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Breaking News on the Upcoming Virginia Elections
Local Extremists Groups with Establishment Ties and an Outside Dark Money Assault on Public School Education
What a week, and it’s only Wednesday!
On Monday, the Washington Post published a new, illuminating investigation by Robert O’Harrow into a secretive group of religious right-wing funders that helped Trump become president and are still helping him spread his very lucrative lies about stealing the 2020 election.
The story, “God, Trump and the Closed-Door World of a Major Conservative Group: What internal recordings and documents reveal about the Council for National Policy — and the future of the Republican Party,” includes never-before published details about how the criminal Oliver North got help from the Council on National Policy (CNP) and the reactionaries at the Heritage Foundation with his crooked arms-for-hostages scheme within the Reagan White House, known now as the Iran-Contra affair.
The story is a not-so-honored roll of discredited but still influential right-wing operatives, like Ginny Thomas and Cleta Mitchell, and the dark money millionaires funding their aspirations to limit the rights of other Americans seemingly to suit their personal political agendas. It also mentions right-wing group leaders, like Lisa Nelson from the Koch-funded pay-to-play corporate bill mill, the American Legislative Exchange (ALEC).
Speaking of ALEC, there’s breaking news from Dan Kaufman in the New Yorker detailing how Senator Joe Manchin cut his teeth as a state legislator in ALEC, where corporate lobbyists get a secret and “equal voice and vote” on bills before they are introduced with legislators like … then state legislator Joe Manchin. The story includes this jaw-dropping detail: when Manchin was a leader of ALEC he moderated a workshop to help fight the health care reforms urged by Hillary Clinton which featured the views of the corporation, Mylan.
“Years later, Manchin’s daughter Heather Bresch became the president and C.E.O. of Mylan. The company is currently facing an antitrust lawsuit alleging that it colluded with Pfizer to eliminate competition for its EpiPen, the price of which rose by several hundred per cent under Bresch’s leadership,” Kaufman writes.
And then there’s the right-wing frenzy in Virginia where school boards are being attacked to try to serve the GOP’s desire to win the governorship. We’ve got some new details that have not been reported elsewhere here, below.
On November 2nd, Virginia will hold general elections. With less than a week to go, the gubernatorial race between Democratic incumbent Terry McAuliffe and Trump-endorsed Republican Glenn Youngkin is razor thin.
Youngkin’ potential success relies on threading the needle between appealing to extreme members of the GOP base, who erroneously believe the 2020 election was stolen, and more moderate Republicans. But, as our staff outline below, some of the operatives in fringe-right groups in Virginia that prop up lies about that election and spread voter fraud claims have connections to the state Republican party and its leaders. Outside dark money groups have also poured money into influencing the election, including the “Independent” Women’s Voice, as we detail further down.
—Lisa Graves, Executive Director of True North Research
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Seemingly Fringe Right-Wing Groups in Virginia Have Establishment Connections
By True North Research Staff
All eyes have been on Virginia this month, with the gubernatorial election rapidly approaching. The stakes are high for both parties, given that the Commonwealth’s off-year electoral contests are interpreted as a bellwether for national political sentiment. Democrat Terry McAuliffe is hoping to secure a second non-consecutive term in office against the Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, the former CEO of the Carlyle Group, a private global investment firm headquartered in Washington, DC.
Youngkin has an especially difficult tight-rope walk before him, where he has to both appease the GOP base, which is intensely loyal to former President Donald Trump, and moderate suburbanites. One way he has done so is through his careful navigation of the hot-button “election integrity” issue. Youngkin personally attended an election integrity rally and invited individuals to join his “Election Integrity Task Force” on his campaign website. However, following his victory in the Republican primary in the Spring of 2020, Youngkin quickly confirmed President Joe Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.
Several fringe groups in Virginia are not nearly as reticent to embrace election conspiracy theories and disinformation more generally. Though some of these groups, namely Virginians for America First (VFAF) and the Virginia Project, are seemingly out of the mainstream, both boast establishment Republican connections that have gone unreported as the race for the governor’s mansion has progressed.
The Virginia Project, which states its mission is to “roll back Democratic Party gains,” has sponsored several election integrity training sessions. It also produced a “Virginia Election Integrity Audit Interim Summary Report” that is chock-full of misleading information. The group’s Twitter account is also a source of frequent misinformation and conspiratorial claims. In one tweet the group encouraged Virginians to vote on the first day of early voting in order to prevent “any attempts by Democrats to submit absentee ballots on your behalf.” In another tweet, the group retweeted a CNN video regarding President Biden’s vaccine mandate and remarked: “If you can't see how close we are to concentration camps you are actively not trying to see it.”
Despite these activities, the Virginia Project has close connections to state Republican Party officials. In the Virginia Project’s disclosures, it appears the group paid Election CFO for “Compliance Consulting.” Election CFO is the compliance firm of the current counsel for the Republican Party of Virginia, Chris Marston, which boasts clients across the country. Marston also appeared to authorize every expense for the group himself in the most recent reports filed with the state.
VFAF has similarly fringe politics. The organization was launched by failed Republican congressional candidate Leon Benjamin created to “to unify the citizens of the Commonwealth and focus their efforts to regain the majority in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2021.” Like the Virginia Project, VFAF uses extreme rhetoric, including asserting that the commonwealth is falling into a “totalitarian abyss.”
VFAF also advertises strategy calls and poll watcher/worker trainings on its website. Some of these were led by a fellow with the State Policy Network affiliate Virginia Institute for Public Policy, which is part of the State Policy Network. Several trainings and an Election Integrity Summit in Richmond were both hosted by the Virginia Fair Elections Coalition, which describes itself as “a coalition of organizations in the Commonwealth that are working to ensure the November 2021 elections are fair and free.”
Notably, Benjamin also appeared at an “Audit the Vote Virginia” event on September 20th, which advertised an appearance by retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn. It was Flynn who notoriously urged Trump to declare martial law to overturn the 2020 election, a reactionary suggestion that was widely condemned.
VFAF’s Twitter account is also a venue for disinformation. For example, one of its tweets claimed that in the recent California recall election Republicans were not being sent ballots and that some votes were actually outright deleted, claims that have been debunked.
VFAF similarly has connections to another long-time GOP operative. The incorporator for VFAF is John R. Strout. Someone with that same name works at Webster, Chamberlain & Bean, which also has the same address that was listed on VFAF’s incorporation documents. A partner at that firm is Alan P. Dye, a long-time lawyer for national right-wing groups, who is involved with the Council on National Policy, the State Policy Network, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and People United for Privacy, among others. All of those groups have been investigated in stories this year about their involvement in voter suppression measures following the 2020 election.
The involvement of Marston and Webster, Chamberlain & Bean is especially significant considering Virginia’s elections are the first major campaigns following the 2020 presidential elections. This means that tactics to push Trump’s agenda on voter fraud claims implemented in this campaign cycle will likely be emulated in other states for the 2022 midterms. Despite some superficial efforts to distance the candidate of Trump’s party from the claims of Trump, key political operatives in the state have ongoing ties to fringe groups that are below the radar screen but appear to be strong.
Who Is Behind the “Toxic Schools” Attack Website?
It’s the So-Called Independent Women’s Voice
By Lisa Graves and Alyssa Bowen, with research from the True North Research Team
On October 13, 2021, a Washington, DC-based non-profit group called the “Independent Women’s Voice” (IWV) registered a website called toxicschools.org to amplify attacks on Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia. This is a classic example of a dark-money funded front group creating a pop-up website to attack a political candidate on the eve of an election.
IWV launched the site on October 21, purchasing multiple ad campaigns on Facebook. The same day, Carrie Lukas, the Executive Director of IWV’s affiliated “Independent” Women’s Forum (IWF), penned an op-ed describing herself as a parent against McAuliffe because he reiterated what Virginia’s Constitution expressly provides, which is that school boards select textbooks—not individual parents. Virginia has more than 1.3 million public school students, and the results would be thoroughly chaotic if a million parents were able to dictate their personal or idiosyncratic choices for books in schools.
McAuliffe’s opponent, Glenn Youngkin, has seized on this controversy as the centerpoint of his campaign to become governor. It is no coincidence that IWV is amplifying Youngkin. IWF and IWV (a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4), respectively) are pay-to-play groups that use their “independent” branding to aid partisan right-wing politicians and the legislative wish lists of corporations.
These groups have worked hard to brand themselves as neutral, while being hyper partisan. IWF/V’s leader Heather Higgins—an heir to the Vicks VapoRub fortune—has told funders: “We have worked hard to create a branded organization… that does not carry the partisan baggage,” adding “being branded as neutral but actually having the people who know, know that you’re actually conservative puts us in a unique position.”
1. IWV’s Last-Minute Spending to Aid Extreme Candidates is nothing new.
In fact, it is a typical tactic for IWV, which under Higgins has a track record of trying to sway the outcome of elections or appointments through a surge of last-minute spending, often backing right-wing men who have made outrageously misogynistic statements. For example:
IWV spent over $67K on robocalls in November 2012 to support Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin, less than three months after he alleged “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Two weeks after Indiana U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock asserted that when a woman is made pregnant as a result of rape, she carries a “gift from God,” and that such a pregnancy “is something that God intended to happen,” IWV spent $176,991 on a “Romney wants Mourdock” ad.
Despite Donald Trump’s grotesque statements and numerous sexual assault allegations against Trump (which he denied), IWF/V specifically targeted women in Wisconsin in the two weeks before the 2016 election, and then took credit for Trump’s win and said that but-for their efforts “Trump would have received an estimated 215,840 fewer votes in Wisconsin…”
Yet, despite this history, IWV wants parents to think it is on their side against sexual predators as the organization amplifies controversies at school boards about library books and more.
With the toxicschools.org site, IWV is presenting a face that is designed to look like a parent advocacy site although its purpose appears political in attacking McAuliffe to the benefit of Youngkin—a Trump-backed candidate who has trafficked in election fraud innuendo that Virginia’s voting machines need to be audited, even though they already routinely are.
2. Who Is Funding IWV’s Attacks on McAuliffe and Its Ads? It’s Dark Money.
IWF/V has received millions from dark money operations. Between 2011 and 2019, IWF received $3.4M from Donors Trust, called the “dark money ATM” of the right. In 2012, it received $1.6M from Donors Capital Fund. IWF/V received huge sums from groups in right-wing operative Leonard Leo’s dark money network that packs federal and state courts with zealots to overturn Roe v. Wade. IWV has received at least $4M from the Leo-led Freedom and Opportunity Fund, and IWF received $300K from the Judicial Education Project in 2018.
IWF/V Has also Engaged in Pay-to-Play Activities, such as receiving funding from Juul, a major vaping company. IWF opposed regulations and tried to dissuade parents from being concerned about vaping by teens without disclosing its Juul funding. Its failure to disclose funding from commercial interests without admitting such ties when writing about issues that advance the corporate bottom-line necessitated a correction in USA Today.
IWF/V Has Connections to Right-wing Billionaires like Koch, Huge Trade Groups, and Big Corporations. IWF/V has long ties to the fortune of oil billionaire Charles Koch, and IWF has received funding from Koch-controlled groups. IWF/V was even previously led by a former top lobbyist for Koch Industries and was co-housed with Koch’s Americans for Prosperity and its predecessor. Other funders revealed through IWF/V’s annual gala include: PhRMA, Philip Morris International, Marathon Petroleum, the Personal Care Products Council, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Distilled Spirits Council, and the Ariel Corporation. IWF has also been a long-time recipient of grants made by the right-wing Bradley Foundation, receiving at least $789K since 2014, plus funding via Betsy DeVos. However, in 2010, almost all (88%) of the known funders of the Independent Women’s Voice were wealthy men, like millionaire Foster Friess.
3. IWF/V Has Echoed Youngkin’s Political Campaign in its Attacks on McAuliffe
IWF/V appears focused on influencing Virginia politics with numerous attacks on McAuliffe, e.g.:
IWV began running Facebook ads on October 22 and 23 directing audiences toward ToxicSchools.org, according to Facebook Ad Library. The ads attack McAuliffe just in time for the election and feature a 2016 Washington Post headline asserting that McAuliffe “vetoe[d] a bill permitting parents to block sexually explicit books in school.” The content of that article—that IWV leaves out—explains that Virginia would have been the first state in the country to allow parents to censor books like Toni Morrison’s acclaimed book Beloved because of a single sexual scene without context of the educational value of the book.
IWF has joined Youngkin’s efforts to reprise that battle. In October, IWF president Carrie Lukas penned an op-ed published on FoxNews.com saying she “[doesn’t] trust that [her] local [Virginia] school board will prioritize students’ needs over the desires of union workers,” claiming that her kids “endure race-obsessed classes” and have been forced to watch “misleading videos” about Christopher Columbus. (IWF has targeted parents and children with documentably false claims about Columbus.)
On IWF’s website, IWF staffer Ginny Gentles also echoed Youngkin in accusing McAuliffe of supporting “government control over parental rights” and asserted broadly that schools were encouraging children to hide their gender identity from their parents.
On her own podcast, IWF’s Julie Gunlock hosted Tina Ramirez, a GOP candidate running for Virginia’s 7th district, to discuss “turning Virginia around.” Gunlock claimed that Virginia’s Department of Education “is filled with true...political radicals who see it as their job really to radicalize kids,” a hyperbolic assertion. Ramirez claimed outlandishly that Virginia is “ground zero in our country right now for the radicalisation of our children” and attacked her political opponent, incumbent Rep. Abigail Spanberger, with demonstrably false claims about receiving more union funding than anyone in Congress.
4. IWF/V Has Also Targeted Schools and School Boards on Racism Issues
The archived first version of toxicschools.org included an attack on “Critical Race Theory,” an elective course in some law schools. IWF/V has helped manufacture outrage about the alleged teaching in public schools of “Critical Race Theory,” which is not taught to school children. The right-wing has used the term this year to attack the honest teaching of history in American schools, as Trump’s GOP plays to the white supremacist racism animating some of its base.
On her panel appearance at CPAC this year, IWF staffer Inez Stepman argued for a two-pronged right-wing attack on public education: one from within by infiltrating local school boards and one from without by pushing “school choice.” Stepman made the incendiary claim that public schools were “graduating rank after rank of woke cultural revolutionaries into every institution in the nation… [i]t starts in the education system and if we fix that a lot of things downstream will start to be better.”
IWF’s staffer Gunlock hosted Ian Prior, executive director of the dark money astroturf group targeting school boards in Virginia and across the country, which is called “Fight for Schools,” on her Bespoke Parenting Hour podcast. They discussed “fighting back against the woke mob” in Loudon County, Virginia. Gunlock also laughed about calling the group Anti-Racist Parents of Loudoun County “Chardonnay Antifa.”
Gunlock also featured Nikki Neily on her podcast episode entitled “how activist teachers are using their classrooms, not to teach, but to push politics on young children.” Neily, who is also a former leader of IWF, now runs “Parents Defending Education” (PDE). IWF said it will give its 2021 “Resilience Award” to PDE’s Asra Nomani.
IWF fellow Lisa Boothe hosted Christopher Rufo to her podcast where he argued that the government is “forcing” children to go to public schools and then to “undergo a deep ideological indoctrination,” which is an inflammatory assertion in our view.
Attacks on public school teaching curricula can serve many purposes, including activating right-wing voters, undermining teachers, softening the ground for school privatization, and dog whistling to Trump’s base. In our view, the critical race theory witch hunt is being used to try to swing the results in the Virginia elections in 2021, particularly the gubernatorial race.
Learn more about IWV by reading our full report at TrueNorthResearch.org
At least 74% of Americans support adding the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to our Constitution, according to a 2020 poll by the AP. Only 4% oppose it, and another 22% are neither for nor against.
But the “Independent” Women’s Forum continues to try to block its adoption. IWF gets disproportionate attention for taking a position that only four out of 100 people agree with. In testimony last week sought by Republicans in Congress, IWF continued to fear-monger against the ERA. That is unsurprising given the group’s devotion to the extremist Phyllis Schlafly’s agenda on the ERA and more, but its position continues to be at odds with its PR campaigns to pass itself off as mainstream.
What else could we possibly conclude with than Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T?
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