns.” In Claire McCaskill’s Missouri Senate race, for example, the NRA “flooded local TV stations with ads supportive of Hawley in the month before the election.”

But synchronization was the name of the game, and i360 was the key. Its Federal Election Commission filing listed 884 clients from 2017 to 2018, including the NRA, the Susan B. Anthony List PAC, and Americans for Prosperity, as well as the Republican Parties of Wisconsin and Virginia, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and myriad Republican candidates at every level. Its capacity for data collection was extraordinary. Besides the usual voter files, i360 tracked voters’ marital status, interest in diet and weight loss and cholesterol levels, preference for internet ads or outdoor ads, hearing difficulty, home equity, and household monthly expendable income, in addition to a category labeled “Bible.” When the various canvassers bearing their smartphones and iPads knocked on the door, their devices gave them an excellent idea of who would answer, and offered a tailored script.

Despite the Republican efforts, the Democrats had a window of opportunity. Public disapproval of Trump was building, and there was talk of a “blue wave” that could take both houses of Congress and bring the Trump Revolution to a halt. But there were many shortfalls on the campaign front. Democratic volunteers in Texas, New York, and California told the same story. Many of them used a mobile canvassing app called MiniVAN, which offered and collected data on registered voters and their voting history. But the data was limited to address, phone number (if you were lucky), party registration, and when they last voted. A New York Democratic organizer reported that his workers had to input their information on paper forms, which had to be passed along to be digitally recorded. Some presidential campaigns lent volunteers burner phones, but congressional races asked volunteers to use their own phones. Lower-level candidates couldn’t afford the VAN services. Other companies were entering the digital space— including Voter Circle, Tuesday Company, Team, and Hootsuite—but they hadn’t gained traction, and there was little coordination, either among the digital platforms or the state Democratic parties. In Texas, Beto O’Rourke’s campaign was trying a new app called Polis. But it was competing with Ted Cruz’s mature digital and field operations, run by Chris Wilson and WPAi in coordination with uCampaign and Cambridge Analytica.

The fundamentalists rallied their own grassroots army on multiple media platforms. On Sunday, November 4—two days before the election—Tony Perkins cohosted a preelection television marathon called The Event, carried on cable television and a Facebook feed. The Event was sponsored by the Truth  &  Liberty  Coalition, and  included  CNP  members Tony Perkins, W. Jackson, and Kristan Hawkins among its six featured guests. The program’s website included resources from the Family Resource Council, including the iVoter Guide and materials for church Culture Impact Teams. There were also links to a Whitehouse.gov page titled “Trump’s Accomplishments” and another to a site selling a DVD called Politics: Easy as P.I.E. by CNP executive director Bob McEwen. The cosponsors included an array of CNP partner organizations, among them the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, Alliance Defending Freedom, and Students for Life of America. United in Purpose and My Faith Votes were additional sponsors, as were various Baptist and other churches.

At the Values Voter Summit, the experts had warned their listeners that the Democrats would need to win twenty-three seats to flip the House. They won forty.

I streamed The Event from my perch for the midterm elections in Dallas. A few days earlier I had attended a Cruz rally in Fort Worth, standing next to supporters who called Democrats “demons” and described O’Rourke as “the son of Satan.”

Early on election night the mood at the Ted Cruz victory party in Dallas was confident. Beto O’Rourke had generated some buzz, but the crowd anticipated a Cruz victory. We lined up for our repast of beef brisket ladled into a Fritos bag, topped with sour cream, and washed down with root beer. When the votes were finally counted, Cruz won easily, but the pundits who predicted a “blue wave” faced a contradictory landscape. Voter turnout leaped, especially among sectors that benefited the Democrats—eighteen-to twenty-year-olds, urban voters, and minorities. The Democrats won the House but suffered a setback in the Senate.

At the Values Voter Summit, the experts had warned their listeners that the Democrats would need to win twenty-three seats to flip the House. They won forty. This reflected a marked increase in the national voting population that supported Democratic candidates and policies—but of course, the national majority was not the only question. On a practical level, it meant that the Trump administration would face an obstructionist House that would object, delay, and confront the White House on everything from budgets to investigations.

But in the Senate, the Republicans expanded their majority of fifty-one seats to fifty-three, versus the Democrats’ forty-five and two independents. Democrat Claire McCaskill went down in defeat in Missouri, as did Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota. Republican Rick Scott won a razor-thin victory over Bill Nelson in Florida. Chris Wilson claimed some credit, reporting: “For the fifth consecutive cycle, WPAi clients outperformed the partisan average in both their primary and general election contests by double digits.” The Senate victory gave the coalition another two years to push its federal judicial appointments, with the potential to benefit from rulings on redistricting, voting restrictions, and other factors to tip the balance.

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shadow networkFrom Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right by Anne Nelson. Used with the permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2019 by Anne Nelson.

Anne Nelson
Anne Nelson
Anne Nelson is an award-winning author and playwright who has written extensively about human rights and the defiance of totalitarian regimes. Her most recent work is Suzanne's Children: A Daring Rescue in Nazi Paris, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, published in eight countries. Her previous book was Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler. It was named Editor's Choice by the New York Times Book Review. She is also the author of "Murder Under Two Flags: The US, Puerto Rico, and the Cerro Maravilla Cover-up."





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