An election took place last fall in Virginia that didn't garner national attention, but it should have – not for the candidates or issues – but for the giant pile of corporate cash manipulating events behind the scenes.
Rick Boucher, a then-28-year incumbent Democratic Congressman from the Ninth District – the longest-serving Congressman in that district since the Civil War – was surprisingly defeated by Republican Morgan Griffith. The upset came as a shock to many, since an early October poll showed Boucher ahead by double digits, including one measure earlier in the month that put him ahead by 10 percentage points.
C'est la vie. Such is political life. The National Republican Congressional Committee spent around $600,000 in ads, and the media framed the defeat as a Blue Dog, Boucher losing due to his support for cap-and-trade policies.
Except, there was more to the story. A Democratic Party official from Virginia, who asked to remain anonymous because he is still serving in an official capacity, says the “Boucher is an enemy of coal” narrative is a lie and that actually far more sinister actions are at play in Virginia.
In fact, Boucher is the type of moderate Democrat that Progressives loathe. He is indeed a great friend of coal and went out of his way to preserve coals jobs in his district. Boucher did vote for cap and trade, but only because he feared the alternative was to leave regulation to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which he said would be devastating for companies that rely on coal and their employees. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) actually praised Boucher for his commitment “to protect coal miners and the coal industry.”
Griffith nonetheless seized upon the “Boucher is bad for coal” narrative and added it to his existing arsenal, accusing Boucher of being too cozy with President Obama (Boucher voted against both versions of the House health care bill, but refused to repeal the law).
These kinds of campaign smears aren't unusual, save for the fact that the “Boucher Betrayed Coal” ads that played in Virginia and that were so effective they eventually cost Boucher his seat, were paid for by the Americans for Prosperity, a special-interest group founded with the support of David H. Koch and Charles G. Koch of Koch Industries, and the same group that was so instrumental during the now infamous health care town hall debacles.
Boucher survived the Republican Revolution of 1994, but he could not survive propaganda funded by two of the wealthiest men in the world.
That wouldn't be the last time Virginia heard from the Kochs.
In January, a special election was held to fill the vacated seat of now-Congressman Griffith in the House of Delegates. The Republicans ran the former Chair of the Salem Democratic Committee, Greg Habeeb.
The Democratic nominee was Ginger Mumpower of Roanoke. Before the election, Mumpower held a press conference in December in front of a state-owned liquor store to publicize her opposition to Governor McDonnell's ill-fated plan to privatize such stores. The public was against the plan and the opposition was gaining momentum. That same day, Habeeb quickly reversed, leaving him vulnerable to the most-dreaded political accusation: being a “flip-flopper.”
The Roanoke Free Press called it a “holiday hallelujah” moment for the Mumpower campaign, and Habeeb's swift reversal seemed like a gift that would help Mumpower secure victory.
Then, my source received a voicemail from Paige Winfield Cunningham, a reporter with virginia.watchdog.org and also a contributor for The Washington Times, as did the Mumpower campaign. Before returning the call, the official briefly viewed the web site and quickly dismissed it as a “right-wing misinformation site.” He didn't return Cunningham's phone call.
Later in the week, Cunningham left another message on the official's voicemail, which he also didn't return.
Soon after, the official visited virginia.watchdog.org and saw that Cunningham had run a story in which she stated the country club to which Mumpower used to belong stated that she had not paid her past dues and that her home had been sold in a foreclosure auction. Obviously, the story caused a lot of embarrassment for Mumpower during an already chaotic political season.
Meanwhile, Habeeb raised over $138,000 for his campaign, more than five times what the Mumpowercamp had in their reserves, and he secured the tentative support of the Roanoke Tea Party, though they did express concern that perhaps the anti-choice, anti-gay marriage, pro-gun Habeeb wasn't conservative enough.
Ultimately, he won 64 percent of the vote, defeating Mumford.
The whole experience left my source feeling uneasy. Who had fed the reporter that information and what was the deal with that web site?
As it turns out, the [insert your state here].watchdog.org web sites are a franchise. Tailor the brand with a state, though not all states are represented, and a whole list of anti-union, anti-regulation, right-wing misinformation articles springs up in one's browser.
Plug in “newjersey.watchdog.org” and the web site will regale one with tales of greedy pensioners and the evils of the EPA. Type “washington.watchdog.org,” and anti-union propaganda, helpfully tailored for the state of Washington, pop up.
According to the hub web site, watchdog.org is the brainchild of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a 5o1(c)3 non-profit organization “dedicated to promoting new media journalism.”
However, those “journalism” credentials have been called into question by groups like the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, which rates watchdog.org as being “highly ideological” and “somewhat transparent.” The site has one editor, Steven Allen Adams, a stringer for Reuters and a contributor to a West Virginia entertainment news web site called Kanawha Valley Live that, sadly, closed operations in April.
The Franklin Center has well-established ties to right-wing groups, including the Sam Adams Alliance (SAA), which originally funded the organization. In addition to running partisan web sites, Franklin Center also funds partisan polls.
SAA, a non-profit organization based in Chicago, also has a litany of tries to the Kochs to the extent that the two groups function with a singular purpose. CEO Eric O'Keefe helped create American Majority, a Tea Party-candidate training organization. O'Keefe has attempted to take credit for being the architect of the entire Tea Party movement, and he once worked for Citizens for Congressional Reform, a project of David Koch's Citizens for a Sound Economy.
The group has always been wary of publicly displaying connections to their wealthy donors and even went so far as to scrub an internship recruitment page that originally connected it to Koch Industries:
“Interested parties can apply for a Sam Adams Alliance internship through the Charles G. Koch Summer Fellow Program administered by the Institute for Humane Studies and the State Policy Network.”
The internship is still posted. Charles Koch is still funding it. However, the Koch reference is now suspiciously absent from the redesigned SAA web site.
Examined from above, the range of the Koch brother spider web is enormously impressive. Here, we have a gigantic cash machine disseminating funding to a litany of Astroturf groups and nonprofits (doesn't that always sound so innocent?) that then splinter off to fund other nonprofits, which set up openly partisan web sites staffed with an army of hack reporters charged with destroying the credibility of Democratic candidates.
Truly, it's a wonder to behold.