Big corporations that claim to support voting rights are still funding right-wing state AGs

Major corporations that have publicly touted their support for voting rights amid the nationwide Republican crackdown on ballot access are still funding many Republican state attorneys general who are working to scuttle federal voting rights legislation.

Leaders of companies like General Motors, Coca-Cola and Home Depot denounced the Republican onslaught of voting restrictions in states like Georgia earlier this year. But those companies and others have kept on funding Republican attorneys general who urged congressional leaders to block the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a proposed law that would restore a section of the Voting Rights Act — recently gutted by the Supreme Court — requiring states with a history of racial discrimination to pre-clear new voting changes with the Justice Department.

That also came after an arm of the Republican Attorneys General Association sent robocalls on Jan. 5 of this year, urging supporters to come to Washington to "fight" Congress in support of former President Donald Trump's election lies. The following day, of course, pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. The group also received $150,000 from a major Republican donor who helped fund the "Stop the Steal" rally that preceded the riot.

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita led 22 other Republican attorneys general last month in condemning the John Lewis Voting Rights bill, claiming it "would allow the United States Department of Justice to usurp the authority states rightly possess over their own elections, essentially federalizing the election system."

"This legislation is a misguided, clumsy, and heavy-handed effort to circumvent Supreme Court decisions, state sovereignty, and the will of the people," the group said in a letter to congressional leaders, claiming that states responding to Republican concerns about election integrity would "inevitably be targeted by the Department of Justice leading to more confusion, litigation, and concerns over the validity of elections going forward."

Two of Rokita's top corporate sponsors have been adamant publicly about supporting voting rights. Brewing giant Anheuser-Busch, which donated $5,000 to Rokita and $75,000 to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, another signatory, last year launched a "Brew Democracy" initiative aimed to promote voting participation, claiming it was "committed to uniting our communities, strengthening our democracy and encouraging even greater participation in the political process." General Motors, which also gave $5,000 to Rokita, signed a statement earlier this year criticizing Georgia Republicans for passing a law that would "reduce participation in elections — particularly among historically disenfranchised communities."

Georgia is just one of 19 Republican-led states that have already enacted at least 33 new laws that will "make it harder for Americans to vote," according to the Brennan Center for Justice, including laws "making mail voting and early voting more difficult, imposing harsher voter ID requirements, and making faulty voter purges more likely."

Other Republican attorneys general who signed the letter have also received big donations from companies touting their voting rights support, according to data compiled in a new report by the progressive government watchdog group Accountable.US, shared with Salon this week.

"With the freedom to vote under attack across the country and targeted at communities of color and people with disabilities, corporations — especially those claiming to value democracy — need to put their money where their mouths are," Kyle Herrig, the group's president, said in a statement. "Instead, many big companies with household names are trying to have it both ways, telling their customers, shareholders and employees that they embrace voting rights while they fund the campaigns of politicians trying to block this fundamental right from vulnerable Americans."

To make matters even more confusing, some of the big corporate donors involved have explicitly backed the John Lewis bill. Facebook, which gave nearly $13,000 to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and $4,000 to South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, was among more than 240 companies to sign a statement calling on Congress to "restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act, removing barriers to voting and building the truly representative 21st century democracy our country deserves."

"The undersigned group of U.S. employers urges Congress to address these problems through legislation amending the Voting Rights Act of 1965," the statement says. "Last Congress, the House of Representatives passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. We support the ongoing work of both the House and the Senate to enact legislation amending the Voting Rights Act this Congress."

The law firm Cozen O'Connor, which gave $10,100 to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, previously touted its work alongside the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in a court case that found that Louisiana violated the Voting Rights Act.

Coca-Cola, which is headquartered in Atlanta and was one of the top companies criticizing Georgia's voting law as "unacceptable" and vowing to advocate for voting protections, also donated more than $13,000 to Carr. Home Depot, which issued a statement opposing the Georgia law, also gave Carr more than $13,000. The retail giant also donated more than $16,000 to West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, another signatory.

AT&T responded to the backlash over the Georgia law by issuing a statement in support of voting rights. "We believe the right to vote is sacred and we support voting laws that make it easier for more Americans to vote in free, fair and secure elections," said CEO John Stankey. But the company has been a top funder of right-wing Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, donating more than $108,000 to his campaigns. Paxton was one of the signatories of the letter and led a doomed lawsuit last winter asking the Supreme Court to throw out the election results in four states Trump lost despite no evidence of significant or widespread fraud.

"Corporations that pay lip service and play both sides during this critical fight are giving a free pass to politicians hellbent on disenfranchising voters — and that says everything about a company's true values," Herrig said.

The House in August voted 219-212 along party lines to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Senate Democrats formally introduced the bill earlier this month but the bill is expected to face a Republican filibuster. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is the only Republican who has expressed support for the bill, and at least nine more GOP votes would be required to break the filibuster.

"Voting rights should never be a partisan issue, and for decades it wasn't," Karen Hobert Flynn, president of the nonpartisan good-government group Common Cause, said in a statement. "Many current GOP senators have backed strong voting rights protections in the past. In fact, 10 current Republican senators voted for the Voting Rights Act reauthorization when it passed the Senate 98-0 in 2006, only one week after it was passed by the House. If 10 Senate Republicans will not support this bill, then Senate Democrats must reform the filibuster."

Republicans earlier this year filibustered the For the People Act, a sweeping Democratic proposal aimed at countering the slew of new voting restrictions in GOP-led states. The two doomed bills have ramped up pressure on "centrist" Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia to agree to reform the filibuster rule.

Manchin, who has so far ruled out any changes to the filibuster, negotiated a compromise bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, in hopes of winning over enough Republicans to at least make a floor vote possible. The Senate this week is expected to vote on the bill, which includes provisions to codify voter protections, ban the improper removal of local election officials, set stricter election administration standards, expand automatic voter registration and mail voting and ban partisan gerrymandering. To appease Republicans, it would also create a national voter ID requirement and scale back proposals in the For the People Act requiring states to provide mail-in ballot applications to all voters, banning voter list purges, creating independent redistricting commissions and overhauling the Federal Election Commission.

Yet despite Manchin's attempt at compromise, not a single Senate Republican has agreed to back his legislation either.

"The Freedom to Vote Act went through endless debate and compromises, but even a compromise bill won't win 60 votes in our broken Senate," said Stephany Spaulding, a spokesperson for Justice Democracy, a coalition of racial and social justice groups, in a statement.

"Republicans are committed to using every tool to prevent Black and brown voters from accessing the ballot box, and the Jim Crow filibuster is the ultimate weapon to block progress," Spaulding continued. "Sen. Manchin searched for 10 Republicans to support voting rights legislation, but Republican senators willing to break with Sen. [Mitch] McConnell and stand on the right side of history simply don't exist. Senate Democrats can no longer divorce the filibuster from the promises and issues they ran on — they must act with urgency to get rid of the filibuster."

REVEALED: Mysterious tech tycoon is spending millions to bankroll 'Trump wing' of GOP

Billionaire Republican donor Peter Thiel is bankrolling election conspiracists and primary challengers against Republicans who backed Donald Trump's impeachment after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, including an Arizona Senate candidate who is literally on his payroll.

Thiel, the Facebook board member who co-founded PayPal and later the controversial data-mining company Palantir, has long been a top Republican benefactor, donating millions to GOP candidates and political action committees. But in the wake of Trump's 2020 defeat, Thiel has grown more aggressive in his political investments, dropping more than $20 million to support two far-right Senate candidates and helping to fund primary challengers against Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and other Republicans who called for Trump's removal after the deadly riot.

"He wants to be the patron of the Trump wing of the Republican Party," said Max Chafkin, a Bloomberg reporter and author of "The Contrarian: Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley's Pursuit of Power." Thiel is focused on building out "Trumpism after Trump," Chafkin said in an interview with Salon, describing the tech billionaire as "in many ways further to the right than Trump."

Thiel, who donated $1.25 million to back Trump in 2016, has made an even bigger splash this election cycle with a $10 million donation to back his protégé Blake Masters, who plans to run for the Republican nomination in next year's Arizona Senate election. Masters is uniquely connected to Thiel, serving as the chief operating officer of Thiel Capital, the billionaire's venture capital fund, and co-writing Thiel's book "Zero to One."

While candidates like Virginia's Glenn Youngkin have stepped away from their corporate careers to run for office, Masters appears to still be on Thiel's payroll. He earned $775,000 from Thiel Capital last year and received more than $340,000 in royalty payments from the sales of "Zero to One," according to a personal finance disclosure that was first reported by Insider. Masters did not respond to questions from Salon about whether he still collects a salary from Thiel's company, but still lists himself as the firm's COO on his LinkedIn page.

Thiel last month hosted a fundraiser for Masters' campaign at his Los Angeles home that cost up to $5,800 to attend.

Saving Arizona PAC, the Thiel-funded effort that has already spent nearly $1.7 million in Arizona, has launched ads attacking state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, Masters' principal GOP opponent, for rejecting Trump's lie that voter fraud cost him the election.

"Mark Brnovich says President Trump is wrong on voter fraud. Really? Brnovich failed to convene a grand jury, certified Biden as president. Now he's nowhere to be found, making excuses … instead of standing with our president," the ad says.

Brnovich was one of multiple state officials, including Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who certified the election results. The ad does not explain why Brnovich should have convened a grand jury. There has been no evidence of widespread fraud in Arizona or any other state, and courts have repeatedly rejected challenges by Trump allies seeking to overturn Biden's win.

The PAC also blasted Brnovich on Twitter, arguing that he is "nowhere to be found in the fight against voter fraud."

Masters is the "only candidate who will demand fair and transparent elections," the PAC said.

The Saving Arizona PAC recently made yet another six-figure ad buy attacking Brnovich for not being Trumpy enough.

Masters, who was endorsed by Trump's former national security adviser Robert O'Brien this week, has walked a fine line when discussing the presidential election. He has stopped short of claiming that the election was stolen outright, but has boosted conspiracy theories on Twitter about "dead people voting," Dominion voting machines and fears about election "integrity," echoing a trope employed by numerous other Republicans who have tried to distance themselves from the voter fraud lie while still trying to appease Trump loyalists.

After the dubious so-called audit in Arizona's Maricopa County actually showed Biden gaining a handful of votes compared to the official total, Trump and other Republicans began to claim that the audit had turned up serious questions about the election administration. In fact, Republican audit officials testified to Congress last week that the county held a "free, fair and accurate election." Masters, however, sided with TrumpWorld throughout the process, teasing the release of the audit report, echoing Trump's claims about "fake" polls and "anti-Trump disinformation," and making the evidence-proof argument that "no matter what the audit finds, we know this election wasn't fair."

Masters later demanded action from Brnovich in response to the audit, though he did not say exactly what he wanted the state attorney general to do.

"The AZ audit findings have been referred to the Attorney General," Masters tweeted. "The ball is now in Brnovich's court. He has a track record of doing the bare minimum, so let's pay attention, and we'll see if the Republican establishment is serious about election integrity."

Masters also demanded that Ducey immediately "call a special session" to impose new voting restrictions, even though Ducey had already signed a bill to restrict mail ballots and purge the state's popular early voting list in the spring.

"Get the legislature back to work so they can tighten up our election laws," Masters tweeted. "Starting with universal voter ID for every kind of ballot — nothing less is acceptable."

Masters did not respond to questions from Salon about whether he believes Biden legitimately won Arizona, or what he would like Brnovich to do in response to the "audit" results.

The attacks on Brnovich come as Masters seeks to close a massive early polling deficit against the attorney general. A Republican poll conducted last month showed Brnovich leading Masters, by 41% to 6%. Another September poll from OH Predictive Insights also showed Masters polling at just 6% and performing the worst of any candidate against incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly, a Democrat.

"It's clear Blake Masters is threatened by AG Brnovich," Joanna Duka, a spokeswoman for Brnovich, said in a statement to Salon.

Thiel has also dropped another $10 million to back J.D. Vance, another longtime business associate and the author of "Hillbilly Elegy," in Ohio's Senate race. As with Masters, Thiel has a long business relationship with Vance, who got his start in venture capital working at Thiel's Mithril Capital Management, which is named after a fictional metal in "The Lord of the Rings." Vance later got an investment from Thiel to help start his own venture fund, Narya Capital, which is named after one of the Elven rings in J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy classic. Both men recently invested in the right-wing video platform Rumble.

Masters and Vance are "kind of extensions of Peter Thiel," Chafkin said, describing them as "hardcore ideologues" who are more disciplined and coherent than Trump, but largely focused on the same issues.

Vance has tried to stay away from election conspiracies but defended rioters at the Jan. 6 Capitol attack as mostly "super peaceful." Thiel's allies have generally avoided directly claiming that the 2020 was rigged, but have continued to raise irrelevant or baseless questions about the result.

"They're trying to walk a line and come up with some kind of intellectually respectable version of The Big Lie," Chafkin said, adding that the Thiel-backed candidates have tried to "cozy up" to hardcore Trump backers and "be perceived as friendly to them."

Thiel himself has also cultivated relationships in TrumpWorld. He developed close ties to former Trump campaign chief and White House strategist Steve Bannon, whom Chafkin described as Thiel's "ideological" ally who shares his views on the "deep state." Thiel routed his big 2016 donation to back Trump through the super PAC controlled by Rebekah Mercer, also a major donor to far-right Republicans. Mercer was a longtime patron of Bannon and his projects and has joined Thiel in funding Vance's Ohio campaign. Mercer has spent millions to support some of the leading proponents of Trump's election lies, as well as election objectors who fueled the Capitol riot.

More recently, Thiel met with Trump at the ex-president's Bedminster, New Jersey, resort and began funding candidates in support of the former president's revenge tour against pro-impeachment Republicans, according to Politico.

Thiel donated the maximum $5,800 to Harriet Hageman, the Trump-backed primary challenger to Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo. Hageman has continued to claim that there are "legitimate questions about what happened during the 2020 election" and supported the Arizona "audit."

Thiel has also donated to Joe Kent, the Trump-backed primary challenger to Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., who also voted to impeach Trump after the riot. Kent spoke at the recent "Justice for J6" rally in Washington in support of the Capitol rioters charged in the attack. He vowed to lead a "full congressional inquiry" into the 2020 election if elected. Kent was among a group of Trump supporters who filed lawsuits last month in Washington state accusing multiple counties of "flipping votes" and calling for a "full forensic audit" of the election.

Thiel's funding for candidates pushing election lies is "totally consistent" with his embrace of Trumpism, Chafkin said. Though Thiel ultimately decided not to donate to Trump in 2020 out of frustration about the former president's "perceived competence," the billionaire has sought candidates who will pursue Trump's hardline policies on immigration, relations with China, regulation of tech companies, "political correctness" and globalization.

On all those issues, Thiel "basically agrees" with Trump, Chafkin said. "He wants to be involved in this movement and what you're seeing now is he's making that play. He's trying to be the main patron to his part of the Republican Party."

Kyrsten Sinema ditches Senate negotiations for fundraising trip to Europe

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who has emerged as the biggest single roadblock to President Joe Biden's Build Back Better plan, left Washington this week for a fundraising trip to Europe.

Sinema, who has drawn criticism from Biden and fellow Senate Democrats for being vague about her demands and refusing to budge on her opposition to increased spending and higher taxes, participated in a fundraiser for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, her spokesman told The New York Times.

A source told the outlet that the fundraiser was in Paris, but it's unclear whether the senator was actually urged to go by party officials. Sinema's office did not say how long she will be away, which countries she is visiting, who is paying for the trip or whether she is also fundraising for her own campaign, though sources told the Times that her team planned to set up meetings in Paris and London. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the chairman of the DSCC — and like nearly all Democrats, a supporter of Biden's proposal — also traveled to a London fundraiser that charged up to $36,500 per ticket, but Sinema's name did not appear on the invitation for that event.

Lawmakers are barred from raising money from foreign sources, but members of Congress occasionally travel overseas to solicit donations from Americans living abroad, who tend to be affluent and well-connected

Sinema's trip came amid ongoing negotiations over Biden's plan. Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., are the lone Senate holdouts blocking the proposal, which the other 48 Democrats support. (That includes two independents who caucus with Democrats, Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.) Sinema spokesman John LaBombard told the Times that she has continued to negotiate.

"So far this week, Senator Sinema has held several calls — including with President Biden, the White House team, Senator Schumer's team, and other Senate and House colleagues — to continue discussions on the proposed budget reconciliation package," he said. "Those conversations are ongoing."

But Biden and Sinema's Senate colleagues have complained that the first-term senator has not done much actual negotiating.

Bernie Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, recently criticized Sinema for not telling her colleagues what she would support in the bill.

"Sen. Sinema's position is that she doesn't quote-unquote negotiate publicly," he said last week. "I don't know what that means. We don't know where she's coming from. Tell us what you want."

Other senators have similarly accused Sinema of stonewalling her own party. One unnamed Democratic senator told Politico that Sinema recently said, "I'm not going to share with you or with Schumer or with Pelosi. I have already told the White House what I am willing to do and what I'm not willing to do. I'm not mysterious. It's not that I can't make up my mind. I communicated it to them in detail. They just don't like what they're hearing."

Biden has also been "exasperated" after hours of talks with Sinema and has complained to lawmakers that Sinema doesn't "move" from her position in negotiations and doesn't always "return calls from the White House," according to CNN.

Meanwhile the Arizona senator, who has been a leading recipient of donations from the pharmaceutical industry and corporate groups trying to kill key parts of the bill, has continued to make time to meet with donors.

Last month, Sinema held a fundraiser with five business groups that oppose the bill, charging attendees up to $5,800 to attend a 45-minute event. Earlier this month, Sinema left Washington to go to Arizona, where she attended a ritzy donor "retreat" at a high-end resort and spa, according to the New York Times.

Sinema's refusal to engage members of her own party has extended to her constituents, who have complained that Sinema will not meet with them in her office and has not held a single town hall since her election. Multiple groups have already launched efforts to raise money in support of a Democratic primary challenger in 2024. Tensions have continued to rise after Arizona protesters repeatedly confronted the senator this month, even heckling her during her class at Arizona State University and following her into a campus restroom. The Intercept reported that Sinema teaches an ASU class on fundraising, including topics like how to cultivate "large individual donors," "opportunistic fundraising" and "corporate giving."

Sinema's position has especially perplexed Democrats because her demands are at odds with Manchin's. The West Virginia senator, whose conservative positions are well understood and reasonably consistent, has expressed support for allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug costs and rolling back at least some of the Trump tax cuts on corporations and the wealthy. Sinema appears to oppose both of those proposals, as do her corporate backers. Democrats view those as crucial elements in funding their key proposals.

"Manchin and Sinema want very different things, both in terms of revenue and programs," a source close to Biden told Politico. "If you just took their currently presented red lines you wouldn't have enough left to get this past progressives in the House and Senate. It wouldn't raise enough money and it wouldn't do enough big programs."

Sinema's poll numbers in Arizona have cratered among Democrats and independents. Although she is still three years away from a possible re-election race, a new poll from Data for Progress on Thursday showed that 70% of prospective primary voters have a negative opinion of Sinema, compared to 85% who have a positive opinion of fellow Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who is up for re-election next year. The poll found Sinema trailing all four potential progressive primary challengers included in the survey.

But her position has won over some support among Republican lawmakers, who have praised her for blocking Biden's agenda. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, this week praised Sinema by name for "standing up to the radical left" by opposing a proposal supported by nearly all congressional Democrats and a strong majority of voters. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell coordinated his strategy on last week's debt ceiling standoff with Sinema and Manchin, reportedly backing away from his opposition to raising the debt limit in order to take pressure off the two Democrats to vote for filibuster reform.

A group closely tied to McConnell is launching a $10 million ad campaign this week, paid for by undisclosed donors, that attacks Democrats over the $3.5 trillion proposal, according to The Washington Post. The group's Arizona ad targets Kelly, who supports the proposal, and "takes the unusual route of praising … Sinema, a moderate and the favorite Democrat of McConnell."

Also Thursday: Top lawyers won't touch Donald Trump with a '1,000-foot pole' as legal crises escalate. WATCH:

Top lawyers won’t touch Donald Trump with a ‘1,000-foot pole’ as legal crises escalate

Conservatives go wild over imaginary anti-vax Southwest pilots

Former President Trump and several right-wing Republican lawmakers claimed over the holiday weekend that hundreds of canceled and delayed Southwest Airlines flights resulted from pilots and other airline employees resisting vaccine mandates. But the airline, the pilots union and the FAA have all said that Southwest's vaccine requirements had nothing to do with this weekend's issues.

Southwest canceled more than 2,000 flights between Saturday and Monday and at least 1,400 other flights were delayed. The airline blamed severe weather, air traffic control staff shortages and a lack of hotel accommodations for employees for creating a cascading series of issues that led to inadequate staffing on more than one-fourth of Southwest's weekend flights. The union representing Southwest pilots blamed the airline's complicated technological system, which reassigns and reroutes pilots during disruptions, for causing a "domino effect" that forced the company to reassign more than 70% of its pilots over the weekend. Southwest saw a similar string of cancellations in June, which the airline later blamed on overly optimistic projections about how quickly it could scale up flights as passengers began to return over the summer.

This weekend's cancellations came just two days after the Southwest pilots' union asked a federal judge to block the company's vaccine mandate. Republican lawmakers, without evidence, quickly seized on an imaginary link, tying the travel chaos to the company's new policy and President Biden's call for a federal vaccine mandate.

"Joe Biden's illegal vaccine mandate at work. Suddenly, we're short on pilots & air traffic controllers," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, declared on Twitter — while actually linking to a CNBC article that quoted an airline spokeswoman refuting his claim as an "unfounded rumor" and "inaccurate."

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., claimed that Southwest employees were "standing up for their rights as Americans."

"You will NEVER be able to comply your way out of tyranny," she tweeted.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., said he stands with Southwest employees who are "fighting against these mandates."

"This isn't about a vaccine, this is about freedom," he wrote.

"Shut them down," wrote Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas.

Donald Trump also sought to link the issues to vaccine mandates, as well as his endlessly repeated false claims about the 2020 election.

"I think it has a lot to do with a lot of things. I think it has something to do with the election that was rigged," he said in a radio interview this weekend. "I think these are big fans of your favorite president, I think that this has something to do with that. I think it has something to do with the ... I think it has a lot to do with mandates."

Donald Trump Jr., also amplified the baseless claim on Twitter, claiming that employees had gone on "strike" over the mandates.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson amplified these unfounded claims to his primetime audience, saying that the flight cancellations were the "direct consequence" of Biden's vaccine mandate.

But there's no evidence of a strike or sick-out by airline employees. The pilots' union has said that pilots called in sick at a normal rate over the weekend.

Asked how much the company's vaccine mandate contributed to the cancellations, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told CNBC, "Zero."

Kelly said that the rate of employee absences over the weekend was "very normal."

"Understand how airlines work," he said. "When you get behind, it just takes several days to catch up."

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association said on Saturday that "our pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial action."

"There are false claims of job actions by Southwest Pilots currently gaining traction on social media and making their way into mainstream news. I can say with certainty that there are no work slowdowns or sickouts either related to the recent mandatory vaccine mandate or otherwise," union president Casey Murray said in a statement on Sunday, pointing instead to severe weather in the southeast United States, staffing shortages and the company's operating system, which he said has become "subject to massive failures under the slightest pressure."

The union said last week that it does not oppose vaccines but filed a lawsuit to block the mandate because Southwest had not consulted employees before making the decision.

Murray told the Dallas Morning News that pilot sick rates over the weekend "were exactly in line with where they were all summer with the same kind of operational disasters."

Incoming Southwest CEO Bob Jordan last month blamed the company's months-long issues predating the vaccine mandates on staffing shortages stemming from the pandemic, when thousands of employees accepted buyouts, early retirements or long-term leave.

Southwest COO Mike Van de Ven said in a video to employees that despite "a very aggressive hiring plan ... we are still not where we want to be with staffing," especially pilots.

Industry experts blamed the company's "point-to-point route network" for making the airline more susceptible to widespread issues than other airlines. Delays cause cascading issues at each flight's additional stops and the airline had scheduled more flights than it could handle, Henry Harteveldt, president of the Atmosphere Research Group, told NBC News.

"You screw up Florida, you screw up their whole network a whole lot more because it's connected to the rest of their system. Once it gets screwed up, airplanes are out of place, crews are out of place," added Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant at Boyd Group International. "The crew gets stuck in Omaha and ran out of time, they should be in Orlando. Getting that squared away takes time."

Cruz ignored all of the contradictory evidence and statements from the airline, the pilots and the FAA — which also said there is no evidence that "this weekend's cancellations were related to vaccine mandates" — to accuse the media of Democratic propaganda when his baseless claim was widely fact-checked. He then claimed he had not meant Southwest employees but was referring to air traffic controllers in Jacksonville, where local aviation authorities reported staffing issues over the weekend.

But the statement he posted explicitly refuted the "rumor" that it was impacted by an "organized walkout late Friday by controllers in response to the FAA's mandate that all employees get vaccinated." Instead, it blamed staffing issues on "normal approved leave" and controllers who are required to stay at home for 48 hours after getting vaccinated.

"If you believe the pilots unions, MANY MORE FLIGHT CANCELLATIONS ARE COMING (and not just SWA) because of Biden's illegal vaccine mandate," Cruz wrote.

Nearly all major airlines have now required employees to be vaccinated without encountering the same problems as Southwest, where the issues have persisted for more than four years, according to the pilots' union. While Republicans continue to attack Biden for urging vaccine requirements, most voters support such mandates and data shows that compliance rates have been exceptionally high.

United Airlines, the first airline to require vaccines for employees at a time when its overall vaccination rate was below 70% in August, says that all but about 300 of the company's 67,000 employees have been vaccinated or granted exemptions, a rate of more than 99.5%.

"I did not appreciate the intensity of support for a vaccine mandate that existed, because you hear that loud anti-vax voice a lot more than you hear the people that want it," United CEO Scott Kirby told The New York Times. "But there are more of them. And they're just as intense."

In other news Tuesday, a pro-Trump candidate suggested "taking all the boats out of the water" to lower sea levels. WATCH:

Pro-Trump candidate suggests taking 'all the boats out of the water' to lower sea levels

Virginia GOP candidate backs away from Trump’s Big Lie — but wants an election 'audit'

Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin is focusing the final weeks of his campaign on "election integrity," a trope Republicans around the country have seized on to justify draconian new voting restrictions.

This article first appeared on Salon.

Youngkin is the former CEO of the private equity firm The Carlyle Group and has poured millions into his own campaign, and throughout the race has tried to walk a fine line to shore up support among the right-wing Republican base without alienating the more moderate independent and suburban voters he needs to win the increasingly blue state. Youngkin received former President Trump's "complete and total endorsement" in the race but has tried to distance himself from the former president and his politics after Trump lost the state by over 10 points.

The millionaire has acknowledged that President Joe beat Trump "legitimately," but only after months of ducking the question during the Republican primary. The political novice at first tried to move away from his focus on "election integrity" after his primary victory, but with his race against former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe in a dead heat in its home stretch, Youngkin is now renewing his calls for a voting machine audit and poll watchers, in an evident signal to election conspiracy theorists.

"I think we need to make sure that people trust these voting machines. And I just think, I grew up in a world where you have an audit every year, in businesses you have an audit," Youngkin said in a speech in Richmond on Monday. "So let's just audit the voting machines, publish it so everybody can see it."

Trump's PAC soon blasted out an email to his supporters, touting Youngkin's call amid the former president's fear-mongering that Democrats may "cheat" in the Virginia election, a claim Youngkin himself went out of his way to refute.

Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, one of that state's most prominent election conspiracists, who is pushing to decertify the presidential results, touted Youngkin's call for a voting machine audit while lamenting that Virginia lawmakers have not joined her effort to "Audit All 50 States."

"Kudos to Governor Candidate Glenn Youngkin for calling for an audit of the machines," she tweeted.

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Youngkin's call came just weeks after he acknowledged in his first debate against McAuliffe that there was no "significant fraud in Virginia elections." Youngkin allies, like Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase, have been pushing for a "forensic audit" of the Virginia election similar to the discredited audit in Arizona's Maricopa County, which found slightly more votes for Biden than were recorded initially.

Youngkin has blamed McAuliffe for trying to "make a word, election integrity, some bad word."

"As Glenn Youngkin said in February, he believes audits are a best practice when it comes to administering elections — just as audits are a routine best practice in the business world — and he will ensure Virginia continues to conduct audits going forward and that they are thorough, efficient, and accurate," Youngkin spokesperson Matt Wolking said in a statement to Salon. "Glenn has been clear about his view of the 2020 election and nothing has changed. Obviously Terry McAuliffe opposes requiring a photo ID to vote, but if he does not support routine audits, updating the voter rolls regularly, verifying mail-in ballots and other election best practices identified by bipartisan experts, he should be clear with Virginians about where he stands."

Virginia law already requires an annual audit of voting machines and McAuliffe himself approved the procedures for the process during his previous term as governor, and says he still supports them. The state's routine audit of the 2020 election confirmed that its results were accurate.

Youngkin has also called for other measures backed by Trump's allies. He attended an "election integrity" rally in August and has called for stricter voter ID laws and poll watchers, which voting rights groups have said is a tactic aimed at suppressing and intimidating voters of color.

And Youngkin has increasingly embraced conspiracy theorists like Chase, appearing with her at multiple rallies last week.

"The single most important thing we can do to protect election integrity in Virginia is to get Glenn Youngkin elected as our next governor," Chase said at an Oct. 4 rally.

Chase, who was one of the candidates Youngkin defeated in the primary, has since become a surrogate for his campaign. She has traveled to Arizona to review that state's GOP-sponsored audit and has dismissed the Virginia Board of Elections' annual audit results.

"It's important that we audit Virginia. It's important we have a forensic audit, not the faux audit that the State Board of Elections did," Chase said during a rally in August.

Chase, who infamously dubbed herself "Trump in heels," has also defended the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters and praised them as "patriots," earning a censure by the state Senate. She previously suggested after last November's election that Trump "should declare martial law" and "go and seize these [voting] machines and voting equipment to find the voter fraud."

Last Monday's rally with Youngkin and Chase also featured Wren Williams, who said he "had a blast" with the Republican candidate. Williams served on Trump's legal team that challenged election results in Wisconsin, where the campaign ultimately paid for a recount that only added votes to Biden's lead. Williams has continued to claim that Biden's win was illegitimate, although he has offered no evidence of widespread fraud. Williams won the Republican primary for a Virginia House of Delegates seat earlier this year, defeating 14-year incumbent Charles Poindexter earlier this year after saying that sitting Republicans weren't doing anything — squat, diddly," to contest the election results.

Asked about Youngkin's association with election conspiracists, the Youngkin campaign cited McAuliffe's ties to Hillary Clinton, who has repeatedly called Trump an "illegitimate president," and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who refused to concede her 2018 defeat to Gov. Brian Kemp.

McAuliffe, meanwhile, has already rolled out new ads linking Youngkin's call for an audit to Trump's election lies.

"Glenn Youngkin is calling for audits of Virginia's voting machines for the same reason he based his entire campaign on his 'election integrity task force' — this is who he is," Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for the Virginia Democratic Party, said in a statement to Salon. "Youngkin thinks this is 'the most important issue' because his top priority is bringing Donald Trump's agenda to Virginia."

Joe Biden complains Kyrsten Sinema is ignoring his calls — but she talks to Mitch

President Joe Biden is frustrated that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is refusing to budge in negotiations on his Build Back Better plan and won't even return his calls, according to CNN.

Biden has sounded "exasperated" at Sinema and fellow holdout Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who have rejected the $3.5 trillion price tag of the Democratic proposal to expand health care and family care, provide paid family leave, combat climate change, provide free community college and lower housing and prescription drug costs.

Biden has complained to lawmakers that the two senators "don't move" from their positions and has even "contended that Sinema didn't always return calls from the White House," sources told CNN's Manu Raju.

Sinema and her aides have repeatedly said that she would not negotiate publicly. Democratic leaders are also rankled that she doesn't appear to be negotiating much in private either. Sinema's office says she has been clear about her demands, but Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., complained on Wednesday that Sinema refuses to tell Senate colleagues what exactly she would support in the bill.

"Sen. Sinema's position is that she doesn't quote-unquote negotiate publicly," Sanders said during a news conference. "I don't know what that means. We don't know where she's coming from. Tell us what you want."

Sinema has faced growing criticism from constituents and even the threat of a Democratic primary opponent over her refusal to support Biden's signature bill. Although she told lobbyists earlier this year that "senators need to hear from their constituents," activist groups now say Sinema has ignored the "Black, brown, and indigenous communities who elected her." The New York Times reported that Sinema has "effectively cut off communication with the local progressive groups that worked to elect her in 2018."

Sinema was heckled by protesters while teaching a class at Arizona State University last week and later confronted in a campus restroom, which Democratic leaders have condemned. But Sanders refused to sign a joint statement condemning the protesters because it did not include a condemnation of Sinema's stance on the bill, according to emails obtained by Axios.

Sinema, who is a leading recipient of donations from the pharmaceutical industry and corporations and industry groups lobbying to defeat Biden's bill, reportedly opposes the Democrats' proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug costs — even though she campaigned on that issue in 2018. She also reportedly opposes tax increases on corporations and wealthy individuals (despite previously calling for them to "pay their fair share").

Despite complaints from fellow senators, her constituents, and now the president that she appears unwilling to negotiate, Sinema has found time amid this legislative battle for Biden's agenda to meet with business lobby groups that are eager to kill the Build Back Better legislation.

Last month, Sinema charged members of business groups opposed to tax hikes up to $5,800 per person to attend a 45-minute fundraiser. Last week, she flew from Washington back to Arizona, with a spokesman saying she had an important medical appointment to treat a foot injury. The New York Times reported that she was also scheduled to attend a fundraising "retreat" with donors at a high-end resort and spa.

Amid her standoff with her own party, which has caused her poll numbers to plummet, Sinema has gotten the backing of a pharma-funded group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell has urged fellow Republicans to praise Sinema publicly and privately assured his party earlier this year that Sinema would successfully block Biden's proposed tax increases on corporations and the wealthy.

The Republican leader earlier this week relented on his opposition to helping the Democrats raise the debt ceiling, offering a short-term increase in hopes of lowering the pressure on Sinema and Manchin to change Senate filibuster rules in order to raise the debt limit, Republican sources told the New York Times. McConnell called Sinema and Manchin to discuss the deal even before informing members of his own party, according to Politico. Democrats, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, only learned of the deal McConnell floated to Sinema and Manchin through a press release.

Sinema's bizarre positioning has bewildered Democrats in her state, where she is apparently trying to craft a new image as a John McCain-style "maverick." But while her support has ticked up slightly among Republicans, it has plummeted among Democrats and independents, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.

"The activists, the people who are going to knock on doors, those guys are done with her," Steven Slugocki, the former chairman of the Maricopa County Democratic Party, told Politico. "Arizona is a rapidly changing state. It is turning blue very quickly. I don't know what her end game is."

Garrick McFadden, the former chairman of the state Democratic Party, said that Sinema should not be labeled a "centrist" but an "obstructionist."

"I don't understand the calculus," he told Politico. "It's not like we're asking her to do the Bernie Sanders or the Elizabeth Warren agenda. It's the Joe Biden agenda."

Kyrsten Sinema's former aide now top lobbyist for bank opposing corporate tax hike

A former senior aide to "centrist" Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is one of the top lobbyists for JPMorgan Chase, the largest U.S. bank and a leading opponent of President Biden's proposed corporate tax increases — which Sinema also opposes.

Sinema's refusal to endorse Biden's Build Back Better plan over its $3.5 trillion price tag has emerged as a major obstacle to Biden's agenda. Sinema, a former Green Party member who campaigned on lowering drug prices and previously called for big corporations and the rich to "pay their fair share," has also balked at Democrats' plan to lower prescription drug costs and increase taxes on the wealthy and large companies, amid a massive lobbying blitz by corporations and industry groups aiming to torpedo the bill.

Sinema's former legislative director and senior policy adviser, Alyssa Marois, now lobbies on behalf of JPMorgan Chase, a gigantic investment bank and holding company with more than $3.6 trillion in assets, which according to the Financial Times is the world's largest lender to the fossil fuel industry. The bank has donated $47,500 to Sinema's campaign and related PACs, and has been one of the leading critics of Biden's proposed corporate tax hike.

Marois was listed last year as vice president of federal government relations for the bank and the government relations manager for the company in its latest Federal Election Commission filing. The job involves developing "relationships with key policymakers," coordinating with "industry trade associations to maximize effectiveness," and building industry coalitions on "matters of shared interests." The position is part of JP Morgan Chase's Government Relations and Public Policy Group, which the bank says "directs our company's political spending."

JPMorgan Chase has spent more than $1.3 million on lobbying on "corporate tax issues" and other matters between the first and second quarter this year, according to its lobbying disclosures.

Marois herself has actively lobbied on several issues where the banking industry is at odds with the Biden administration, according to the disclosures. Among other issues, she lobbied the Senate and House on financial issues related to bank structure, capital requirements, "examination and enforcement issues" and other bank regulation matters. During the past few months, the banking industry has escalated its fight against proposed regulations in the Build Back Better plan to increase IRS enforcement of wealthy tax cheats. Banks are pressuring lawmakers to drop a plan to require them to report transaction data to the IRS to help crack down on tax avoidance.

JPMorgan Chase was a major beneficiary of the Republican tax cuts signed by Donald Trump in 2017, which slashed the corporate tax rate by 40%. The bank saved $8.7 billion in 2018 and 2019 on its IRS bill, according to Bloomberg. Trump even urged a senior JPMorgan executive to "thank him" for the newfound profits during a meeting, the outlet reported.

Biden has proposed raising the corporate tax rate to 28%, well below the 35% it was before the Trump tax cuts. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon earlier this year called the proposed tax increase a "little crazy" and dismissed Biden's plan to raise the top capital gains tax rate to nearly 40%. Dimon sits on the board of directors of the Business Roundtable, which includes the CEOs of some of the country's largest companies and has vowed to wage a "significant, multifaceted campaign" to stop the proposed tax increases. The Business Roundtable has praised the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure plan that Sinema helped negotiate but said it is "deeply concerned about potential tax increases on U.S. job creators" in the Build Back Better proposal.

Another longtime former Sinema aide, Kate Gonzales, earlier this year joined the high-end lobbying firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which brags that its "political connections deliver results" and that former Capitol Hill staffers are among its principals. Gonzales is a member of the firm's Energy, Environment, and Resources Strategies Group, where she "provides insight into Democratic priorities," according to the company. "She is highly skilled at developing compelling messaging for moderate Democrats and Republicans," her bio says. Biden's spending proposal includes numerous measures aimed at tackling climate change and cracking down on energy firms.

Meanwhile, Sinema's current chief of staff, Meg Joseph, used to be as a lobbyist at Clark & Weinstock, which has represented Pfizer and other top pharmaceutical companies and trade groups that oppose Biden's proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs.

Pharmaceutical companies and medical firms have donated more than $750,000 to Sinema during her career, including more than $466,000 since she was elected in 2018.

Sinema has also received more than $920,000 from companies and industry groups leading the lobbying blitz against Biden's proposal, according to an analysis from the progressive government watchdog group Accountable.US.

Sinema's office said in a statement on Thursday that the senator has been clear for months that "she would not support a bill costing $3.5 trillion."

"While we do not negotiate through the press — because Senator Sinema respects the integrity of those direct negotiations — she continues to engage directly in good-faith discussions with both President Biden and Senator [Chuck] Schumer to find common ground," the statement said.

Sinema has stonewalled the media in recent weeks, saying little or nothing beyond bland press releases. But she has continued to raise money from business groups that oppose Biden's bill. Accountable.US says campaign contributions from antagonistic corporate interests may explain why Sinema continues to oppose proposals that are overwhelmingly supported by voters both nationally and in Arizona.

Sinema's opposition to Biden's agenda drew a rebuke from the Arizona Democratic Party last week, which threatened to hold a vote of no confidence against her if she "continues to delay, disrupt, or votes to gut" Biden's plan. Activists who helped elect her in 2018 as Arizona's first Democratic senator in decade have launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a potential primary challenger, as Salon first reported on Wednesday. At least two other groups have since launched similar efforts to fund a potential primary challenger as polls show Sinema's favorability among Democratic voters lagging significantly behind fellow Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz.

"With the Biden Build Back Better plan poised to give millions of struggling families a chance to get ahead, there's too much at stake for this process to get mucked up and watered down with typical Washington revolving door corporate influence and money," Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, said in a statement to Salon. "We hope Senator Sinema is ultimately guided by the overwhelming public sentiment in favor of corporations paying their fair share and investments that will build an economy for all, not just billion-dollar businesses."

Activists who helped elect Kyrsten Sinema launch PAC to fund a primary challenger against her

Arizona activists have launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a potential 2024 Democratic primary challenger to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema if she does not vote to end the filibuster or continues to obstruct President Joe Biden's agenda.

A committee of Arizona organizers who have helped turn the state blue since 2018, when Sinema narrowly won her seat, launched the conditional fundraiser to pressure the senator to stop undermining her party's agenda. Sinema opposes the Democrats' $3.5 trillion spending bill, balking at both the price tag and key measures like drug pricing reform and tax hikes on the wealthy and corporations. She has also vehemently defended the filibuster, which has prevented any progress on the Democrats' voting rights legislation as well as a minimum wage increase, immigration reform, gun violence measures, police reform, LGBTQ protections, protections for workers' right to unionize and other bills that have already passed the Democratic-led House.

"It's time to send a message that she can't ignore," the group's CrowdPAC page says. "Either Sen. Sinema votes to end or reform the Jim Crow filibuster this year or we fund a primary challenge to replace her with someone who will."

State Sen. Martin Quezada, a Democrat who is backing the effort, told Salon that for sitting lawmakers, "the only thing that really gets you motivated to start seriously considering changing your views on things is if you are facing a threat to your seat."

Quezada stressed that he hopes "we wouldn't ever have to actually fulfill a primary threat and that she will ultimately take the steps that are needed to protect our state from the many threats we're facing right now."

Belén Sisa, one of the organizers behind the campaign and the former national Latino press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, said she hopes the primary threat will serve as a "wakeup call." Sisa, who in 2018 worked for NextGen America, the largest youth vote mobilization organization in the country, said she expected Sinema to "be more of an ally" but instead the senator is acting more like a Republican.

What the CrowdPAC is meant to do, said Kai Newkirk, a lead organizer in building the Arizona Coalition to End the Filibuster, is to "paint the picture of the threat to [Sinema's] political future if she stays on this course" and show clearly "that Democrats and left-leaning independents in Arizona and across the country will provide the resources necessary for a competitive and successful primary challenger."

Supporters can now pledge donations to back the effort. The campaign is not endorsing a specific potential challenger for a primary that is still almost three years away. But if Sinema does not vote to end or reform the filibuster or continues to obstruct Biden's agenda, pledges will be converted to donations and the money split between a "credible Democratic primary challenger" who opposes the filibuster and "has a strong record of accountability to all of the communities that make up Arizona" and organizations in the state that "will provide the independent grassroots organizing to power a successful primary challenge and a general election victory."

The entire progressive agenda is being held "hostage" and Sinema has the opportunity to advance it, said Karina Ruiz, one of the CrowdPAC organizers and an immigrant rights leader. "We can't continue to support a candidate that is not going to deliver for the people."

The crowdfunding effort comes amid widespread scrutiny of Sinema's corporate ties. The senator reportedly told colleagues that she would not support a Democratic plan to lower prescription drug costs, even though she campaigned in 2018 on doing just that. Sinema has received more than $750,000 from pharmaceutical and medical firms. She has also balked at the Democratic proposal for tax increases on big corporations and wealthy individuals after taking more than $900,000 from industry groups and companies who are leading a massive lobbying blitz to defeat the bill. On Tuesday, Sinema held a pricey fundraiser with five business lobbying groups that largely back Republicans and have opposed the tax increases.

Ruiz, who helped register thousands of voters ahead of Sinema's 2018 election, said it was "disappointing" and "saddening" to see a candidate who campaigned on helping the middle class and people who are economically unstable reverse positions "because they're getting money from corporations."

Sisa said that if "fundraising and campaign fundraisers are what [Sinema] cares about, then that is what we will use to hold her accountable.

"If you don't do what the people are asking you to do, then we are going to hit you where it hurts," she said. "And that is bankrolling your opponent."

Progressive activists have tried for months to pressure Sinema to support elimination or reform of the filibuster in hopes of advancing legislation that Republicans are blocking from receiving a floor vote. But Sinema's opposition to Biden's spending agenda, which includes an expansion of health care benefits, child care, family care and measures to combat climate change, has led to widespread frustration with the senator among mainstream Democrats.

"The general public is starting to see that we're not making progress on a number of issues and those issues are getting so broad that there's an issue for everybody to be upset about," Quezada said. "There's no excuse for not making progress if Democrats have the House, Senate, and the White House. So that frustration is going to continue to build the more that we see progress failing to be made on all these important issues."

Newkirk argued that the issue has been "misrepresented" as a break between progressives and Sinema when it's "actually about essentially the entire Democratic Party" feeling alienated from Arizona's senior senator.

"Biden was elected as a moderate, he's pushing a moderate compromise agenda that's been shaped by progressives and all parts of the party and it's very popular. Sinema is standing in the way of that," he said. "It doesn't represent any part of the voters who elected her, it doesn't represent any part of what the Democratic Party has been fighting for. If anything, it appears to represent the interests of corporate donors that are backing her."

Last Saturday, the Arizona Democratic Party overwhelmingly voted to back a resolution threatening a vote of no confidence against Sinema if she does not reverse her support for the filibuster or "continues to delay, disrupt, or votes to gut" the Democrats' spending plan. More than 90% of the Arizona Democratic Party State Committee previously voted in the spring to back ending the filibuster.

"This is an official public expression that the positions she's taking are not in line with the party that she represents in the state of Arizona and the people who are a part of that party," said Quezada, one of the members who introduced the resolution.

The party vote and the CrowdPAC are part of a "multi-pronged effort," he said. "We're not just putting all our eggs in one basket. We want to continue to pressure her. We want to continue the public displays of pressure. We want to continue the financial displays of pressure."

Sinema did not respond to a request for comment from Salon. Her spokesman has said that she is committed to "working directly in good faith with her colleagues and President Biden on the proposed budget reconciliation package."

Sinema defended her filibuster stance in a July Washington Post op-ed, arguing that Democrats have more to lose than gain by ending the filibuster.

"I'm not impressed by that argument," Quezada said. "I think it's an argument that we've seen often from politicians who are comfortable with the status quo."

Sinema argued in the Post op-ed that if Democrats eliminate the filibuster, Republicans could later use a simple majority to pass voting restrictions, attack women's health and gut popular aid programs.

"She seems to be blind to the fact that all those things that aren't happening at the federal level are happening at the state level," Quezada said after Republican legislators rolled out an extreme agenda including new voting restrictions and an illegitimate election audit. "They are not hesitating for one second to pass radically extreme legislation that hurts us on each and every one of these issues," he said.

The CrowdPAC is modeled in part after a similar effort led by activist Ady Barkan to fund a 2020 challenge against Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, over her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. That campaign ultimately raised $4 million that helped fund Collins challenger Sara Gideon, a Democrat and the former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. Collins ultimately defeated Gideon by nearly 10 points but organizers say their campaign is different and built on the lessons learned from the 2020 effort.

"We're raising money for a potential primary challenge, not a general election one," said Newkirk. "It's over the question of whether someone will vote with their party rather than against it."

Organizers say they hope that they won't have to back a Democratic challenger to Sinema, but point to polling data showing that about two-thirds of likely Democratic primary voters in Arizona would support a challenge if Sinema continues to preserve the filibuster. A July poll from Data for Progress showed that Sinema has a net approval rating of +23 among Democrats, compared to +89 for Biden and +76 for Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz.

Kelly "has been a lot smarter in his calculations in how he's dealt with all of these issues," said Quezada. "He's setting the example for how perhaps Sinema could be playing this if she were a little smarter about it."

Kelly, a former astronaut and the husband of former Democratic congresswoman Gabby Giffords, has supported the party's agenda, which explains why he is "more popular than Sinema among Democrats and is in a much better position in his upcoming reelection campaign," Newkirk said. But the biggest issue in 2022 and 2024 will be what the Democrats have done for the American people under Biden, he argued. "And right now, Sinema is a threat to Kelly's re-election if she doesn't change course."

Arizona is undeniably a purple state, however, and it's unclear how a more progressive Democrat would fare in a general election. Sinema is "playing the long game" since she's not up for re-election until 2024 and is betting that a progressive candidate would have a tougher time winning her seat, Kim Fridkin, a political science professor at Arizona State University, told Salon.

"In my opinion, Sinema's position on the filibuster is strategic," Fridkin said. "However, I am not sure whether the strategic decision is a wise move electorally. What I do know is that Sinema was not always the moderate that she is displaying right now. Her earlier record in the legislature was much more progressive than moderate. Her movement to the middle, I believe, is more strategic than authentic. I think it's the same with her position on the filibuster."

Quezada said there was some validity to Sinema's political strategy but "she's way, way overplaying that calculation."

"Arizona is trending bluer and I think the reality is that it's going to be hard for her to hold on to that seat no matter what," he said. "So why not do some good things while you have that opportunity? And she's not acting with urgency to hold on to it."

Sisa argued that the CrowdPAC is "ultimately an opportunity to get a better candidate, which will give us better chances ultimately in the general election."

"The demographics in our state are consistently changing, and throughout the past 10 years we've seen a consistent progression towards Arizonans wanting more progressive candidates," she said. "We're going to continue to see that: The voting bloc is younger, more brown and Black, and more diverse. Right now, I don't see Sinema really catering to those people or listening to their concerns, which is a huge mistake."

Alhough Sinema has tried to appeal to independents and conservatives, the July poll showed that her favorable rating was just 38% among independents and 34% among Republicans. Organizers say that while an unprecedented surge of activism helped power Sinema to a narrow victory over then-Rep. Martha McSally in 2018, that same coalition will not be eager to knock on doors again if she stays the course.

"Turning Arizona blue didn't happen out of nowhere," Ruiz said. "That progress happened because there's organizations on the ground that are walking the streets, under 100-plus degrees, to talk to voters, to make sure that new voters have all the information they need to participate in the process. And I think Sen. Sinema is underestimating this power.

"Our goal may sound ambitious," she added. "We believe that the power of the people is going to beat the power of corporations, because there's more of us."

Big Pharma, medical firms donated $750K to Kyrsten Sinema — then she opposed drug bill

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the controversial Arizona Democrat who threatens to derail President Biden's legislative agenda, received more than $750,000 in donations from the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. After that, she announced her opposition to a Democratic plan to lower prescription drug costs.

Sinema told White House officials that she opposes House and Senate bills that would allow Medicare to negotiate drug costs, sources told Politico this week. Democrats estimate these bills would save $450 billion over the next decade and thereby pay for a large portion of President Joe Biden's $3.5 trillion spending plan. The budget bill would expand child care, health care and paid family leave and would fund programs to combat climate change, among other measures. Three House Democrats have also balked at the plan, although they have offered a "centrist" alternative that would drastically limit which drugs are subject to Medicare negotiation. Sinema reportedly opposes that proposal as well. During her successful 2018 Senate campaign, Sinema repeatedly vowed to lower prescription drug prices and drug costs for seniors.

Sinema is a longtime favorite of the pharmaceutical industry and now appears ready to undermine Biden's entire agenda as Big Pharma wages a lobbying blitz in hopes of torpedoing the bill, which nearly 90% of voters support. Sinema and several House Democrats who oppose the drug pricing plan have received major financial support from the industry. Given a 50-50 Senate and a narrow House majority of 220 to 212 (with three seats currently vacant), their opposition could sink the proposal or even the entire budget bill.

Sinema has received $519,988 from PACs and individuals in the pharmaceutical industry throughout her political career, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. She brought in more than $120,000 in pharma contributions between 2019 and 2020 even though she is not up for re-election until 2024. Sinema has also received $190,161 from donors in the pharmaceutical manufacturing space and $62,797 from the medical supplies industry.

Sinema's office is led by a former lobbyist whose firm worked on behalf of pharmaceutical companies. The senator's chief of staff, Meg Joseph, was a registered lobbyist and principal at Clark & Weinstock, where her clients included the health insurer Health Net. During her tenure, the company also lobbied on behalf of numerous pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, drug distributor AmerisourceBergen Corp., and the biotech firm Genzyme Corp. It also lobbied on behalf of Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and AdvaMed, two major industry trade groups.

Sinema did not respond to questions from Salon. Her spokesman Josh LaBombard told Politico that she is committed to "working directly in good faith with her colleagues and President Biden on the proposed budget reconciliation package."

He continued, "Given the size and scope of the proposal, while those discussions are ongoing we are not offering detailed comment on any one proposed piece of the package."

Sinema got major backing from the industry before her threat to derail the Democrats' drug bill. Center Forward, a Washington nonprofit that has received at least $4.5 million from PhRMA, has run TV and digital ads praising Sinema for the past two weeks, according to The Daily Poster, and sent out pro-Sinema mailers urging recipients to thank the senator for "fighting as an independent voice." The group's board includes at least two PhRMA lobbyists who work on drug pricing issues and represent numerous pharmaceutical companies.

Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called out Big Pharma's campaign to defeat the drug pricing legislation during a speech on Tuesday in front of PhRMA's headquarters in Washington.

"The overriding motivation of the pharmaceutical industry is greed," he said. "Their overriding goal is to make as much money as they can by squeezing as much as they possibly can out of the sick, out of the elderly and out of the desperate."

Sinema isn't the only Democrat who vowed to fight for lower drug costs before rejecting a plan that would do just that. Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., in 2019 praised the drug pricing plan but after receiving nearly $230,000 in the 2020 election cycle from the industry, as Salon's Jon Skolnik reported, had an otherwise-unexplained change of heart. Earlier this year, he led a group of 10 House Democrats in opposing the bill in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "If you institute it, you won't have cures because you'll dry up all the private investment that does that research," he told Roll Call after the reversal.

"That's absolutely not true," David Mitchell, founder of the independent nonprofit Patients for Affordable Drugs Now, said in an interview with Salon.

The claim that the bill would hinder development is a Big Pharma "lie" and "scare tactic," said Mitchell, who suffers from multiple myeloma, a blood cancer treated with a combination of drugs that he said carry a price tag of more than $900,000 per year. "For me, as a patient with incurable cancer, it sounds very much like extortion, like the gun is at your head, 'pay whatever we tell you, Mr. Mitchell, or you are going to die,'" he said. "It's bullshit."

Large pharmaceutical companies see profit margins that are much higher than other industries. A recent analysis by the nonprofit West Health Policy Center and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that Big Pharma firms could lose $1 trillion in sales over the next decade and still maintain their current research investments. A recent analysis by the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Democrats' bill would reduce the number of new drugs developed by about two per year over the next two decades.

"You're talking about a tiny impact on new drug development," Mitchell said. "We can compensate for that by sending more money" to the National Institutes of Health, he continued, "because NIH is the engine of innovative new drug development. It's the single largest biomedical research agency in the world. All 356 drugs approved by the FDA from 2010 to 2019 are based on research, basic science from the NIH."

Peters was one of three Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to vote against the Democrats' drug pricing bill, along with Reps. Kurt Schrader of Oregon and Kathleen Rice of New York. A different committee later advanced the bill but the opposition appears to have enough votes to sink the measure — and the entire spending plan with it.

"I get that the pharmaceutical industry owns the Republican Party and that no Republican voted for this bill," Sanders tweeted after the vote, "but there is no excuse for every Democrat not supporting it."

Peters has received $860,465 from pharmaceutical PACs and employees, according to CRP data, the second most of any industry. He has already received $88,550 from the industry this election cycle, the most of any House member. On the day he sent the letter to Pelosi, Peters received big donations from the CEOs of Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Merck and Bristol Myers Squibb, as well as from lobbyists at PhRMA.

Schrader, who also signed Peters' letter, has also received extensive financial backing from the industry. He has received $24,500 from pharma PACs and employees this cycle, the second most of any industry, and got $144,252 in 2020, the most of any industry. Throughout his career, Schrader, whose grandfather was an executive at Pfizer, has received $614,830 from the industry, according to CRP data. His former aide left earlier this year and quickly began lobbying for PhRMA, according to The Daily Poster.

Peters and Schrader did not respond to questions from Salon but they have introduced a supposed centrist alternative that would drastically limit the number of drugs whose prices Medicare could negotiate.

"It's masquerading as a Medicare negotiation" bill," Mitchell said, noting that it would exclude Medicare Part D drugs, which make up 83% of Medicare drug spending. The bill would only allow the agency to negotiate a "tiny, tiny sliver" of drugs covered under Part B that are administered by doctors and hospitals, he said, but would exclude drugs that are still in their period of exclusivity, which can last up to 12 years. "To call it Medicare negotiation is a fraud," Mitchell said.

Kathleen Rice's opposition to the bill is less easily explained, since she has not been one of the industry's biggest recipients, collecting a relatively modest $84,000 in campaign contributions from Big Pharma sources, according to CRP data. Furthermore, Rice had twice previously voted for earlier versions of the plan and campaigned on lowering drug prices. In a letter to a constituent who expressed disappointment with her vote, Rice said that she supports "the goals" of the bill and "allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices" but that she opposed the bill because it is being used "as a tool to offset the cost of a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill."

Rice cited opposition from Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., over the bill's price tag to justify her vote.

"That bill has no chance to become law, as Democrats in the Senate have stated that a bill with such a price tag will not have the votes to pass in their chamber," she said in the letter, which was obtained by the American Prospect. That's a strange and striking argument, considering that Rice voted for many other pieces of legislation that will go into a bill she says "has no chance to become law."

"Rep. Rice believes the House should produce a reconciliation bill that can realistically become law," Rice spokesman Stuart Malec said in a statement to Salon. "She supports Medicare negotiation, but the H.R. 3 drug pricing language in its current form does not have the support to pass the Senate. And Rep. Rice does not support advancing provisions that will jeopardize the bill's final passage in the Senate."

These large donations are only a portion of the pharmaceutical industry's political spending aimed at defeating drug pricing legislation. Pharmaceutical companies have spent more than any industry on federal lobbying this year, shelling out $171 million so far in 2021, according to CRP, more than twice as much as the next biggest spending industry. Pharmaceutical companies spent $309 million on lobbying last year, the most ever. PhRMA alone has spent more than $15 million on lobbying and last week launched a seven-figure ad campaign to oppose the drug pricing plan.

"They're pulling out all the stops to block this," Mitchell said. "What they're fighting to maintain is unilateral power to dictate the prices of brand name drugs to the people of the United States. They have the power to tell us what we're going to pay and we just have to say yes. For them, it's the ability to dictate the prices of drugs to patients like me."

Patient advocates like Mitchell and advocacy groups like the AARP, Protect Our Care and Social Security Works are pushing back through lobbying and ad campaigns of their own.

"Pharma thinks this is just like every other time they have bent D.C. to their will with money, but it isn't," Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, said in a statement to Salon, noting that grassroots groups have spent years building a broad coalition of support among voters of all political persuasions. "And as for the Dems carrying water for Big Pharma, we are showing them the consequences of that. Their phones are ringing off the hook, there's daily protests at their offices, and their local media is full of stories about their cozy relationships with Big Pharma."

Lawson expressed optimism that Biden and Pelosi can get the legislation passed, given the widespread public support for this issue.

"Big Pharma is used to winning," he said. "They've never gone up against a movement this powerful."

Patients for Affordable Drugs Now has also launched an ad campaign targeting Peters' and Rice's districts, highlighting members of Congress for "choosing Big Pharma over patients."

"We have the best opportunity that we've had in two decades to actually enact reforms that will meaningfully lower the prices of prescription drugs to the American people and stop subjecting us to the power of multinational corporations," Mitchell said. "It's an uphill fight all the way because we know who we're up against. I think we have a really good shot of getting it done."

The 'Nevada version of Rudy Giuliani' threatens election lawsuits — 14 months before anybody votes

Nevada Senate candidate Adam Laxalt, a Republican with a well-known name in the Silver State, is already stoking fears of voter fraud and vowing to file lawsuits to "try to tighten up the election" — 14 months before any actual votes are cast.

Republican candidates around the country have ripped a page from Donald Trump's playbook, launching spurious claims of fraud about elections that haven't happened yet, in an apparent effort to blame potential defeats on unspecified and evidence-free claims of "irregularities." California Republican Larry Elder, who hoped to be elected governor after the recent recall election targeting Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, launched a website claiming voter fraud days before votes were even counted. (In the event, the vote against the recall was so overwhelming Elder has stopped talking about it.) But Laxalt, who was endorsed by Trump after filing multiple lawsuits contesting Joe Biden's narrow 2020 victory in Nevada, is breaking new ground by making such claims more than a year before a single vote is cast.

"With me at the top of the ticket, we're going to be able to get everybody at the table and come up with a full plan, do our best to try to secure this election, get as many observers as we can, and file lawsuits early, if there are lawsuits we can file to try to tighten up the election," Laxalt told radio host Wayne Allyn Root in an interview last month after Root claimed that "Trump won Nevada" and said the election had been "stolen." The comments were first flagged by Jon Ralston, editor of the Nevada Independent, and later reported by the Associated Press.

The comments set off alarm among some Nevada Republicans, according to Ralston, who drew a comparison to failed 2010 U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle. Angle held an early polling lead over then-incumbent Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat, until she veered sharply to the right, alienating key conservatives in the state.

"She went on with friendly interviewers, got comfy and said damaging things," Ralston said on Twitter. "Laxalt will only do Newsmax, OAN, Joecks TV and will keep making mistakes. That's why GOPers here are worried."

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Laxalt is the grandson of Paul Laxalt, a Nevada Republican legend who served both as governor and in the U.S. Senate. His biological father, as he revealed less than 10 years ago, was former Sen. Pete Domenici, a New Mexico Republican and close ally of Ronald Reagan, who had an extramarital relationship with Laxalt's mother when she worked on Capitol Hill. Laxalt served one term as Nevada attorney general and ran for governor in 2018, losing to Democrat Steve Sisolak despite Trump's endorsement. He later served as co-chair of Trump's 2020 campaign.

"Adam Laxalt led Trump's efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and now he's running the same Big Lie playbook for his 2022 Senate campaign," said Andy Orellana, a spokesperson for Nevada Democratic Victory, which is working to re-elect Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who would be Laxalt's opponent in the 2022 general election. "He knows he can't win on the issues, so Laxalt is pushing frivolous preemptive lawsuits in an effort to limit Nevadans' voting rights and potentially overturn the election when he loses."

Laxalt led multiple lawsuits on behalf of Trump's campaign, leading the Las Vegas Sun editorial board to dub him the "Nevada version of Rudy Giuliani."

Laxalt insisted in the interview with Root that the problem with those lawsuits was not that the campaign's failed to produce any evidence of fraud but only that that the suits were not filed in time.

"There's no question that, unfortunately, a lot of the lawsuits and a lot of the attention spent on Election Day operations just came too late," he said.

In fact, Laxalt filed his first failed challenge of the 2020 vote before Election Day, seeking to stop the count of mail-in ballots in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and is home to three-quarters of Nevada's population. After Trump's defeat, Laxalt repeatedly pushed conspiracy theories about widespread voter fraud, without provide any actual evidence.

"I'm telling you, there are improper votes," he insisted at the time. "We don't know if it's 2,000, 10,000 or 40,000. I believe it is in the thousands."

Laxalt also pushed a claim that more than 3,000 non-residents had voted by mail in the 2020 Nevada election. Trump allies filed a lawsuit over the claim — but then dropped them after it became clear that many of the ballots Laxalt described were linked to military post office boxes overseas or locations around the country where military personnel are stationed, suggesting they were legally cast by troops and their family members.

Laxalt filed a post-election lawsuit alleging widespread voting irregularities and asking a court to overturn Biden's victory and declare Trump the winner. A judge in Carson City, the state capital, rejected the challenge, writing that the campaign's evidence had "little to no value" and "did not prove under any standard of proof that any illegal votes were cast and counted, or legal votes were not counted at all, for any other improper or illegal reason." Trump's campaign appealed the decision, arguing that the court did not take into account "expert" testimony provided by the campaign. The Nevada Supreme Court rejected that challenge, writing that the campaign failed to identify any "unsupported factual findings" in the earlier ruling.

"Last time Laxalt (and other anti-voter allies) pushed lies like this, they lost. Again and again," the States United Democracy Center, a nonpartisan group that supports fair and secure elections, said on Twitter in response to Laxalt's latest lawsuit threat. "The fight is so far from over. Lies about election integrity are spreading past the 2020 presidential election."

In fact, Biden won Nevada by more than 33,000 votes — making Laxalt's unsupported claims about non-resident voting irrelevant — and the results were certified by the state Supreme Court. Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske launched an investigation into voter fraud allegations that found no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities.

"While the NVGOP raises policy concerns about the integrity of mail-in voting, automatic voter registration, and same-day voter registration, these concerns do not amount to evidentiary support for the contention that the 2020 general election was plagued by widespread voter fraud," she wrote in a letter to the state Republican Party in April — after the party censured her for refusing to support the false claims of election fraud that have seemingly become GOP doctrine.

But the absence of evidence has apparently done little to assuage Laxalt as the state's Republican Party continues to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from its baseless fraud claims. Laxalt's campaign did not respond to questions from Salon.

In a statement to the AP, Laxalt declined to specify what kind of lawsuits he believes woiuld "tighten up the election" or to say whether he would accept the election results if he loses. But criticized the Democratic-led state legislature for passing a bill to send mail-in ballots to every registered voter.

"Without a single Republican vote, Democrats radically changed the election rules in the final stretch of last year's campaign and many voters lost confidence in the system as a result," he told the outlet. "Their partisan transformation of Nevada's system handed election officials an untested process that generated over 750,000 mail-in votes, unclean voter rolls, loose ballots and virtually no signature verification. Nevadans have a right to more transparency and voters deserve confidence in the accuracy of election results, and I will proudly fight for them."

Asked about the former attorney general's argument, a spokesperson for Cegavske told Salon that the secretary of state is "not commenting on Mr. Laxalt's concerns beyond what she has been saying all along – that there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election."

Laxalt later bragged on Twitter that his promise to attack the 2022 election in advance "seems to be triggering the media" after it was reported by Nevada outlets. "I stand by what I said on Wayne Allen Root's [sic] show," he said, insisting that he simply wants "free" and "secure" elections.

"In fact, Laxalt is the one threatening to undermine secure and fair elections," argued Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent. "Indeed, as this demonstrates, for Trumpist politicians, the refusal to commit to respecting legitimate election losses is now a badge of honor."

Laxalt expects to face off against Cortez Masto next November, though he still has to get past a Republican primary that is nine months away. Democrats have accused him of preemptively trying to undermine democracy.

"Laxalt knows he can't defend his record of pushing Trump's interests and those of his special interest donors over hardworking Nevadans, so 14 months before the election he's already plotting to revive the Trump playbook — threatening self-serving lawsuits in an effort to make it harder for Nevadans to vote," Jazmin Vargas, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement. "Nevadans see right through Laxalt's corrupt and dishonest tactics and will reject him again in 2022."

'This is idiotic': Mayors defy Ron DeSantis’ threat to fine cities 'millions' for vaccine mandates

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday threatened to punish cities and counties if they require vaccines for public employees. Some mayors are vowing to impose mandates anyway.

DeSantis, who has staked his 2024 presidential aspirations on pushing back against medical experts amid a pandemic that has wracked his state, vowed to go after local governments that require employees to be vaccinated, calling the Biden administration's plan to require large businesses to require employee vaccinations "very intrusive" and "illegal." DeSantis said that any local governments that require employees to get shots would face fines under a law passed by the state legislature banning so-called vaccine passports, though it did not ban local governments from requiring employees to be vaccinated.

The governor said that any city or county that requires their employees to be vaccinated will face a $5,000 fine for each violation, which he said could result in "millions and millions" of dollars in penalties for areas that have already announced vaccine mandates.

"So if you look at places here in Alachua County, like the city of Gainesville, I mean that's millions and millions of dollars potentially in fines. Orange County — many, many more than that," DeSantis said at a news conference, adding that "the net result of Biden's policy is you're going to have good, hardworking people lose their jobs, and they're going to lose their jobs in very key industries."

DeSantis' office told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that the state's health department would begin enforcing the rule on Thursday.

But big-city mayors vowed to keep their vaccine requirements despite the governor's threat.

"He's spreading these conspiracies about vaccines and now stopping major employers from getting their employees, who deal with the public every day, vaccinated. This is really horrible," Miami Beach Mayor Don Gelber, a Democrat, said Monday. "You do not need a law degree to know this is idiotic and we're not going to let somebody, including unfortunately our own governor, put our residents in danger," he added.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said the fines could be a "lot of money" but the government would "protect the greater collective of the people in our community."

"I'm not going to take actions that would adversely impact the safety of our community. Sometimes, quite frankly, I question whether or not the governor really sees it that way," said Demings, a Democrat. "He may say that he does, but I believe that many of the decisions he makes are purely politically motivated."

Gainesville, which required all public employees to be vaccinated by October or face termination, also plans to keep its vaccine mandate.

"The health, safety and welfare of our city's workforce and those we serve is our number one priority. The city has taken the steps necessary to achieve that priority and stand by that decision," Democratic Mayor Lauren Poe said in a statement. "It is our belief that as an employer, we retain the right and responsibility to require vaccinations as a condition of employment."

Leon County also plans to keep its vaccine requirement in place for employees.

"Unfortunately, and despite the tireless efforts of public health professionals, political rhetoric continues to dangerously exacerbate the fear and confusion about vaccinations," County Administrator Vincent Long said in a statement. "In a public health emergency, clarity of information remains critical. This is why it is necessary that I clarify that vaccinations as a condition of employment in Leon County is legal and will remain in effect. We will continue to act responsibly to ensure our operational readiness to respond to the needs of our community and to keep our employees safe."

Some officials who plan to allow unvaccinated employees to submit to weekly testing argued the governor's threat did not apply to them.

"The policy he announced are for governments requiring vaccines," a spokesperson for Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told the Miami Herald. "If that's the case, it shouldn't have any impact on our policy, which is just requiring testing with the option to opt out if you are vaccinated and choose to present the information that you are vaccinated."

It's unclear if the state can punish local governments under the vaccine passport law. Some legal experts say it only applies to businesses requiring proof of vaccination from customers, but Florida's attorney general filed a brief in a lawsuit over Gainsville's vaccine mandate arguing that the law also applies to local governments and their employees. It's also not clear whether the law is even enforceable after a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction last month allowing Norwegian Cruise Line to require proof of vaccination from passengers.

At his news conference, DeSantis accused President Biden of "not following the science" on COVID because his vaccine mandate ignores "natural immunity" among those who have already been infected. DeSantis also stood by as a city employee falsely claimed that the COVID vaccine "changes your RNA" to cheers from the audience.

There is no evidence that the vaccine "changes your RNA," and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends vaccination for people who have already had COVID because "research has not yet shown how long you are protected from getting COVID-19 again after you recover." One recent study found that people who've had COVID are more than twice as likely to get the disease again than people who are fully vaccinated.

Dr. Joanna Drowos, the associate chair of the Integrated Medical Science Department at Florida International University, urged businesses to "follow the science" by listening to the CDC, not the governor.

"It's not the same as being vaccinated," Drowos told the Sun-Sentinel. "When you get infected, you get a specific strain and your body makes antibodies for the virus you saw … People are getting Covid more than once."

DeSantis previously banned school districts from requiring masks in classrooms and moved to punish officials who defied the order. A state judge blocked that order, ruling that DeSantis had overstepped his authority, but an appeals court later allowed the order to remain in place while the case is appealed. The Biden administration has vowed to direct grants to school districts whose funds were withheld by the governor over their mandates and the Education Department last week opened a civil rights investigation into whether the mask policy violates the rights of students with disabilities.

In a letter to the state's education chief, acting Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg expressed concern that Florida's policy allowing parents to opt out of mask mandates "may be preventing schools in Florida from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19."

Steve Bannon 'coached' Jeffrey Epstein on responses to sex abuse allegations: report

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon coached convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein for a "60 Minutes" interview months before he was arrested on child sex trafficking charges, according to a passage from a new book by Michael Wolff first reported by The New York Times' Ben Smith.

Bannon conducted more than a dozen hours of practice interviews with Epstein in 2019, aimed at making the latter appear less "creepy" ahead of the interview — which ultimately never happened — according to Wolff's forthcoming book "Too Famous." Wolff is best known for his recent trilogy of books on the Trump administration, "Fire and Fury," "Siege" and "Landslide."

Bannon, who led former President Donald Trump's first campaign and briefly served as his chief White House strategist before being fired, in part because of critical comments he made to Wolff, encouraged Epstein to speak to "60 Minutes" and recorded more than 15 hours of practice interviews with him at his Manhattan estate, according to Wolff.

Bannon interviewed Epstein while giving him tips, such as urging him to avoid looking at the camera so he doesn't come across as "stupid" and "advising him not to share his racist theories on how Black people learn," according to the report. Bannon reportedly also told Epstein to "stick to his message, which is that he is not a pedophile."

"You're engaging, you're not threatening, you're natural, you're friendly, you don't look at all creepy, you're a sympathetic figure," Bannon told Epstein toward the end of the session, according to interview transcripts obtained by Wolff.

Bannon confirmed to the Times that he had encouraged Epstein to talk to "60 Minutes" and had recorded more than 15 hours of interview footage with the deceased financier, but insisted he had "never trained anyone." Bannon told the Times he had recorded the interviews for an "previously unannounced eight- to 10-hour documentary" that was intended to show how Epstein's "perversions and depravity toward young women were part of a life that was systematically supported, encouraged and rewarded by a global establishment that dined off his money and his influence."

It's unclear how Wolff obtained the transcripts, though the author told the Times that Epstein wanted him to write a book about him.

"He wanted me to write something about him — a kind of a book — it wasn't clear why," Wolff said.

It's also unclear how Bannon and Epstein connected. Epstein, a millionaire financier who regularly socialized with wealthy businessmen, academics and even former presidents, was arrested months later on federal child sex trafficking charges. He had previously pleaded guilty to soliciting a person under 18 for prostitution in a controversial and remarkably lenient plea deal involving infamous attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr and future Trump Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who ultimately resigned after new details of the Epstein deal were reported. Epstein later died by suicide in a Manhattan jail cell while awaiting trial. His alleged accomplice, Ghislaine Maxwell, has pleaded not guilty to charges that she recruited and groomed underage girls for him to sexually abuse and sometimes participated in the abuse.

It's not the first time Bannon has been linked to Epstein, a longtime friend of Trump's that the former president touted as a "terrific guy" who enjoys women "on the younger side." Page Six reported in 2018 that Bannon was seen entering Epstein's Manhattan mansion, where Epstein and Maxwell are accused of repeatedly abusing underage girls.

"Bannon needs money to bankroll his political agenda," a source told Page Six at the time, just months after Bannon had left the White House. "Epstein has plenty of money, and craves power and access."

Epstein's former butler at his Paris estate also claimed in 2019 that Bannon had stayed at Epstein's apartment in the fall of 2018, which a spokesperson for Bannon denied at the time.

New York Times columnist James Stewart also wrote in 2019 that Epstein invited him, Bannon and Wolff to a dinner in 2018 but it's unclear whether the dinner ever happened and Bannon has denied that he attended.

Wolff, who regularly writes about disgraced powerful figures, has his own extensive ties to Epstein. In 2003, the Times reported that Wolff organized a bid to buy New York magazine with investors that included Epstein as well as disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Wolff later continued to see Epstein at his office, New York reported in 2007. Wolff told the outlet at the time that he had first met Epstein in the late '90, recalling how the millionaire was followed around by "three teenage girls" who were "not his daughters." In fact, it appears that Wolff coached Epstein himself when the millionaire first faced charges before his 2005 guilty plea.

"He has never been secretive about the girls," Wolff told New York. "At one point, when his troubles began, he was talking to me and said, 'What can I say, I like young girls.' I said, 'Maybe you should say, 'I like young women.'"

Even after Epstein's 2005 conviction, Wolff continued to try to help Epstein.

"A few years ago the journalist Michael Wolff wrote a profile of him for New York magazine that was meant to 'rehabilitate' Epstein's image and would tell of all the billionaires who still, secretly, hung out with Epstein," The Daily Beast's Vicky Ward reported in 2019. "The piece had 'fact-checking' issues and never ran."

Michigan GOP launches not-so-secret plan to undo Whitmer’s veto on voting bill

A Republican-backed group launched a petition drive last week to create tougher voting laws in a scheme to get around Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's veto of Republican voting proposals.

The "Secure MI Vote" committee filed a proposed petition with the secretary of state's office that would tighten the state's voter ID law, ban the state from sending absentee ballot applications unless they are expressly requested, and bar outside groups from helping to fund elections.

The petition comes after Republican lawmakers in May introduced a 39-bill package to change a variety of voting laws in the wake of former President Donald Trump's baseless post-election crusade. The Republican-led state Senate Oversight Committee released a report in June that found "no evidence of widespread or systemic fraud" and severely criticized conservatives who have tried to cash in on the lies. That hasn't stopped many Republican legislators from continuing to push for new voting restrictions.

Whitmer has vowed to veto the restrictions, which are among more than 400 proposed by Republicans across the country this year. But under a peculiar provision of Michigan's state constitution, Republican organizers can get around Whitmer's veto by collecting at least 340,047 valid signatures to send the initiative to the state legislature rather than put it on the ballot for voters to decide. If the measure passes the Republican-controlled legislature after that — as it surely would — Whitmer would have no power to veto it.

Democrats cried foul over the scheme, accusing Republicans of dipping into their "playbook of losing, lying, and attempting to cheat their way into office."

"Michigan Republicans will try every trick in the book to confuse and intimidate voters," Michigan Democratic Party Chairwoman Lavora Barnes said in a statement. "They want fewer people to vote because they just discovered what we have always known, when people vote, Democrats win. That is what this ballot proposal is all about, creating barriers to voting so fewer people have access to the polls."

State Rep. Matt Koleszar, the Democratic vice chair of the House Elections Committee, said that the Republican playbook "reads more and more like it was written by a Disney villain."

"Republicans have created a voter-fraud boogeyman to justify their voter suppression efforts, and they continue to feed it lies," Koleszar said in a statement. "We already have voter ID laws that we know work, and any attempt that casts doubt on that fact only further undermines faith in our election system. If we continue to let the Big Lie grind away at our institutions, strip away our freedoms and divide us as a people, we'll end up with nothing left."

Michigan Republican Party chairman Ron Weiser first floated the plan in March while railing against Whitmer, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel as "witches" who should be burned at the stake. Senate Republican Leader Mike Shirkey publicly endorsed the plan in July. The "Secure MI Vote" committee is working separately from the state GOP but is led by longtime Republican consultant Jamie Roe and longtime Republican operative Fred Wszolek, who led a similar "Unlock Michigan" petition drive to strip Whitmer of emergency powers she used to enact business restrictions during the pandemic.

"What we are trying to do here is just restore the confidence and the belief in the integrity of the system," Roe told Bridge Michigan.

Voting rights groups, however, have called the Republican proposals "voter suppression" and warned that the party aims to impose the "most restrictive voter ID law in the entire country."

The petition includes "particularly egregious" measures that were not included in the original legislative package, including new hurdles to access absentee ballots, said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, which organized a 2018 ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission.

The state already has a voter ID law, but the petition would eliminate the ability of voters with no photo ID to cast a ballot if they sign an affidavit to confirm their identity. Instead, voters without a photo ID would only be allowed to cast a provisional ballot that would not count unless the voter presents a valid ID at their local clerk's office within six days of the election. Republicans argue that the tougher voter ID law is intended to prevent fraud, even though their own Senate probe found no evidence of fraud in the 2020 race. Local election clerks have expressed concerns that the proposal would "reduce voter turnout, especially amongst people with lower income and people with disabilities." The petition includes a $3 million "voter access fund" to provide free state IDs to people facing economic hardship.

Wang said the ID fund was an example of the state trying to "disenfranchise" voters but then helping a "portion of those people to get their rights back."

"You're limiting people's choices, you're taking away [the affidavit] option, but then you're saying, 'Well, we'll use taxpayer money to make sure that voters have the ability to get this one kind of ID,'" Wang said in an interview.

The petition would also require voters applying for an absentee ballot to provide their driver's license or state ID number and the last four digits of their Social Security number. Some election clerks have expressed worries that the requirement may deter some people from voting and that requiring voters to mail personal information could open them up to identity theft.

The petition would prevent Benson and her staff from sending absentee ballot applications to every voter, as she did last year. A state court ruled that Benson acted lawfully but Republicans have argued that some applications were incorrectly sent to addresses where voters no longer lived. There has been no evidence of mail ballot fraud in Michigan's 2020 election, and it is already a crime to fill out another voter's ballot application.

The petition would also ban "corporate entities" from contributing funds to Michigan's elections. Democratic and Republican election officials alike in 465 Michigan cities, townships, and counties received "COVID-19 Response" grants from the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life, which got $400 million in funding from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Trump supporters pushed conspiracy theories about Zuckerberg's contribution, even though there is no evidence the grants were used for political influence, according to Bridge Michigan. Some clerks worry that the proposal would cut off key funding sources that helped them operate amid the pandemic.

Roe, the petition organizer, denied that the initiative has anything to do with Trump.

"I'm not one who's been out there crying about that the election was stolen — I don't believe it was — but I do believe that there are people who think that it was just as there are people who thought wrongly after 2016 that that election was stolen," he told Bridge Michigan. "So, let's do something common sense that restores confidence in the system and empowers our clerks to do it right."

While the effort is likely to yield enough signatures and Republicans are expected to adopt the proposals, it is unclear whether it can be approved by the 2022 election, when Whitmer, Benson and Nessel will all be up for re-election. Because state Senate Republicans do not have the two-thirds supermajority needed to immediately enact the initiative, organizers will have to collect all the requisite signatures and complete the state review before the end of 2021 for the changes to be enacted next year.

"Getting it done by the end of the year is a very daunting hurdle," Roe told Bridge Michigan. "But you never know. We'll see what the reaction is. We're very very excited about the opportunity to get it rolled out and to get people fired up."

Wang, who has experience with organizing petition drives, said she expects the group to rely on paid petition gatherers, but raised concerns about the signature-gathering process after the Unlock Michigan effort came under fire for its tactics. A company collecting signatures for the petition coached paid petition gatherers to give voters false information, illegally collect signatures without witnessing them, trespass on private property and lie under oath, according to a surreptitious video obtained by the Detroit Free Press.

"Given what we've seen as part of the national voter suppression campaign, what's playing out in all these different states like Michigan," Wang said, "the plan of these extreme politicians is to affect the outcome of the 2024 election."

'Shameless': Georgia GOP already trying to use new voting law to overthrow election officials

Georgia Republicans are already trying to use their controversial new election law to drive out local election officials in the state's largest and most Democratic county.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this year signed SB 202, a law that not only restricts ballot access but allows state officials to temporarily take over county election boards. This has raised concerns about potential Republican election subversion after the party lost the presidential race and both U.S. Senate elections in the state amid record voter turnout. Republican lawmakers wasted no time using the law to target election officials in Fulton County, which includes most of of the city of Atlanta and has a population of more than a million people, about 44% of them Black. President Biden won 72.6% of the vote in Fulton County, outperforming Hillary Clinton's 2016 total by 83,000 votes. The county has been the a primary target of former President Donald Trump's false election claims and multiple lawsuits filed by his supporters, although there has been no evidence of fraud or misconduct.

Republicans representing the county in the state legislature called for a performance review of the country's election board in July, which Scott Hogan, the head of the state Democratic Party, decried as a "shameless Republican power grab designed to suppress voters and inject partisan politics into our elections."

"It appears that they would like to take over the county board of elections," Aunna Dennis, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said in an interview with Salon, calling the move part of a "coordinated strategy" that represents Republican "opposition to, basically, democracy."

The misinformation and lawsuits preceding the review show that there was "clearly partisan motive" on the part of Republicans, Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said in an interview with Salon.

"The predicted changes to Georgia's electorate are finally coming to fruition," he said, noting that the 2020 election was likely the first time that urban Georgia had outvoted rural Georgia. "Finally there's now proof that the state is changing and it's going to be harder for Republicans. Where is the single biggest bastion of Democratic voters? Well, it's in Fulton County."

The state election board, which is currently made up of three Republicans and one Democrat, last month began the lengthy review process by appointing a three-person Republican-led panel to investigate the county's handling of elections. The panel includes Democratic Gwinnett County election board member Stephen Day, Republican Catoosa County election board member Ricky Kittle, and Ryan Germany, the general counsel for Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who backed the review.

Fulton County accounts for 11% of Georgia's electorate and is one of the state's most diverse counties. Robb Pitts, the chairman of the County Board of Commissioners, warned since before the law was approved that it would be used to target the county.

"This is the result of a cynical ploy to undermine faith in our elections process and democracy itself — it is partisan politics at its very worst," Pitts said at a news conference last month. "This is a shameful reminder that the Big Lie is still alive. It has been successfully laundered and accepted by some of those who initially stood up against it, such as our secretary of state. Now, his comrades in this fight are the same conspiracy theorists he rebuked last year. He's sold out and thrown his lot in with those who want to conduct a hostile takeover of our elections because he fell out of grace with the former president — he's desperately trying to cling to power by appeasing those who believe the Big Lie."

Bishop Reginald Jackson, a presiding prelate of Georgia's AME Church, pointed to the record turnout among Black voters, who slightly outnumber whites as the largest single group in the county's population.

"Today, it is clear that the Georgia Republican Party is scared. Since they no longer can win elections based on ideas, policy, leaderships or morals, their only pathetic course of action is to try to take legitimate votes away," he said in a statement last month.

Republicans who called for the review said in a letter to the State Election Board that it was necessary to "assure voter confidence in our elections." Raffensperger, who pushed back against false claims by Trump and Georgia Republicans about the state's elections, also supports the investigation, though he did not get a vote because the law removed him as the chair of the State Election Board. Kemp said he "fully" supports the review.

"Fulton County has a long history of mismanagement, incompetence, and a lack of transparency when it comes to running elections — including during 2020," the governor said on Twitter.

The county has certainly had its share of election problems, including long lines at polling locations. The State Election Board entered into a consent order with the county after voters endured hours-long lines in last year's primary elections, which Democrats largely blamed on a statewide effort to shutter hundreds of polling places after a Supreme Court decision gutting a section of the Voting Rights Act and a lack of resources provided by the Republican-led state legislature.

"It's definitely a result of underfunding," Dennis said, noting that Republicans who claim to be concerned about election management in Fulton County "are not really trying to invest in helping the board of elections operationalize their offices" amid a pandemic. "Let's not try to take them over, let's try to actually be solution maker and mitigate the barriers, not create more barriers," she said.

An independent monitor, Carter Jones, was appointed to observe the county's handling of the general election. His notes, which were obtained by the AP, showed that the county's handling of the ballots was messy and poorly managed, which may have fed unfounded allegations of fraud or mishandling. But he stressed that he saw no evidence of "any dishonesty, fraud or intentional malfeasance."

"At a certain point, it's people willing to believe the worst in other people to justify a narrative that they have themselves," Jones later told the AP, referring to the Trump-centric conspiracy theories targeting the county.

Under the law, the review panel will "make a thorough and complete investigation" of "all actions of the local election official," including its handling of election equipment, oversight of voter registration, compliance with election law and whatever other issues may be raised by lawmakers, according to Georgia Public Broadcasting. The probe is expected to last several months, though there is no time limit. The entire process could last a year or more.

After the investigation, the panel will issue a report and could ultimately recommend that the county's bipartisan elections board should be suspended and replaced by a temporary superintendent who would have full authority to make staffing changes and polling location choices. Because the state also allows any voter to challenge any other voter's eligibility, the superintendent could also decide on requests to disqualify individual voters.

That move can be requested by county government, which is unlikely given Pitts' position. But it could also be requested by the Republican-led State Election Board following its own investigation and hearings to determine whether the board broke at least three election rules or laws in the last two election cycles, or whether there is "clear and convincing evidence" that the board demonstrated "nonfeasance, malfeasance, or gross negligence" over that span.

Local election officials could potentially be suspended for up to nine months, though they can petition for reinstatement before that. If such a suspension holds up, the State Election Board could remove the temporary superintendent after nine months or appoint a new election board.

The State Election Board's members said they were required to appoint the panel under the law. Sara Tindall Ghazal, the only Democrat on the board, said she hopes that the investigation will focus on improvements that will better serve voters.

"The narrative driving this pressure has been influenced by disinformation surrounding the November 2020 election, but the fact remains that Fulton County voters have reported numerous problems for far longer than November 2020, particularly surrounding registration and absentee ballots," she said last month. "So I urge Fulton County to view this performance review board as an opportunity to have fresh eyes on their systems and their procedures and identify areas of improvement."

But the impression that the review board is bipartisan is misleading, said Bullock, the University of Georgia professor. "Republicans are still running this thing. Any kind of board that gets appointed, not just in this context but others, is going to be predominantly Republican."

Voting rights groups have sounded the alarm over the possibility that an appointee of the Republican-led state board would be in charge of election administration in a county that is crucial to Democratic electoral prospects in Georgia.

"We'll have appointees that don't live in the jurisdiction, that don't reside in counties as populous or as robust," said Dennis of Common Cause Georgia. "That's kind of the fear, that we will have representation that does not match the community" and no say over "any of the implementations of laws or structuring of the election board, nor any say in the inner workings, even down to suggesting new precinct locations and trying to do voter education campaigns with the board of elections. All these things that we have been able to do as a community — we will no longer be able to do that if this takeover happens."

Dennis also warned that "whatever happens in Fulton is going to domino across the state" and that if this approach is successful for Republicans, other states with GOP-majority legislatures could soon follow.

"This would become a domino effect across many states," she said. "If it happens in Georgia, people should definitely be looking out to see if major counties, and definitely progressive counties or cities who have large voting populations, will be targets as well."

Some voting rights groups are preparing to raise funds to defend local election officials and continue to push for Congress to pass voting rights legislation like the For the People Act. In fact, even that sweeping election bill does not that currently include measures to prevent the kind of takeover activists fear.

"The worst-case scenario is that democracy is forever scarred by this direct attack to disenfranchise Black voters in a partisan election takeover," Nse Ufot, who leads the New Georgia Project, a grassroots voting rights group, said in a statement to Salon. "This is a whitelash against the progressive coalition that came out in historic numbers to vote out 45 and send two Democratic senators to D.C. The ripple effects of SB 202 are already being replicated across Georgia and other GOP-controlled states across the country and the time to act is now."

Former Dem senator now lobbies for tax loophole she called 'one of the biggest scams'

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a moderate North Dakota Democrat who was defeated in 2018 and has become a frequent cable-news commentator, is now leading a dark money group's effort to preserve a tax loophole that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy. Just a few months earlier, Heitkamp had described the loophole as a "scam."

Heitkamp, who was passed over for a job in President Biden's Cabinet, now chairs a nonprofit called Save America's Family Enterprises (SAFE), a dark money group that does not disclose its donors but has launched a six-figure ad campaign to lobby against a key provision in the Democrats' $3.5 trillion budget proposal. The group aims to preserve the "stepped-up basis" loophole, which allows people to avoid capital gains taxes on inherited investments. Biden has called for closing the loophole to help pay for the spending plan, but Heitkamp has gone on a media blitz in the past week to "sound the alarm" over the proposal as big-money groups seek to water down key tax provisions in the budget framework.

It's a strange turn for a former lawmaker who voted against the 2017 Trump tax cuts for the wealthy and just five months ago decried the loophole when former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie complained that capital gains taxes — which are paid on the profits of an investment when it is sold — amount to "double taxation" during an appearance on ABC News' "This Week."

"This is one of the biggest scams in the history of forever on income redistribution," Heitkamp told Christie in April. "If you have a tax — if you have a stock, you can pass it on to your kids with stepped-up basis, and it's never taxed. You know that there needs to be reform on unearned income. And so to demonize it and say it's going to hurt the little guy, yes, that just is not factual, Chris. And you know it."

The loophole overwhelmingly favors ultra-wealthy families and costs the United States more than $40 billion per year. Under existing law, if someone sells a stock or an asset they must pay capital gains taxes on "realized" assets, but if they instead leave stocks or assets behind to their heirs, under the "stepped-up basis" rule, the unrealized capital gains are never taxed at all. An estimated 64% of the wealth held by billionaires consists of untaxed capital gains that the government may never tax under the current rule.

Amy Hanauer, executive director of the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, told Salon that the current loophole "unfairly allows billionaires like Jeff Bezos to avoid paying income tax on most of their real income," because it comes from appreciation on his assets, which are now worth $99 billion more than they were 10 years ago. "That's not fair. At the very least, income tax should be paid on that income when Bezos dies and passes his assets on. That's what the Biden proposal to end the stepped-up basis rule would accomplish."

Biden's proposal seeks to claw back those untaxed billions to pay for part of his spending plan, which includes a massive expansion of health care, child care and education. Biden has proposed repealing the lower capital gains tax rate so that investment income is taxed the same as ordinary income earned in wages and salaries, which Heitkamp says she supports. But if the stepped-up basis loophole is not closed, wealthy people could avoid paying the tax simply by holding on to their assets until they die and then leaving them to their heirs.

Closing the loophole is "essential to make the rest of Biden's tax plan work," Hanauer said.

"You can't have it both ways," she said. "If you agree with Biden that unearned income going to wealthy people should be taxed at the same rate as earned income, you can't defend a tax break that allows lots of unearned income to escape taxes completely."

But after being hired by SAFE, Heitkamp is now making exactly the same argument she attacked in April.

She argued in an interview with The Hill last week that the proposal would hurt "middle-class families" and would force the sale of family-owned businesses and farms and family-owned properties like vacation homes.

That seems like a stretch. In fact, Biden's proposal includes exemptions for up to $1 million in unrealized gains for individuals and $2 million for couples, as well as additional exemptions for family-owned businesses.

"Heitkamp is ignoring what Biden's proposal actually would do," Hanauer said in an email. "Biden's plan does not apply to any family business or farm as long as the family continues to own and operate it. If they sell or stop operating it, then they'd have to pay the tax on the unrealized gains over $1 million (if inherited from a single person) or over $2 million (if inherited from a couple). And they would have 15 years to pay the tax!"

Heitkamp elaborated her position in an interview with CNBC on Wednesday, arguing that she was worried about farms that were family-owned but not family operated.

"Think about what that means. Some family who lives on Martha's Vineyard owns land in the Midwest that they don't run, but get income from," Hanauer said. "Heitkamp wants to make sure that if that absentee owner dies and passes the land on to an heir who has never set foot in the Midwest, the heir doesn't have to pay taxes. Tax policy should not be focused on protecting unearned income to an absentee inheritor of land someone else is working!"

Heitkamp also argued that closing the loophole would hurt minority-owned businesses.

"Now that we see an emerging entrepreneurial class within the Hispanic community and within the African American community, they won't be able to take advantage of these tax rules that will allow them to grow their business and keep capital in their business," she told the Hill.

That argument seems like a rhetorical dodge, given that the existing system overwhelmingly favors white people, who hold an estimated 84% of the nation's wealth, because the loophole inherently applies to income from wealth. There is little or no basis for arguing that the loophole helps people generate or build wealth; it primarily helps rich people hold onto the wealth they already have.

"Heitkamp is trying to preserve a system that leaves untaxed a type of income that surely flows disproportionately to white people," Hanauer said. "Heitkamp's approach would keep a tax code that entrenches white wealth and reinforces racial wealth inequality."

Keeping the rule on the books would "supercharge" the racial wealth gap, said Seth Hanlon, a former economic adviser to President Barack Obama, expressing dismay at Heitkamp's "cynical argument."

"No one can straightforwardly defend letting Bezos and other billionaires avoid capital gains taxes forever," he wrote on Twitter. "So they hide behind small businesses and/or minority-owned businesses. Typical DC."

Along with Biden and a growing roster of progressive and moderate Democratic lawmakers, even centrist economists like Lawrence Summers have called for closing the loophole. While the current plan has encountered some pushback from congressional conservatives, Republicans like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, and former presidential contender Jeb Bush have also called for end the loophole.

Heitkamp appeared to shift her argument on Wednesday, claiming that she is trying to protect Democrats from political blowback.

"I'm trying to sound the alarm, both economically and politically, for Democrats that this is not a path to walk," she said, even though polls have shown that the public overwhelmingly supports closing tax loopholes for the wealthy and there has been considerable outcry over leaked IRS data that showed how the rich avoid paying income taxes.

Heitkamp's push comes amid a lobbying frenzy aimed at watering down the tax increases that would be used to pay for the Democrats' big spending bill. Since Democrats can pass the bill without Republican votes, business groups have launched an expensive campaign to "divide" Democrats on the plan and have allied with centrists like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., all of whom have protested the price tag and various provisions in the proposal.

The moderates have also demanded that all the provisions in the spending bill be paid for, which was never plausible in the first place and is increasingly less likely given the forceful lobbying pushback. The capital gains tax increase has faced steep opposition from some Democrats and an increase to the estate tax is also reportedly unlikely. Though it is still early in negotiations, one analysis has found that about 75% of the proposed tax increases have already been axed amid the lobbying blitz.

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