Cameron Joseph is Talking Points Memo's senior political correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He covers Capitol Hill, the White House and the permanent campaign. Previous publications include the New York Daily News, Mashable, The Hill and National Journal. He grew up near Chicago and is an irrationally passionate Cubs fan.
Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial races have long been an early sign of the national political mood ahead of midterm elections. This year, the contest in the commonwealth is testing something even bigger: Whether Democrats can navigate charged racial issues and win key races in the age of Donald Trump.
Republican nominee Ed Gillespie has been deluging the airwaves with ads bashing Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) for supporting sanctuary cities and accusing him of being “weak on MS-13” gang violence and wanting to tear down the state’s confederate monuments. Northam has held a slight lead in most public polls of the race, but strategists in both parties think the Nov. 5 election could still go either way.
That has some Democrats nervous 20 days out from the election.
“If something were to happen and we were to lose that governor’s race, shit, Republicans are going to want to make every race in the country a referendum on MS-13,” said one Democratic strategist working on a number of races around the country. “We’re getting full Donald Trump primal scream racism up on the air right now. We’d better be able to beat it. … We don’t want these guys to learn the way to win a race is to turn it into a white power argument.”
While Democrats see Gillespie’s decision to pivot hard right on hot-button cultural issues like immigration as one way to shore up his weak base, they admit that they better be able to defeat him in Virginia if they hope to hold Senate seats in even tougher territory next year and make a real play for winning back the House.
Virginia has long been a harbinger of future elections. Big wins by Govs. George Allen (R) in 1993, Tim Kaine (D) in 2005 and Bob McDonnell (R) in 2009 all were early signs that their parties would have huge success at the ballot box the next year. Even current Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) closer-than-expected 2013 win against hardline conservative Ken Cuccinelli (R) was an early sign that all was not well for the Democratic Party heading into a disastrous 2014 midterm cycle.
A trio of public polls released Tuesday found Gillespie within the margin of error, including one that showed Gillespie with a lead for the first time in the campaign.
A loss in a state President Obama and Hillary Clinton carried could also deal a major psychic blow to Democrats looking to bounce back in the age of Trump — especially after a disappointing loss in an open House seat in Georgia and near misses in a number of other heavily Republican House seats across the country.
“The history is really clear that Virginia is the early warning system,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, a Virginia native who’s a veteran of the Clinton campaign and dozens of others in the state and nationally. “No one should expect this to be anything but close and no one should downplay how important it is that Democrats win. You can write off a special election in a congressional district we had no business competing in in the first place as an aberration. Virginia will be not an aberration but an indication of where we are in our efforts to claw back from 2016.”
Gillespie’s hard-right charge on immigration is a major reversal of his previous, big-tent approach to politics, as TPM previously documented. He once warned racial demagoguery against immigrants was a “siren song” that Republicans must resist. But lately he’s been walking the tightrope on the issue, campaigning with Vice President Mike Pence while dancing around whether he’d invite President Trump to stump with him, and campaigning in immigrant-heavy communities in more liberal Northern Virginia even as he airs the charged ads in heavy rotation elsewhere in the state. That’s a contrast with Northam, who’s holding a rally with President Obama on Thursday.
“The Gillespie folks have found they have to get their base out and that means moving into some of these more social appeals,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), who said he thought Northam was better positioned to win but predicted a close finish. “These races are no longer going after the center, it’s all about getting your voters. You’re going after your base with a subtle dog whistle, but you’re not going over the top.”
Democrats nervously remember how things have played out in the state the last few years. While they’ve won most key statewide races this decade, McAuliffe’s narrow win after he led the polls by a comfortable margin in 2013 was followed by Gillespie almost upsetting popular Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) in 2014 — a one-point margin no one predicted heading into election night. Hillary Clinton had a solid lead over Trump in Virginia for the entirety of the campaign, and an early alarm bell for her campaign on election night was Trump leading in Virginia early in the night before the big cities came in (she ended up winning the state by five points, similar to public polls).
Still, those elections came with Obama in the White House. Now, Trump’s there — and is about as unpopular in the commonwealth as nationally.
The MS-13 ads are particularly salient in Northern Virginia, where the Salvadorian gang has committed some heinous crimes in recent years, while the fight over removing Confederate monuments reverberates most in the more southern parts of the state — and is particularly charged in the wake of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville.
Northam’s team says he has a small but steady lead — and Gillespie’s attacks are a sign of desperation. Northam’s response has been to outline his own law-and-order bona fides in ads while calling Gillespie’s attacks “a page from Donald Trump’s book.” His team recommends other Democrats do the same in highlighting their own candidates’ biographies to push back.
“He’s willing to do and say anything to get elected, principles be damned, and he’s getting desperate. He’s decided to go full Trump,” said Northam adviser Dave Turner. “People are seeing Ed Gillespie’s ads for what they are: Racially tinged Willie Horton style unmoored attacks.”
Gillespie’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story. His allies dispute that his attacks are racially charged.
“Democrats have tried to use this issue and call it racist but … why would you want to give quarter to a gang that as recently as three months ago brutalized its victims?” Republican Party of Virginia Chairman John Whitbeck told TPM, pointing out that Northam did vote to protect sanctuary cities (even though none exist in Virginia). “I don’t know why Ralph Northam would put the rights of illegal immigrants over Virginians.”
Whitbeck said every election is now a base election — and predicted Gillespie’s move could send him to the governor’s mansion, demoralizing Democrats.
“In this particular era of polarization the turning out of your base is crucial to success. If you have the more enthusiastic voter side you’re likely to prevail,” Whitbeck said. “Democrats have tried to make every race a referendum on national politics, and they have lost every single one. If they lose this one, it will be a back-breaking blow to their narrative.”
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency in effect declared trench warfare on environmental groups on Monday, ending a practice he dubbed “Sue & Settle” by which the EPA would often settle lawsuits brought by outside groups in an attempt to get the agency to enforce its own rules.
“As of today with this directive and the memorandum, we’re no longer going to be involved in that practice,” Pruitt told a small group of reporters, including TPM, Monday morning at the EPA. “It’s a regulation through litigation process.”
Pruitt painted the policy as a way that environmental groups profited off the agency during the Obama years, while those groups worked together to circumvent the normal rule-making process and create more stringent environmental regulations.
“We should engage in rule-making that takes into consideration the voices that will be impacted across the country,” he said. “What this sue-and-settle practice has done historically has bypassed that altogether.”
The rule change could force environmental groups to spend much more time and effort on lawsuits aimed at making the EPA enforce its own rules and abide by agreed-upon timelines—spreading them thinner and making it harder for them to expend effort on other, more complicated cases. The EPA’s decision to refuse to reimburse lawyers’ fees also could be costly to environmental groups, as well as make it harder and less likely for average citizens and localities to undertake lawsuits to get the EPA to do what it’s legally required to do.
Pruitt pledged that the agency would no longer reimburse attorneys’ fees in cases where it decides to avoid a lawsuit, arguing that both environmental and business groups had abused it to enrich themselves in the past.
“This is not particular to one type of plaintiff,” he said. “There should be no attorneys’ fees paid, period, no matter who the plaintiff is.”
Combined with measures to slash staff, a pattern of issuing fewer and lighter fines, and the rollback of Obama-era rules that crack down on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants to mitigate the effects of climate change, Pruitt’s latest move is part of an overall shift at Trump’s EPA that’s radically more friendly to big business and hostile towards environmental groups.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, has railed against “Sue & Settle” for years.
The new memorandum formalizes a position of fighting every lawsuit tooth-and-nail that Pruitt had announced early in his tenure at the EPA. Back in February, he’d promised he wouldn’t allow “regulation through litigation.” The Justice Department also has stopped negotiating settlements that end up with payments to outside groups to cover attorneys’ or other fees.
Environmental groups fired back at Pruitt after his new declaration.
“Scott Pruitt and his polluter cronies continue to perpetrate lies about the law as an excuse for refusing enforcing it — but when it comes to the law, the truth has a way of catching up with you,” Sierra Club Environmental Law Program Director Pat Gallagher said in a statement. “If Pruitt thinks that by frivolously litigating deadline cases he will deter the Sierra Club or other citizen groups from holding him accountable in court, he should think again – we will not be deterred.”
Fewer than a dozen reporters were included at the event with Pruitt, and some of them, including TPM, rarely if ever cover the environmental beat closely—a fact that frustrated some environmental reporters who weren’t invited to attend:
Would be fascinated to know how he defines 'sue and settle' vs. regular settlements. But alas, @EPA didn't invite us https://t.co/mLPW0dOttu
A charity founded by Alabama GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore is selling its building — a move that could make Moore more than a half-million dollars.
The Washington Post reports that the Foundation for Moral Law, which is currently run by Moore’s wife Kayla, has put its building on the market for $1.9 million. That could net Moore $540,000, because of an unusual arrangement where Moore’s charity paid him huge sums for part-time work and promised future pay when it ran low on funds.
Moore, who twice served on (and was thrown off of) the Alabama supreme court, made more than $180,000 a year from the organization — more than $1 million in total. The unusual workings of the charity were a problem for him in the primary, but not enough to stop him from romping against Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL). He’s held a lead in early polls against Democrat Doug Jones in spite of Moore’s multiple controversies in the deeply conservative state.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) will forego a run for governor and stay in the Senate, she announced Friday, keeping a key moderate Republican in the upper chamber.
“I have decided that the best way that I can contribute to these priorities is to remain a member of the United States Senate,” Collins announced Friday in Maine.
Collins is one of the last true remaining Republican moderates in the Senate, and her decision to stay means the Senate will retain one of the few Republicans who has shown a willingness to stand up to President Trump and break with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
The three-term senator had given serious thought to returning to her state for good and running for governor, something she’s done before, and during the Friday morning event at a regional Chamber of Commerce event she said the “hands-on nature” of gubernatorial work “very much appealed” to her. But she said she could do more by remaining in D.C.
“Ultimately I have been guided by my sense of where I could do the most for the people of Maine and for the nation. These are difficult times for our country and the Senate reflects the discord and division that characterize the Senate today,” she said. “I realized how much needs to be done in a divided and troubled Washington.”
Her decision to stay slows a rush to the exits from moderate Republicans and independent thinkers in both chambers. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Reps. Dave Reichert (R-WA) and Charlie Dent (R-PA) are some of the Republicans who have shown a willingness to buck party leaders who have decided not to run again.
Collins’ vote has been pivotal through much of her time in Congress, especially in recent years. She was one of three Republicans who voted against the GOP’s attempts to repeal Obamacare earlier this year, along with Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), effectively killing the bill.
She was also one of just two Republicans, along with Murkowski, to oppose the nomination Secretary of Education Betsy Devos. She has played a key role on a number of other bipartisan efforts over the years — she was one of just two Republicans to vote for President Obama’s $800 billion stimulus package in 2009, casting the deciding votes for a deal that many economists credit with halting the economic collapse.
If Collins had run and won, Maine law says the governor would pick her replacement, which most experts think means controversial outgoing Gov. Paul LePage (R) would put in a placeholder who would likely be much more conservative than her. Democrats would have likely run a serious challenge in 2020. But now that’s moot — and the Senate will retain one of the few of a dying breed, a true moderate Republican.
In 2004, a bipartisan coalition of Alabama leaders moved to eliminate sections of the state constitution mandating school segregation and poll taxes. They assumed it’d be an easy feat — until Roy Moore got involved.
Democrats and Republicans led by then-Gov. Bob Riley (R) worked together on an amendment to remove language in the state constitution mandating “separate schools for white and colored children” and allowing poll taxes, Jim Crow-era requirements that people to pay to vote that disenfranchised most black people.
The changes were purely symbolic — all of the state constitutional language had already been struck down by state and federal courts — but civil rights and business leaders saw it as a way to heal old wounds and make the state more attractive to big business.
The opposite happened instead, and Moore’s fierce opposition likely made the difference.
“He had a huge impact. It was a measure that was set to pass without much opposition and then because he got involved it changed the dynamic completely,” said Susan Kennedy of the Alabama Education Association, the state public teachers’ lobby that supported the amendment.
At the time, Moore, who is currently the GOP nominee and the front-runner to become Alabama’s next U.S. senator, had recently been booted from the state supreme court for defying higher court orders to remove a Ten Commandments statue from in front of his courthouse. That fight had made him a superstar in the religious right both in the state and nationally.
When conservative evangelical activists including the Alabama Christian Coalition began warning about adverse effects of the segregation amendment he stepped up to be the amendment’s most prominent foe — a move that kept his name in the headlines as he geared up for a 2006 primary challenge against Riley and sent the amendment down to a narrow defeat.
“This amendment is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and the people of Alabama should be aware of it,” Moore told the Birmingham News in 2004, warning it would “open the door to an enormous tax increase” — one of many broadsides he issued.
His argument worked. The statewide measure failed by about 2,000 votes, out of 1.4 million cast. Every subsequent attempt to remove the language since that initial failure has failed, most recently in 2012.
Moore’s stance against the amendment was one of many of his efforts over two decades that has built him a fiercely loyal following on the religious right. That base wasn’t enough when he ran against Riley in 2006, but it powered his primary victory over Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) last month and has him favored to win the Dec. 12 general election. It’s also one in a long line of racially charged episodes in Moore’s career.
Moore faces former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who is best known for successfully prosecuting, decades later, Ku Klux Klan member responsible for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young black girls.
Alabama’s state constitution still contains the following language:
“Separate schools shall be provided for white and colored children, and no child of either race shall be permitted to attend a school of the other race.”
A ‘Black Eye’ For Alabama
The battle over removing segregationist language is part of a much larger effort that has pitted reformers, civil rights groups and many in the business community against Old South traditionalists and some other conservatives in the state for much of the last two decades.
The amendment was a part of Riley’s push to modernize the state constitution, a sprawling, racist document dating to 1901 that codified Jim Crow and created a strong state central government.
“Federal and state court rulings have struck down a lot of these [clauses] as unconstitutional, but it was viewed by many as a black eye for the state,” Toby Roth, who served as Riley’s chief of staff during the constitutional fights, told TPM.
The amendment to remove segregationist language sailed through the Democratic-controlled state legislature with strong bipartisan support, and supporters expected it to pass when put to a statewide vote. But lawmakers also added a provision that would have stripped a 1956 amendment passed in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision desegregating schools. That amendment said Alabamans had no constitutional “right to education or training at public expense.”
Moore and hardline conservatives pounced to argue the removal of that language would allow for a backdoor tax increase by judges who would see it as granting a constitutional right to an education, warning it would hurt taxpayers and threaten private schools and homeschoolers.
Lawmakers were caught off-guard by the heated opposition. But while they’d had past success in removing other racist language, even in those efforts it’d been clear that not everyone in Alabama was ready to let go of the Old South: A 2000 amendment to remove language banning interracial marriage had passed, but by a closer-than-expected 60 percent to 40 percent margin.
This amendment got caught in a more recent fight over education funding as well, an issue that’s both racially charged and far from symbolic for many voters in the state.
In 1993, a state judge had struck down the education language as unconstitutional while ruling that the state needed to spend more on schools. The state supreme court struck down that ruling in 2002, with Moore on the court. Many white Alabamians had pulled their kids out of public schools during desegregation, creating a new de facto segregated school system in parts of the state and leaving little incentive for white Alabamians, especially wealthier ones, to pay to improve schools that in parts of the state were heavily black.
“People were afraid that it would reignite the [school] equity argument that was sued over in the 1990s,” said Kennedy. ”
Many voters’ opposition to more school funding was and is ideological and financial, not purely racially driven. But civil rights groups argue that the effect is the same.
“When you talk about not guaranteeing or taking away the language from the Constitution not guaranteeing the right to a public education, that’s racist,” Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles Steele Jr., a former Alabama state senator, told NPR at the time.
The most prominent politician besides Moore battling the amendment was his protege and former staffer, Tom Parker, who was running for the Alabama Supreme Court at the time. During that campaign, Parker spoke at an event celebrating Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader, hosted by opponents of the civil rights movement, and handed out Confederate battle flags at the funeral of a woman believed to have been the last living widow of a Confederate soldier.
The battle over the amendment came just a year after the Christian Coalition had helped defeat a Riley-backed push to increase state taxes to invest more on education and infrastructure.
The ongoing tax fights had made many conservatives wary of any constitutional changes, with a faction that simply opposed any tweaks.
“You do have a more conservative wing of the Republican Party that’s always suspicious of any constitution changes as a backdoor attempt to raise taxes,” Roth said.
Parker and Moore explicitly made that argument.
Moore told the Associated Press that the amendment was “another attempt to open the door for a court-ordered tax increase without the consent of the people” after they’d defeated the earlier amendment, while Parker ran radio ads saying that it would create “a new right to education for citizens of all ages” and warning “liberals will use this to pressure judges into raising your taxes.”
Parker won by a narrow margin even though he was heavily outspent in the race.
Moore’s other controversies
Moore is best known nationally for his controversial religious views. He’s said Muslims shouldn’t be allowed in Congress, that Sharia law is already being implemented in parts of the Midwest, and that “homosexual conduct should be illegal.”
But his racial views have also raised questions.
Moore’s Foundation for Moral Law hosted the neo-Confederate, pro-secession League of the South’s annual “Secession Day” events in 2009 and 2010, though Moore’s staff claim he didn’t know about it . League leaders have participated in pro-Moore rallies both times he was removed from the state court. They also vociferously opposed the 2004 segregation amendment and actively campaigned for Parker, Moore’s protege. As TPM previously reported, Moore’s biggest donor, Michael Peroutka, is a neo-Confederate who has advocated that the South should secede and for years served on the League of the South’s board.
Moore has said he doesn’t support secession and believes “all men are created equal,” though he’s declined to disavow the League or Peroutka. His campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests to discuss this story.
Moore also spoke at an event for the Council of Conservative Citizens in 1995 — a group that Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof would cite as a key influence two decades later.
“I did not consider the Council of Conservative Citizens to be a ‘white supremacist’ group when I spoke to them 20 years ago,” Moore said in 2015, pointing out other prominent Republicans had spoken to the group.
Moore’s office is adorned with a portrait of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and busts of generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, though he’s claimed that’s because they’re fellow West Point graduates.
He hasn’t shied away from racial controversy during his current Senate run either. Moore has continued to question whether President Obama was born in the United States, and referred to “reds and yellows” as he lamented racial division during a campaign speech. Moore’s Facebook page has shared memes claiming Obama was Muslim and one that showed black people stomping a cop car with text saying the way to stop riots was to “play the national anthem — they’ll all sit down.”
Those who supported the amendment are split about Moore’s reason for taking on the fight.
Most don’t think his views are rooted chiefly in the racial politics that conservative Alabama politicians in both parties have exploited for years. But while some see a purist ideologue, others see an opportunist who’s fine making common cause with more fringe figures to further his own ambitions.
“I can’t say at this point what drove Roy Moore other than his own self-interest,” University of Alabama Law Professor Bryan Fair, who is black and serves on the board of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told TPM.
Fair argued Moore’s involvement may have been crass opportunism.
“It was perceived as a racial issue by significant parts of the population, especially the African American population, who very much wanted to see this language removed,” he said. “Roy Moore didn’t use the N word but one doesn’t have to use the N word to be a racist or act with racial motives or with a callousness or indifference towards racial inequality.”
Others think Moore and his allies on this fight were purists driven by an ideological opposition to state-funded education — one critic who asked not to be named in order to speak frankly described him as “a religious nut” and a “zealot” but not a racist. Moore has often railed against public schools and even once wrote that public pre-school was an “unjustifiable attempt to indoctrinate our youth” and compared it to Nazi indoctrination programs.
“I would not go so far as to say the Moore camp had racist motivations. It would be completely consistent with them being suspicious of activist judges trying to raise revenues from the bench. Could you find someone who had racist motivations who was on his side on this? I’m sure you could. But I’ve disagreed with Judge Moore on several things and I would never ascribe his personal motivations to a racist agenda,” said Roth, Riley’s former chief of staff.
“There is a philosophy that any additional services offered by the state government will cost additional money and there is a constituency that wants to leave a cap on that. The segregationist language was secondary to that concern for them,” said Kennedy.
Others think both are true — that Moore is an ideologue driven by theocratic, anti-government views who is also a savvy politician willing to make common cause with racists, even though racial animus doesn’t drive his own views.
“Moore spoke to some crazy groups in the past like the League of the South but that wasn’t race-based, it was a lot more about groups that buy what he’s saying,” said another former Riley staffer. “Moore is not a George Wallace racial demagogue guy. He’s a demagogue on a lot of things, race just isn’t one of them.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) will get a left-wing challenge from a rising Democratic star.
According to CNN, California Senate President Kevin de Leon (D) will run for the Senate, pitting him against the longtime senator in an all-party primary.
De Leon has been mulling a run for a while, and has received a lot of encouragement from progressives who are fed up with Feinstein’s relatively moderate positions — and how blandly she’s talked about much of President Trump’s actions.
His run could set up the first serious left-wing challenge of a sitting Democrat in recent memory. Feinstein, 84, recently announced she’d run for reelection. But California’s unique all-party primary system could make her hard to defeat. The top two vote-getters in a primary advance to the general election, and if two Democrats advance — a real possibility — Feinstein could draw Republican votes.
The race will likely be defined generationally — de Leon is 50 — as well as geographically and racially, as the Latino de Leon is Los Angeles-based in a state where northern Californians like Feinstein have long dominated politics.
He’s not the only one looking at a bid: Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer is also rumored to be mulling a run, though Steyer did so two years ago before deciding not to challenge now-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA).
Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-UT) former chief of staff is gearing up for a possible primary challenge to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT).
Boyd Matheson tells Politico that he’s looking at a run whether or not the 83-year-old Hatch retires, framing it as a generational more than an ideological challenge.
“We’re backwards facing and backwards looking,” he said. “To me, it’s about what’s next.”
Matheson recently met with former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon, as well as David Bossie, another rabble-rousing conservative former Trump adviser who still has the president’s ear.
Matheson was a top staffer for Lee when he unseated moderate then-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT) in 2010.
Hatch is expected to decide whether or not to run for reelection after New Year’s. If he runs again, Matheson could be a formidable challenger, though Hatch easily dispatched a bevy of Tea Party challengers last time he ran in 2012. If Hatch retires, Mitt Romney is seriously considering a run — which Matheson said wouldn’t deter him.
“Mitt has lots of great credentials,” he said, “but what’s the vision?”
The race could be one of many establishment-populist tests in 2018 that’s dogging the GOP.
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH) announced her surprise retirement on Friday, opening up one of the nation’s most hotly contested swing districts and creating a possible headache for national Democrats.
“The time has come in my life to pause and decide on a different path,” she said in a statement.
Shea-Porter, a liberal community activist, had been in the middle of some of the toughest House races of the last decade. She first won her seat in 2006, campaigning stridently against the Iraq War, beat former Rep. Jeb Bradley (R-NH) in a 2008 rematch, lost it to Rep. Frank Guinta (R-NH) in 2010, beat him in 2012, lost to him in 2014 and defeated him again in 2016 after Guinta struggled with corruption charges.
She’d never been a favorite of national Democrats due to her unrepentantly liberal views in the centrist district, but her fervent base support had helped keep her in the race and eventually won over some internal party critics.
She won the district last fall even though President Trump narrowly won it by 48 percent to 47 percent after President Obama carried it twice.
Her retirement is likely to create a scramble in New Hampshire politics, with a number of local politicians who may be interested in the seat.
Democrats are already talking up New Hampshire Executive Council member Chris Pappas (D) as a strong possible candidate, though he’s likely to face a primary.
On the GOP side, New Hampshire state Sen. Andy Sanborn (R) is squaring off against former local police chief Eddie Edwards (R) in the primary.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee insisted that there “is no doubt that Democrats will hold this seat” in a statement thanking Shea-Porter for her service, while the National Republican Congressional Committee said they “are confident we will turn this district red once again.”
Alabama Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore’s top supporter is a hardline Confederate sympathizer with longtime ties to a secessionist group.
Michael Anthony Peroutka (pictured on the right above, with Moore in 2011) has given Moore, his foundation and his campaigns well over a half-million dollars over the past decade-plus. He’s also expressed beliefs that make even Moore’s arguably theocratic anti-gay and anti-Muslim views look mainstream by comparison. Chief among them: He’s argued that the more Christian South needs to secede and form a new Biblical nation.
The close connections raise further questions about the racial and religious views of Moore, the former Alabama supreme court chief justice and the front-runner to become Alabama’s next U.S. senator.
There’s a long history of southern conservative politicians playing footsie with fringe groups that hold controversial views on race. But that’s become more fraught in recent years as the advent of YouTube, camera phones and campaign trackers has made it harder to keep those meetings quiet. It’s also become more controversial to speak to Confederate groups in recent years as parts of the South have changed and in the wake of murderous racist violence in Charleston and Charlottesville. But even by the old standards, Moore’s deep ties to Peroutka — and Peroutka’s views — stand out, as most of those groups weren’t actively calling for the South to secede again.
Peroutka, a 2004 Constitution Party presidential nominee who in 2014 won a seat as a Republican on the county commission in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, spent years on the board of the Alabama-based League of the South, a southern secessionist group which for years has called for a southern nation run by an “Anglo-Celtic” elite. The Southern Poverty Law Center designates the League of the South as a hate group (a designation Peroutka regularly jokes about). That organization, after Peroutka left, was one of the organizers of the Charlottesville protests last summer that ended in bloodshed.
During his 2004 presidential run, Peroutka made it clear to the League of the South which side of the Mason-Dixon Line he stood on.
“I come from Maryland, which by the way is below the Mason-Dixon Line. … We’d have seceded if they hadn’t of locked up 51 members of the legislature. And by the way, I’m still angry about that,” he told the group to applause.
In that speech, Peroutka praised his daughter for refusing to play the Battle Hymn of the Republic in her school band, called a visit to Confederate leader Jefferson Davis’ grave “beautiful,” praised his son for calling the Confederate rebel flag the “American flag” and said he’d wished that those in the room had been there during the Civil War fighting for the South.
“We could have used you, there should have been more of us in 1861,” he said.
And he made it clear that his anti-union views weren’t just in the past.
“Of course the South is this remnant of a Christian understanding of law and government where there is a God and government is God-ordained. That stands right in the way of this pagan understanding that the state, the new world order, is God,'” he continued, warning that secularists were out to destroy the South.
The League of the South broke its tradition against involvement in a federal political system they normally reject and endorsed Peroutka’s campaign.
Moore’s Own Views
Moore himself has addressed some extremist groups and made some racially charged comments — in addition to his inflammatory views that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed in Congress, that Sharia law is already being implemented in parts of the Midwest and that “homosexual conduct should be illegal.”
Moore led the charge against a 2004 state referendum to remove segregationist language from the Alabama state constitution, claiming that the amendment would somehow open up the state to possible education tax increases. The League of the South was also involved in helping to defeat the amendment, which fell by a narrow margin.
As Buzzfeed reported in 2015, back in 1995 Moore gave a keynote address to the Council of Conservative Citizens — a white supremacist group that Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof would cite as a key influence two decades later.
“I did not consider the Council of Conservative Citizens to be a ‘white supremacist’ group when I spoke to them 20 years ago,” Moore said in 2015, pointing out that other prominent Republicans like former Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) had also spoken to the group. “I obviously highly regard the fundamental principle stated in the Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal.'”
As CNN recently reported, Moore’s Foundation for Moral Law hosted the League of the South’s annual “Secession Day” event in 2009 and 2010.
Rich Hobson, then the Foundation’s head and now Moore’s campaign manager, told the AP in 2010 that he’d been the one to grant the space to the League, not Moore, and said Moore’s foundation “is not involved in the meeting.”
Moore’s office is adorned with a portrait of Jefferson Davis and busts of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, though he’s claimed that’s because they’re fellow West Point graduates and not because they led the Confederacy.
Even during his current Senate campaign, Moore hasn’t shied away from racial controversy, continuing to question whether President Obama was born in the United States and referring to “reds and yellows” in the same breath that he lamented racial division. And Moore’s Facebook page shared memes claiming Obama was Muslim, as well as ones like this:
The League of the South has also helped to organize pro-Moore protests both times he was being removed from the Alabama supreme court, according to contemporaneous reports. But in spite of that visible support from the League of the South, his foundation hosting them while he was its president, and his deep ties to Peroutka, Moore has denied knowing about Peroutka’s and the group’s views.
When a Montgomery Advertiser reporter confronted him about Peroutka’s big donations to his state supreme court campaign in 2012, Moore denied he supported secession but refused to disavow Peroutka’s views because “I don’t know anything about it to be concerned or not concerned, but I have no idea what was said or what they stood for.”
Those who have closely watched Moore and Peroutka are skeptical.
“The fact that they are so close and Roy Moore promoted Peroutka, took him out of obscurity and helped him become the presidential candidate of the Constitution Party, says a lot,” Frederick Clarkson, an author with the liberal think tank Political Research Associates who has monitored Moore and Peroutka for decades, told TPM.
“League of the South is a violent secessionist group rooted in the theology of Christian Reconstructionism, states’ rights and white supremacy. There’s no question what they’re up to.”
The Maryland Confederate
Peroutka has been explicit about his support of the Confederacy — and his views haven’t exactly softened over the years.
“I don’t disagree with Dr. Hill at all that this [national political] regime is beyond reform. I think that’s an obvious fact and I agree with him. However, I do agree that when you secede or however the destruction and the rubble of this regime takes place and how it plays out, you’re going to need to take a biblical worldview and apply it to civil law and government,” he said. “I don’t want the people from the League of the South to for one minute think that I am about reforming the current regime and studying the Constitution is about reforming the regime. I, like many of you and like Patrick Henry, have come to the conclusion that we smelled a rat from the beginning.”
In case there was any confusion about his views, Peroutka closed his speech by asking the crowd to “stand for the national anthem” — and then played “Dixie.”
Video of Peroutka at the 2012 League of the South event courtesy Right Wing Watch.
He’s also argued the Civil War was about “consolidating power into the hands of a few people” like Washington politicians and New York bankers, not slavery.
Peroutka explicitly said he wasn’t a racist during his 2014 run — though in a press conference to prove it he twice dodged questions about his earlier secessionist comments.
Moore’s campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Peroutka told TPM via email that he has “made public statements regarding the issues you describe” and has “nothing further to add at this time.”
Peroutka and Moore share similar Christian Reconstructionist views of government. Both Moore and Peroutka have long questioned the basic right of the federal government to dictate what local officials do, arguing that’s beyond the power God and the Constitution grants to it, though Peroutka has gone much further, openly talking about secession.
They believe that America is a Christian nation, that government is limited to enforcing those rights bestowed by God, and anything else it attempts to do is fundamentally wrong and should be disregarded by the people and officials. That explains Moore’s refusal to follow the rule of law in both occasions he was forced to leave the state supreme court. Both explicitly reject the common interpretation of the separation of church and state, blame America’s woes on an abandonment of their theocratic view, and harken back fondly to a hazy earlier era where devout Christians alone ruled the land.
More than a decade ago, Peroutka found a kindred spirit in Moore, who had become a hero on the religious right by erecting a monument to the Ten Commandments at his courthouse and rejecting higher courts’ rulings to remove it. Moore was suddenly without a job after being kicked off the Alabama supreme court — and Peroutka seemed to have a perfect way to help him fill his days.
Soon, the two were barnstorming the country, with Peroutka giving Moore $120,000 for a speaking tour. The well-known Moore was being courted by members of the fringe Constitution Party as a presidential candidate, and often spoke at the same events as his previously little-known benefactor. When Moore announced he wouldn’t run, Peroutka stepped up — a self-funder who’d helped Moore travel the country and in return got to share his spotlight and boost his profile.
That was the first of many donations, most of them made through the Elizabeth Stroub Peroutka Foundation, a group run by Peroutka and his brother: $60,000 to Moore’s now-defunct Coalition to Restore America, and $249,000 from 2006 through 2014 to Moore’s Foundation for Moral Law.
Peroutka also gave a combined $45,000 to Moore’s two failed gubernatorial runs, and a total of $143,000 for his successful 2012 comeback to the state supreme court, according to the National Institute of Money in State Politics, roughly one-tenth of his total money for the race.
The sum total of Peroutka’s donations to Moore, his causes and campaigns: at least $622,000 since 2004.
Screen shot from Moore’s Facebook video of Moore greeting Peroutka backstage on primary election night, Sept. 27, 2017.
Peroutka has also honored Moore on numerous occasions — including in 2007 when he had installed a replica of Moore’s Ten Commandments memorial on his Maryland farm and dubbed the area “Roy S. Moore Field.” Flying at the ceremony: the state flags of Alabama and Maryland, and the Confederate national flag. The stars and stripes were nowhere to be seen, according to coverage and photos from the liberal secular Americans United for Church and State and the liberal blog JewsOnFirst.
The two seem to have remained close. Peroutka maxed out to Moore’s current Senate campaign and appeared onstage at Moore’s primary victory rally in late September. Moore embraced him backstage after shouting an exuberant “This guy, this guy! Michael,” upon spotting him (it can be seen at 33 minutes into the Moore campaign’s Facebook livestream of the event).
As recently as 2015, Moore participated in a promotional video for Peroutka’s “Institute on the Constitution” — an organization set to teach a biblical view of the Constitution — calling Peroutka his “good friend.”
Promotional video from Peroutka’s group, the Institute on the Constitution.
The League of the South’s Dark Record
Peroutka has used his personal wealth to fund a number of right-wing causes over the years, from various anti-abortion and anti-gay groups to money to maintain Confederate monuments and grave sites to $1 million to the Creation Museum for the fossilized skeleton of an Allosaurous dubbed “Ebenezer.”
But his League of the South support has drawn the most ire. It convinced now-Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and other local Republicans to disavow Peroutka’s candidacy in 2014.
The group and its leader Michael Hill (the “Dr. Hill” Peroutka was referring to in his 2012 remarks) have become more openly militant in recent years, shortly after Peroutka left the group.
Hill has recently suggested organizing a violent “Southern Defense Force” militia in preparation for “guerrilla war,” predicted “race war,” and attacked “Organized Jewry.” He was a scheduled speaker at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville alongside former KKK head David Duke, and members of his group were caught on camera brawlingduring the violent protests there that ended up with a white nationalist ramming a car into a group of anti-racist protestors. In its aftermath, he wrote a Facebook post titled “Fight or die White man.” The group has had billboards reading “Secede” posted across the South since 2014.
While Peroutka repeatedly praised Hill in speeches as recently as 2012, he left when he was gearing up for a 2014 run for office, claiming he’d just found out top members opposed interracial marriage. He recently denounced as “outrageous” and “inappropriate” Hill’s pledge “to be a white supremacist, a racist, an anti-Semite, a homophobe, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe and any other sort of ‘phobe’ that benefits my people.”
But while the group has grown more extreme, its basic tenets haven’t shifted all that much since Peroutka was first involved. At the same 2012 League conference that Peroutka spoke, Hill made it crystal clear what he and the group stood for. It’s apparent Peroutka was listening, as he referred back to parts of Hill’s speech in his own.
“We want out and we want them out of here,” Hill said about the federal government, calling for a “New southern republic,” speaking out against interracial marriage and for the “Superiority of the Christian West.”
“If you can’t be proud of the fact that God created you as a white southerner and you can’t defend your patrimony then you ain’t much,” he said. “Look around. You all look like me. … You cannot deny when you look around in this room who makes up this movement.”
From the start, the group had long had ties with white supremacists. A founding board member, Jack Kershaw, was an ardent segregationist who’d served as the attorney of Martin Luther King’s assassin, erected statue of early KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest in Nashville, and repeatedly argued that slavery had been good for black people.
Longtime observers of the group called laughable Peroutka’s seeming shock about the group’s views.
“It’s pretty transparent bullshit that he couldn’t see racism in the League of the South until he ran for office,” said Miranda Blue, who has long tracked Peroutka and the League for Right Wing Watch and the liberal group People for the American Way.
And much as Peroutka’s claim he didn’t know about the League of the South’s motives is questionable, observers say Moore’s close ties with Peroutka are telling.
“These are the moral and political choices Roy Moore made with his close friend and financial backer, Michael Peroutka,” said Clarkson. “If he didn’t share substantial portions of the vision, why did he do those things?”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Peroutka’s middle name.
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) has decided not to finish out his term in Congress, the latest fallout from the exposure of his extramarital affair — in which the ostensibly pro-life congressman asked his mistress to have an abortion.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), in an unusual statement, announced that Murphy is on his way out in two weeks.
“This afternoon I received a letter of resignation from Congressman Tim Murphy, effective October 21. It was Dr. Murphy’s decision to move on to the next chapter of his life, and I support it. We thank him for his many years of tireless work on mental health issues here in Congress and his service to the country as a naval reserve officer,” Ryan said.
The news comes one day after Murphy announced he wouldn’t run for another term — and just days after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette broke the news that Murphy had urged his mistress to have an abortion during a false pregnancy scare.
Murphy had an ardently anti-abortion record in Congress. He’d also been a fairly interesting congressman, crafting and helping push through major bipartisan mental health legislation in recent years.
Murphy’s western Pennsylvania district is fairly solidly Republican — President Trump won it by 58 percent to 39 percent — and it’d be a major but not impossible reach for Democrats to compete for it.