Igor Derysh

Missouri's GOP governor attacked mask mandates — and concealed evidence that they work

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson's administration withheld an analysis showing that COVID mask mandates saved lives as Parson railed against mask requirements, according to an investigation by the Missouri Independent.

A study conducted at the request of Parson's office in early November found that mask requirements helped reduce COVID infections during a spike following the spread of the delta variant, according to the report. The study compared infection and death rates in St. Louis and St. Louis County and Kansas City and Jackson County with the rest of the state. The state's health director, Donald Kauerauf, wrote to Parson's office that the analysis showed that mask mandates were effective, according to emails obtained by the Independent and the Documenting Covid-19 project.

"I think we can say with great confidence reviewing the public health literature and then looking at the results in your study that communities where masks were required had a lower positivity rate per 100,000 and experienced lower death rates," Kauerauf wrote.

But the analysis was never made public and was not even shared during cabinet meetings with top state officials, according to the emails.

Missouri is one of just six states that never implemented a statewide mask mandate at any point in the pandemic. Parson has repeatedly criticized mask mandates, calling them "WRONG" in a tweet earlier this year and arguing that vaccinated people should not be subject to mask requirements, even though data shows that vaccinated people can still be infected and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that vaccinated people wear a mask in public in areas of substantial or high transmission. Missouri is currently experiencing another increase in infections after a delta variant wave over the summer. The state reported a positivity rate higher than 12% on Thursday, more than twice the national average.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt earlier this year even sued St. Louis, St. Louis County, Kansas City and Jackson County in an effort to block their mask requirements.

The local governments "imposed an unlawful, arbitrary, and capricious mask mandate that is not supported by the data or the science," Schmitt's lawsuit argues. He filed a similar lawsuit against Columbia Public Schools.

The state's own data shows that between April and October, jurisdictions that imposed mask mandates reported 15.8 cases per day per 100 residents compared to 21.7 per day in communities without mask requirements.

"More than anything it confirms for us what our public health experts have been saying, that masks are an effective tool for reducing community transmission," Nick Dunne, a spokesman for St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, told the Independent.

Despite Schmitt's lawsuit and Parson's criticism, the administration has allowed local governments to set their own health rules. St. Louis County and St. Louis still have mask mandates in place, though they've been lifted in Kansas City and Jackson County.

"This data shows that the public health experts, the St. Louis Metropolitan Task Force, and the St. Louis County Department of Public Health make good decisions to protect our community," St. Louis County Executive Sam Page told the outlet.

Kauerauf has also backed mask requirements since starting the job in September.

"I rely (on) the experts at the CDC on that. Everything I've read, everything I've seen: Masks work," he said at his first press conference.

Schmitt's office said that the analysis will not affect its lawsuits challenging mask rules.

"We dispute this premise and these charts," spokesman Chris Nuelle told the Independent. "We've been clear that Missourians should have the right to make their own decisions, and that government bureaucrats shouldn't be mandating masks or vaccines. We will continue to fiercely litigate our lawsuits against mask mandates in Missouri."

Medical experts called out the state for putting residents at risk by fighting mask mandates and withholding data showing that they work.

"It's devastating to see what the Missouri governor did since mask policies do reduce the spread of COVID-19 and would reduce the number of people who become sick and die in Missouri," Julia Raifman, a health law and policy professor at Boston University who oversees the COVID-19 U.S. State Policies Database, told the Independent. "It's devastating to see policymakers not implement policies that would reduce the number of children who are growing up without their parents."

'What voter suppression looks like': Rejected ballot requests up 400% after new Georgia voting law

Georgia election officials rejected absentee ballot applications in the state's municipal elections this month at a rate more than four times higher than during the 2020 election cycle, in large part as the result of new restrictions on voting passed by Republican state lawmakers.

Election officials rejected 4% of absentee ballot applications ahead of the Nov. 2 elections, up from less than 1% in 2020, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Most of the absentee ballot applications rejected last year were duplicates of applications that had already been submitted, often because voting groups or local governments sent out multiple forms to voters.

The new Georgia law, SB 202, requires absentee ballot applications to be submitted at least 11 days before the election, while the previous deadline which was the Friday before Election Day. Data shows that 52% of the rejected applications were denied because they were submitted too late under the new law. Another 15% were rejected because of missing or incorrect ID information under the new law.

Most of those people ended up not voting at all. Only about 26% of people whose ballots were rejected because of the deadline voted in person on Election Day, according to the AJC analysis.

"This is what voter suppression looks like," charged state Sen. Michelle Au, a Democrat.

Though full voter file data will not be released by the state until next year, 19% of people who requested an absentee ballot did not submit one before the polls opened on Election Day, according to the New Georgia Project Action Fund, a voting rights group. Based on 2020 trends, the group estimates that 13% of people who requested an absentee ballot ended up not voting at all this year, nearly double the 2020 rate, Aklima Khondoker, the group's chief legal officer, told Salon.

The data shows the "voter suppression law working as intended," tweeted former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Georgia Republicans passed the law after Joe Biden carried the state last November and Democrats won both U.S. Senate runoff races amid an expansion of absentee voting during the COVID pandemic. A record 1.3 million Georgia voters cast absentee ballots in the 2020 election, with two-thirds of them voting for President Joe Biden.

The law also restricts ballot drop boxes, imposes new ID requirements and includes provisions that critics say could allow Republican lawmakers to subvert elections.

Local election officials have also expressed concern that voters could be disenfranchised by the new deadline.

"The 11-day deadline is too far in advance of Election Day to adequately serve voters, particularly when there is no provision for voters with unforeseen circumstances who learn shortly before Election Day that they cannot vote in person," Tonnie Adams, who oversees elections in Georgia's Heard County, said in an affidavit supporting a challenge to the law.

More than a half-dozen lawsuits have been filed challenging the law, including a suit filed by the Justice Department. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in June that the Georgia law was enacted with the "purpose of denying or abridging" the rights of Black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

"In the November 2020 general election, Black voters were more likely than white voters to request absentee ballots between ten and four days before Election Day," the DOJ suit says. "In addition, of the absentee ballots requested during this period, those that were successfully cast and counted were disproportionately cast by Black voters."

Khondoker called out Republican lawmakers for rushing through the bill without a "racial impact analysis," arguing that the increased rejection rates "show just how damaging that kind of negligence can be to communities of color."

"Since we know that Black voters in Georgia were more likely to request absentee ballots than white voters in 2018, 2020, and the January 5th [U.S. Senate] Runoff, restrictions to voting by mail clearly impact those voters at disproportionate rates," Khondoker said in a statement to Salon. "In a crucial swing state that was decided by 12,000 votes, this kind of seemingly boring or technical administrative burden that the state legislature placed on voters of color could swing the entire nation's trajectory."

Some absentee voting advocates backed the law, arguing that the previous five-day deadline was too short to allow many voters to return their ballots.

"The way it was before, you almost were setting voters up to fail," Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, told AJC. "That's actually a best practice to cut it off so that voters are actually receiving the ballot with enough time to get it back."

But McReynolds wrote on Twitter that because the Georgia law also restricted drop-off options, the 11-day cutoff should be "revisited" to set an "appropriate deadline to ensure voters have enough to time receive, vote & then return their ballot."

Georgia State Election Board member Sara Tindall Ghazal, a Democrat, said the deadline should be between five to seven days before Election Day.

"Far too many voters end up being disenfranchised," she told AJC. "It leads to many voters getting their applications rejected and not able to access their ballot otherwise."

Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic lawyer who filed a lawsuit challenging the law, said that the increased rate of rejections is a "feature" of the law, "not a flaw."

"This law wasn't designed for 'election integrity' as Republicans have claimed — it was designed to make it harder for voters to reach the ballot box," Elias' voting advocacy group, Democracy Docket, said in a statement.

Kristin Clarke, the first Black woman to head the Justice Department's civil rights division, alleged at a press conference earlier this year that many of the law's provisions were "passed with a discriminatory purpose" at a time when the state's Black population and Black voters' share of ballots cast by mail continues to increase.

"The provisions we are challenging reduce access to absentee voting at every step of the process, pushing more Black voters to in-person voting, where they will be more likely than white voters to confront long lines," Clarke said. "SB 202 then imposes additional obstacles to casting an in-person ballot."

Georgia is just one of a growing number of Republican-led states that passed restrictive voting laws this year amid a torrent of baseless conspiracy theories about Donald Trump's election loss. Garland vowed to go after "laws that seek to curb voter access" in other states but acknowledged that the Justice Department has limited power unless Congress passes the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore a Voting Rights Act requirement for states with a history of racial discrimination to pre-clear any electoral changes with the DOJ. The bill has stalled in Congress after Republicans filibustered the bill and Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have resisted calls to reform the filibuster rule to pass voting rights legislation.

"If Georgia had still been covered" by the pre-clearance requirement, Garland said, it is "likely that SB 202 would never have taken effect."

FBI probes another attempted election data breach linked to MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell

The FBI is investigating a second attempted local election data breach linked to conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell, this time in Ohio, after raiding the home of a Colorado election clerk accused of leaking voting system passwords last week.

FBI and state investigators are looking at an attempted breach of an Ohio county's election system at the office of John Hamercheck, the Republican president of the Lake County Board of Supervisors, The Washington Post first reported last week. The incident appears to be similar to a data breach in Mesa County, Colorado, where election clerk Tina Peters is under federaI investigation after voting system passwords were leaked to right-wing blogs and QAnon conspiracy theorists. Data from both incidents were featured at the MyPillow founder's conspiracy-laden "cyber symposium" in August. Both Hamercheck and Peters discussed voter fraud claims with Lindell's sidekick Douglas Frank before the symposium, according to the Post.

State and county officials told the Post that no sensitive information was obtained in the attempted Ohio breach but they determined that a private laptop was plugged into the county network at Hamercheck's office. Routine network traffic data obtained in the breach was distributed at Lindell's event.

The FBI confirmed that it is investigating the breach. A spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, told the Post that investigators believe that a government official "facilitated the attempted breach."

Officials said several layers of security prevented the laptop from accessing sensitive information.

"It's concerning that somebody would — especially somebody in a government office, somebody who is an elected official, or somebody who's part of county government — would not realize all of those safeguards exist and would try to engage in some sort of a vigilante investigation," LaRose told the outlet. "The good news is that our system of cybersecurity in Ohio is among the best in the nation."

Hamercheck denied any knowledge of any breach attempt during a board meeting on Tuesday, saying there has been "much false or misleading information" about what happened.

"To my knowledge, there was never an attempt to access or breach the Lake County Board of Elections computer network that day," Hamercheck claimed, though he did not elaborate.

Hamercheck said he has not been interviewed in the investigation but vowed to share more information "as soon as we are finished gathering and verifying the appropriate materials."

The attempted breach came after Frank, a part-time math and science teacher who has claimed to have discovered secret algorithms used to rig the presidential election against former President Donald Trump, traveled the country to recruit local election officials into Lindell's conspiracy theory campaign, ostensibly aimed at undoing the 2020 election result and "reinstating" Trump. (There is no constitutional pathway for doing that.) Frank previously told the outlet he had traveled to more thant 30 states and met with 100 election administrators, claiming that his presentation had convinced Peters to pursue his baseless conspiracy theory. He told the Post he had no recollection of speaking with Hamercheck but the newspaper reported that Frank took part in a phone conversation with the official earlier this year.

"Do I remember that call? No," Frank said. "Does it sound like me? Yes."

County records obtained by the Post show that Hamercheck, an engineer, used his security badge to swipe into the offices where the attempted breach originated multiple times and that a private laptop was connected to the county network.

Local resident Lois Osborn pressed Hamercheck on the incident during Tuesday's board meeting after saying she was "very disturbed" by the news reports.

"There was a breach coming from John Hamercheck's office," she told the board, calling for him to be censured. "In my mind, this was something very inappropriate for an elected official in Lake County."

Ron Young, one of the other commissioners, told Osborn it was too early to consider sanctions.

"We have very sophisticated, very skilled law enforcement — nationally, state level, locally — working on this issue," Young said. "And I think it'd be absurd for me to stand up and offer some sort of censure of this gentleman, who at least from my observation has always performed ethically, morally and properly."

The FBI and state authorities last week raided the home of Peters and three others, including Sherronna Bishop, who previously worked as campaign manager for Rep. Lauren Boebert's, R-Colo. Bishop has spoken at events with Peters and introduced Frank during a recent event in Colorado. Search warrants in the raid suggest the FBI is investigating potential wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud and damage protected computers.

State investigators say Peters shut off surveillance in her office and allowed an unauthorized person to access voting machine servers, data from which were later leaked to conspiracy theorists and featured at Lindell's August symposium.

A judge last month barred Peters from overseeing elections. Peters has denied wrongdoing and accused the Justice Department and state officials of political bias.

Lindell has used the leaked data and Frank's "research" to push wild conspiracy theories that Dominion voting machines were set up to flip votes from Trump to President Joe Biden. Dominion sued Lindell and other TrumpWorld conspiracists for $1.3 billion over the false allegations earlier this year.

After his August "cyber symposium" failed to show any evidence of a massive election-fraud conspiracy, Lindell on Tuesday announced that he would hold a 96-hour "Thanks-a-thon" live stream on his web channel to rehash his claims.

Lindell promised over the summer to bring a fantastical lawsuit to the Supreme Court "before Thanksgiving" that would overturn the election and reinstate Trump. Lindell claimed that "tons" of state attorneys general were ready to sign on to the suit, though he did not name a single one. On Tuesday, Lindell appeared to reverse field once again, claiming that attorneys general had backed away from his case under pressure from Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, who admitted last week that Biden won the election — which Lindell sees as another part of a grand conspiracy.

"You can't tell me why Ronna McDaniel, the head of the RNC, made a statement saying Biden won three days before this Supreme Court complaint was supposed to go to the Supreme Court," he said. "What about the timing of that, America!"

Top Wisconsin election official calls GOP power grab a 'blatantly partisan and coordinated' scheme to undermine democracy

Wisconsin Republicans are pushing to seize total control of elections in the state, even calling for criminal charges against state election commissioners while stoking conspiracy theories about former President Donald Trump's electoral defeat.

The most powerful Republican state lawmaker is backing calls to charge members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), which was actually created by the GOP-led legislature just five years ago — and this comes in response to an investigation that turned up no evidence of voter fraud. A Republican member of the state Assembly's Constitution and Ethics committee wants to decertify last year's election results. And U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican and Trump loyalist, is calling for state lawmakers to stage a complete takeover of elections.

The Republican proposals are a "blatantly partisan and coordinated attempt to baselessly challenge the integrity of democracy in our great state," WEC administrator Meagan Wolfe, the state's top election official, said in a statement.

These Republican complaints center on a vote by the WEC during the early days of the pandemic last year. A recent report by the state's Legislative Audit Bureau found no evidence of fraud in the 2020 election but issued recommendations to improve WEC operations. The WEC was created by Republican lawmakers in 2015, over Democratic objections, to eliminate the oversight powers of the state's former Government Accountability Board, which Republicans claimed was biased against them in the wake of a campaign finance investigation. The WEC unanimously voted in March 2020 to suspend a rule requiring special voting deputies (SVDs) to visit nursing home residents before allowing them to vote by mail, because long-term care facilities had barred most visitors from entering to control the spread of COVID. The commission determined there was not enough time before the state's April primary to send out SVDs only to have them turned away.

"We knew that for the protection of residents, only essential workers (which did not include SVDs) were being allowed into facilities across the state," Commissioner Julie Glancey said in a statement. "As such, we knew it was essential to preserve the right to vote for those residents, so rather than require the absurdity of sending SVDs to knock on a locked door, we pivoted to the absentee voting process."

The WEC also urged lawmakers to change the law so nursing home residents could vote more easily, but the Republican-led legislature refused to act.

Although no lawsuits were filed at the time, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, a Republican who once spoke at a Trump rally and has pushed voter-fraud conspiracy theories, last month accused the WEC of violating state law during a press conference alleging that nursing home workers had "victimized" residents with cognitive problems by filling out their ballots. Schmaling recommended felony and misdemeanor charges against five of the commissioners who voted to change the rule and called for Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul to launch an investigation.

The WEC said that such allegations merit investigation but that they fall out of the commission's jurisdiction.

"The Commission finds it horrifying and offensive if that sort of thing happened in Racine, or anywhere in Wisconsin," commissioner Dean Knudson said in a statement. "Nobody should ever be coerced or otherwise influenced as part of exercising their right to vote. We would encourage and expect the full force of the law to investigate that situation and prosecute any identified offenders."

WEC chairwoman Ann Jacobs also stressed that while Schmaling cited family members' concerns during the press conference, only a judge can declare a voter incompetent and that absentee ballot rules allow voters to receive assistance in filling out their ballots.

"The statutes are very clear on this," Jacobs said in a statement.

The commission said it had consulted advocates for nursing home residents and that voters could have been disenfranchised if the rule was not changed.

"If we had waited for two unsuccessful attempts by SVDs to enter nursing homes, we would have been in danger of missing the deadline to get their votes collected and counted," commissioner Mark Thomsen said in a statement. "Our goal was to allow as many eligible voters as possible to participate in the election."

The state is ready to investigate "any case involving credible evidence of fraud," a spokeswoman for Kaul told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, but no charges have been filed in the case brought by Schmaling. Kaul later dismissed the press conference as a "disgraceful publicity stunt" and an "abuse of authority."

But Republicans appear to rallied behind Schmaling's allegations. Republican State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters earlier this month that the commissioners should "probably" face criminal charges, including Knudson, whom he himself had appointed to the commission.

Knudson accused Trump loyalists of trying to find a "fall guy for Trump's loss."

"There's nothing here that that comes close to shifting the results of the election," Knudson told the Journal-Sentinel. "There are a lot of individuals that are under pressure to try to find some explanation other than the obvious one," he added. "That Biden got more votes in Wisconsin than Trump did."

Vos also led Republican calls for Wolfe to resign.

"Clearly there is a severe mismanagement of WEC, and a new administrator is needed," he said last month.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat who called the GOP push "nothing more than a partisan power grab," slammed Vos for targeting bipartisan election officials.

"Speaker Vos' comments are unbecoming of his office and the people we serve," he said in a statement. "It's my expectation — and one Wisconsinites share — that elected officials in this state treat others with civility and respect. The speaker's behavior today fell woefully short of those expectations."

At least 10 Republican lawmakers have joined in calls for Wolfe to step down. Wolfe told The New York Times that the Republicans' goal was to "pressure nonpartisan election administrators like me into resigning or vacating the election space so we can be replaced by political actors who can be convinced to carry out a partisan mission."

The Republican calls come as some in the party are still seeking to somehow undo the results of the election more than a year after votes were cast and counted. A former judge who has pushed voter fraud conspiracy theories is leading an investigation into unsubstantiated allegations of fraud and some Trump allies are further demanding an Arizona-style "audit," even after the effort in Maricopa County effort revealed nothing untoward.

Republican Assemblymember Tim Ramthun, who sits on the Committee on Constitution and Ethics, last week introduced a resolution to reclaim "Wisconsin's 10 fraudulent electoral ballots cast for Joseph R. Biden and Kamala Harris" and conduct a "full forensic physical and cyber audit of the 2020 general election." Lawyers for the Republican-led legislature explained to lawmakers earlier this month that "there is no mechanism in state or federal law for the Legislature to reverse certified votes cast by the Electoral College and counted by Congress."

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a staunch Trump ally who has promoted baseless voter fraud allegations, wants the legislature to go even further and seize total control of the state's elections, based on his reading of the U.S. Constitution. He has even argued that Evers could not stop Republicans from taking over federal elections if they wanted to.

"It says state legislatures, and so if I were running the joint — and I'm not — I would come out and I would just say, 'We're reclaiming our authority' … I think the state Legislature has to reassert, reclaim this authority over our election system," Johnson told the Journal-Sentinel, echoing an argument rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1932 and the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 1964. Johnson told The New York Times that he made the call because he believes that Democrats cheat, offering no evidence to support his allegation. Though Republicans have repeatedly accused Democrats of voter fraud or without evidence, numerous voters have been charged with illegally voting for Trump, though cases of fraud are extremely rare.

Republican leaders say they are unsure Johnson's plan could work, but they're not ruling it out.

"The idea of somehow that we're going to take over elections and do all those things, I've never studied that," Vos told the Wisconsin State Journal. Asked if the legislature could get around the Democratic governor, Vos said, "I have no idea."

State Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu told WISN he is not sure there is a "legal opportunity" to execute Johnson's plan and is "not sure how that would work."

David Canon, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the outlet that the legislature would have to rewrite the entire election law, which it has the power to do, but that Evers could veto any such legislation.

Johnson's idea, which is rooted in the obscure "Independent State Legislatures doctrine," has grown increasingly popular among Trump allies. The theory posits that the Constitution gives state legislatures alone the power to set all election laws. "Taken to its natural extreme, it holds that election laws set by state legislatures supersede any rights guaranteed in state constitutions or even initiatives passed by voters," David Daley, a senior fellow at FairVote, and Gaby Goldstein, co-founder of the progressive group Sister District, wrote in a Salon op-ed earlier this year. "It effectively concludes that there can be no possible checks and balances on state legislatures' authority when it comes to election law."

This formerly fringe theory has been embraced in right-wing circles by groups like the Federalist Society and its Honest Elections Project and effectively by some conservative lawmakers who want to give legislators the power to choose electors if election results are "unclear." The idea has gained some support among conservatives on the Supreme Court as well. Even if Johnson's proposal is unsuccessful in Wisconsin, voting advocates worry that such schemes could soon be exported to other states.

"This is all part of a coordinated and well-funded strategy to enlarge the power of state legislatures," Daley and Goldstein wrote. "Now these bodies are taking advantage of any audacious power play they can imagine — or any wild-eyed reading of the U.S. Constitution — that might keep themselves entrenched in office, no matter how outrageous the scheme or how antithetical it may be to the founding ideals they claim to venerate."

Pence and the Republican Governors Association are set to defy TrumpWorld

Former Vice President Mike Pence vowed last week to support sitting Republican governors against primary challengers backed by former President Trump, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Trump has raged in recent months against Republican governors who he believes were insufficiently loyal, or did not do enough to help him overturn his election loss, backing primary challenges to former close allies like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. But Pence, himself the former governor of Indiana, told the Republican Governors Association (RGA) last week that he plans to back sitting governors that drew his former running mate's ire.

"I want to be clear," Pence told the group in a private speech, according to the Journal. "I'm going to be supporting incumbent Republican governors."

Though Pence has consistently defended Trump since leaving office — without directly discussing his refusal to block certification of the Electoral College votes on Jan. 6 — there is an undeniable tension between the two camps as both reportedly mull potential 2024 presidential bids. Trump has not done much to repair the strained relationship, even defending Capitol rioters who chanted "Hang Mike Pence" in a recent interview.

Democrats say the intra-party discord could help them in a cycle where Republicans are otherwise poised to expand their power.

"These extreme primary challengers are going to push Republican governors further to the right and out of the mainstream," David Turner, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, told the Journal. "The political environment is only going to improve for Democrats."

Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for Trump, told the outlet that the former president will continue to be an "active and defining voice in gubernatorial races" against "radical Democrats" and "weak Republicans."

"Just like in cycles previous, successful Republican candidates must earn the support of President Donald J. Trump," Budowich said.

But some Republican incumbents are instead trying to distance themselves from Trump. A growing number of Republicans view Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin's victory earlier this month, in which the Republican refused to campaign with Trump or endorse his false claims about the 2020 election, as a sign that they don't need the former president's support to win.

The RGA, which spent $14 million backing Youngkin, plans to spend millions to fend off primary challenges to incumbents, according to the Journal. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who recently dealt a blow to the party's hopes of regaining the Senate by announcing he would run for re-election rather than against Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, also said he would back incumbents and criticized the Trump faction's campaign to unseat sitting conservatives. He even left open the door to a potential 2024 primary campaign against Trump in an interview with The New York Times.

"When the pandemic hit, no one had ever experienced anything like that," Sununu told the Journal. Republican governors "did a phenomenal job and to try to play politics after that — with those records of success — is a shame."

Trump has frequently groused about so-called RINOs, or "Republicans in name only," for a variety of reasons. None has drawn more anger than Kemp, whom Trump blames for resisting his demands to help overturn Joe Biden's narrow victory in Georgia. Though numerous recounts and probes failed to find any evidence of Trump's baseless claim that the election was stolen, Trump has pushed former Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who lost his own runoff race in January after Trump spread conspiracy theories that the state's elections were rigged, to run against Kemp in next year's Republican primary.

Kemp lamented in an interview with the Journal that the attacks from Trump have undermined his conservative credentials, even after he signed draconian new voting restrictions inspired by the former president's conspiracy theories and challenged Biden's vaccine mandates.

"It's insane," Kemp told the Journal.

The former president is also backing former TV anchor Kari Lake, a rabid conspiracy theorist who has echoed his false claim that the election was stolen, to replace outgoing Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who also rejected Trump's demands to help him overturn the results of the election. Ducey, who cannot run again due to term limits, told the Journal that he may "get involved" in the primary as well.

Trump recently threw his support behind Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who has feuded with Gov. Brad Little, a fellow Republican, over COVID policies, and even tried to seize power and overrule Little's decisions while he was out of the state.

Trump is also backing former Rep. Geoff Diehl, a former Massachusetts co-chair of Trump's campaign who lost a 2018 Senate bid against Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., by 25 points, in a potential primary against Gov. Charlie Baker, a moderate Republican and frequent Trump critic. Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, a Trump loyalist, has launched a primary bid against Gov. Mike DeWine, another Republican who has criticized Trump and blamed him for the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

A new name to surface on Trump's hit list is Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, according to the report. Trump blames Ivey — a staunchly conservative Republican — for a state commission decision that prevented him from holding a rally last July at the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park. The commission said it canceled the rally because the facility, which houses a World War II battleship and other historic military aircraft, cannot be used for political events. A spokesperson for Ivey denied that she had anything to do with the decision. But Trump has met with Lynda Blanchard, who served as his ambassador to Slovenia — the home country of Melania Trump, to drops a possible endorsement if she drops her potential U.S. Senate campaign and runs against Ivey instead.

Members of the RGA are increasingly concerned that Trump's revenge tour could hurt their chances in upcoming races.

"It's outrageous, unacceptable and bad for the party," Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, the former RGA chairman, told the Times, labeling the former president's retaliation campaign "Trump cancel culture."

Arizona and West Virginia stand to win big from BBB: Do Manchin and Sinema value corporations over their own constituents?

Arizona and West Virginia would stand to gain a great deal from President Biden's Build Back Better package but holdout Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin — the two "centrist" Democrats who represent those states — still haven't committed to supporting the plan, even after extracting major concessions.

On Friday, the House passed Biden's $1.75 trillion package, including climate measures, health care and affordable housing investments, and child care funding. But the bill still faces major changes in the Senate, where Manchin and Sinema have led the charge to gut Biden's initial $3.5 trillion proposal. Sinema hinted that she still may not be on board with the House version of the bill, telling The Washington Post that it was "not the agreement the president put out in his framework." Manchin has raised "concerns" for months about the size of the bill, the scope of proposed policy changes and the risks of inflation, calling for the party to delay the bill until next year.

Both senators' constituencies have a lot to gain in the bill, according to a new report from the progressive advocacy group Accountable.US. Arizona is home to the largest number of Native Americans of any state in the country, and stands to benefit from more than $5 billion in investments in Native communities in Biden's plan. The plan would also provide more than $4 billion to invest in the country's national parks, a key issue for Sinema. The proposal would also help alleviate West Virginia's growing senior care staff shortages, according to another report from the group. And the paid family and medical leave proposal, which Manchin, opposes would be a boon to the 61% of West Virginia workers who have no access to unpaid leave.

"Sens. Manchin and Sinema may never get this opportunity again to deliver a real chance at a better life and better care for tens of thousands of their constituents," Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, said in a statement to Salon. "It makes no sense to squander this moment to vastly expand access to paid leave and improve child and senior care in their states because of unrelated complaints from a handful of wealthy special interests."

Sinema opposed Biden's initial proposal to invest $3.5 trillion in social programs, health care and measures to combat climate change, pushing to remove proposed tax increases on the wealthy and corporations that would fund much of the plan. Sinema's intervention in the Democrats' proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices also saved the pharmaceutical industry about $450 billion, at taxpayer expense, while making it more difficult to raise needed revenues. Although Sinema has privately told Democrats that she is "supportive" of the overall plan, according to Politico, she still won't commit to voting for it.

Sinema's constituents have tried to pressure the senator to get on board with the Democrats' agenda as the party tries to hammer out a deal before Thanksgiving. Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, the largest Native tribe in the country, urged Congress to pass the BBB, and Diné community leader Lena Fowler wrote an op-ed calling on Sinema to support the plan.

"Some of the Senate chamber's swing votes have said that the cost of the tax and spending package is too high," Fowler wrote, "but the cost is far greater for our communities if we don't act now."

The BBB would invest more than $2.3 billion in Native American health initiatives, including the Indian Health Service, according to Accountable.US. It would provide $1.67 billion for tribal housing, infrastructure and community development, and includes at least $485 million for climate resilience, conservation and drought relief specifically targeting Native communities, $200 million in grants for Native American language educators, and $523 million in other benefits to Native communities.

"The 'Build Back Better' package includes expanded clean energy, water and other climate priorities that are not part of the bipartisan infrastructure plan," Arizona state Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, a member of the Navajo Nation, wrote in an op-ed. "While the bipartisan infrastructure plan includes important broadband, energy and infrastructure improvements, it doesn't go nearly far enough to protect us."

The BBB also includes over $500 billion to combat climate change, which Sinema herself has called the "most important" part of the package, and billions more for national parks. Arizona has three national parks, including the Grand Canyon, and four national monuments overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Arizona is the fourth fastest-warming state in the country, according to a recent analysis, and experienced a record number of heat deaths last year. A 2018 study found that temperatures at national parks are increasing at double the national rate. Grand Canyon, one of the most visited national parks in the country, could face water shortages and potential ecosystem collapse due to climate change, according to local researchers. Sinema has said that "Arizona's economy depends on protecting the Grand Canyon and ensuring it remains a safe and stunning part of our state for generations to come."

The National Parks Conservation Association last month called on Congress to pass the BBB to protect public lands from "irrevocable damage due to climate change."

The latest version of the BBB would provide more than $4 billion to the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management to address nationwide staffing shortages, conservation, habitat restoration, wildfire management and maintenance projects, according to the Accountable.US report.

"National parks and communities are on fire, underwater and inundated by storms. We need climate action now," Chad Lord, the senior director of environmental policy and climate change for the NPCA, said in a statement. "This framework includes historic investments in our clean energy future and climate resilience measures for parks ravaged by flood, fire and drought. It would create jobs and drive investment in communities hit hardest by pollution."

Sinema has largely remained silent in public during BBB negotiations but hit back at critics this week for trying to push her to the left. "No one tells me what to do," she told the Washington Post. In a separate interview with Politico, she criticized Democratic leaders for overpromising on legislation they could not deliver (in part because of Sinema's opposition) but vowed to continue to negotiate in "good faith."

Manchin has also refused to commit to the bill, even though party leaders have acquiesced to many of his demands. In recent weeks he has raised concerns about inflation even though rating agencies say the package would not add to inflationary pressure. But the package includes funding that would be a big help to many people in West Virginia, which is one of the poorest states in the nation and has one of the oldest populations.

West Virginia faces a dire shortage of senior care workers and a "perfect storm" of staffing challenges as a result of worker shortages and burnout, Marty Wright, CEO of the West Virginia Health Care Association, said earlier this month. The COVID pandemic has pushed West Virginia facilities to the "breaking point," he told The Herald-Dispatch last month.

BBB includes $150 billion to expand access to home-based care for millions of older adults, including funding to strengthen the direct care workforce. It also allocates funding to "recruit and retain" direct care workers and help "address the direct care workforce shortage." The bill also provides more than $1 billion to help fund services for older Americans and those with disabilities.

"This historic legislation is the biggest expansion of the social safety net for seniors and their families in five decades," Max Richtman, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said in a statement. "It expands Medicare benefits, lowers prescription drug prices, and adds billions of new dollars for seniors to receive care in their homes and communities — improvements supported by majorities of Americans across party lines.… It is now up to Senate Democrats to get this done."

But the package that passed the House last week could see significant changes in the Senate. The House bill includes four weeks of paid family and medical leave, which Manchin has repeatedly ruled out, saying he supports a paid leave policy but wants it done in a "bipartisan way," rather than in the budget reconciliation bill. "We just can't be spending so much money," he recently argued to paid leave advocates. He has told Democratic colleagues that the bill could hurt small businesses or "invite fraud," The Post reported last month.

West Virginians would greatly benefit from a paid leave program. About 61% of the state's workers are not eligible even for unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, a nonpartisan research organization. The state has a nine-percentage point gap in labor force participation between men and women, in part because of the "lack of family-friendly policies," according to the group. Nationwide, women stand to lose more than $60 billion per year from lower labor force participation and lower work hours due to a lack of family leave protections, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. This trend could worsen amid the pandemic. West Virginia lost nearly three times as many women to unemployment last year, compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and other women senators leading the legislation have continued to lobby Manchin to compromise on the issue, but he has so far refused. Gillibrand is now even reaching out to female Republican senators, such as Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, in hopes of securing a bipartisan compromise separate from the BBB as a result of Manchin's refusal, according to Axios.

"It is just the opposite of what a senator from West Virginia ought to be doing right now," Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, said in a news conference earlier this month. "He ought to be championing everything in this legislation and everything that has been cut out because he said that we can't afford it. But he was the one who stopped the way to afford it, which is for rich people to pay something, for heaven's sake.

"Everything is upside down. None of it makes any sense until you remember how big money pays for politics in this country. That's the only thing that enables this to make any sense at all: that money owns our politicians right now."

Manchin and Sinema have both come under fire for their ties to industry groups who have spent millions to kill provisions in the bill. Manchin has taken more than $1.5 million in donations from groups opposed to the BBB, according to an analysis by Accountable.US, while Sinema has taken nearly $1 million.

"Rich corporations and billionaires don't need any more special treatment," Herrig told Salon, "but everyday people in West Virginia and Arizona could benefit tremendously from a more level playing field under Build Back Better — and Manchin and Sinema hold the key."

'Most Wanted' Capitol rioter seeks political asylum in Belarus after fleeing FBI: report

A California man charged with participating in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot is seeking asylum in Belarus, according to a state TV report from that autocratic former Soviet nation.

Evan Neumann was charged in March with six federal offenses, including assaulting law enforcement officials, engaging in physical violence in a restricted building or grounds, and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. The FBI said in court documents filed in July that Neumann spent four hours at the riot, punched police officers and used a metal barricade as a "battering ram" against cops who were trying to hold off the mob.

An anonymous family friend identified Neumann to the FBI and agents questioned him at the San Francisco airport in February. Neumann, who owns a handbag business in Northern California, admitted that he flew to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 5 but declined to answer questions about the riot, according to the FBI. Prosecutors initially asked a judge to seal the case in March to avoid tipping off Neumann to their investigation, but in June prosecutors expressed concern that he was "actively attempting to evade arrest."

Neumann, who was then added to the FBI's Most Wanted list, sold his Bay Area home in April for $1.3 million and fled to Ukraine, KGO-TV reported in July. This week, he resurfaced in a report on Belarus state TV after apparently seeking asylum in that country, which is led by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been widely criticized for human rights abuses and is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. A TV presenter described Neumann as a business owner whose shops were burned by Black Lives Matter activists and "who sought justice, asked uncomfortable questions, but lost almost everything and is being persecuted by the U.S. government." Neumann, the presenter said, "illegally crossed the Belarus border and is seeking protection."

"A U.S. citizen is seeking asylum in Belarus. It sounds incredible but it is a fact," the presenter said.

Neumann claimed in an interview with the outlet that he has many friends in the U.S. government who tipped him off after the FBI published his photo and asked the public to help identify him.

"I knew that they would immediately identify me and left first thing," he said. "I started hiding, traveling across America from one point to another. I hired a lawyer. And the lawyer said that I could go to Europe on a business trip. … The lawyer said it was good because it would buy time. And then it will become clear what is happening with my affairs. After all, no court proceedings were carried out. So, in order to understand what was happening, I left."

Neumann said he traveled through multiple countries in March before reaching Ukraine, where he rented an apartment. Neumann claimed that after four months there, he came under scrutiny by Ukrainian authorities. He said he hiked through the Ukrainian wilderness, encountering swamps, wild boars and aggressive snakes, to the Belarus border, where he was detained by authorities on Aug. 15.

Neumann is seeking protection from the Belarus government, according to the report. He said he was hurt by the allegation that he hit a police officer, claiming it was a baseless charge. In fact, he disputed that any of the Jan. 6 protesters were responsible for breaking into the Capitol, suggesting that it might have been a government setup.

The state TV outlet claimed that at least three U.S. citizens have applied for asylum in Belarus this year. Lukashenko, who has been labeled "Europe's last dictator," was accused of stealing an election last year before staged a wide crackdown on opposition protests and journalists, even faking a terrorist threat to ground a Ryanair flight carrying a blogger who was then detained for "inciting unrest."

Despite Neumann's denial, the FBI said in court documents that police body-cam videos show Neumann at the Capitol riot, wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat and a gas mask as he confronted officers trying to block a mob of protesters with a metal barricade. He accused the officers of supporting "antifa" and warned that they would be "overrun" by the crowd.

"I'm willing to die, are you?" he told an officer, according to the court documents, before grabbing the metal barricade.

"As (the officer) attempts to pull the metal barricade out of Neumann's hands," the court filing said, "Neumann, now using the barricade as a battering ram, lifts the barricade off the ground and rushes toward (the officer) and the other officers, crossing into the now-broken police line and striking them with the barricade."

'Is he embarrassed?': Biden baits Trump in mocking speech for the Virginia governor's race

President Joe Biden on Tuesday called out Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin for trying to distance himself from former President Donald Trump in his bid to win the increasingly blue state.

Youngkin has tried to walk a fine line in his race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe, hoping to avoid alienating both the Trump base that he needs to turn out on Election Day and independent and suburban voters who view the former president far less favorably. The former private equity executive has not campaigned with Trump and at one point even seemingly sought to tie McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, to the ex-president, prompting Trump to reassert his "complete and total" endorsement for Youngkin's campaign.

"Terry's opponent has made all of his private pledges of loyalty to Donald Trump. But what is really interesting to me is he won't stand next to Donald Trump now that the campaign is on," Biden said during a McAuliffe rally in Arlington. "Think about it. He won't allow Donald Trump to campaign with him in this state… He is willing to pledge his loyalty to Trump in private, why not in public? What is he trying to hide? Is there a problem with Trump being here? Is he embarrassed?"

During the Republican primary campaign, Youngkin refused to acknowledge Biden's election victory and has called for a voting machine "audit," an apparent signal toward Trump's false claims of fraud — especially since Virginia conducts such audits on a regular basis. Biden on Tuesday argued that Youngkin has "embraced" Trump's "big lie."

"I ran against Donald Trump. And Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump," Biden said. "Terry's opponent doesn't like to talk about him very much now, but to win the Republican nomination, he embraced Donald Trump. He started his campaign by saying that the No. 1 issue in the race was… election integrity. Now, why did he do that? Because he wanted to hear Donald Trump? It was a price he'd have to pay for the nomination, and he paid it. But now, he doesn't want to talk about Trump anymore. Well, I do."

Former President Barack Obama also hit the campaign trail for McAuliffe over the weekend, calling out Youngkin's attempt to dance around Trump's false election claims.

"Either [Youngkin] actually believes in the same conspiracy theories that resulted in a mob, or he doesn't believe it but he is willing to go along with it, to say or do anything to get elected," Obama said on Saturday. " And maybe that's worse ... because that says something about character."

Christian Martinez, a spokesperson for Youngkin, told NBC News that Obama's speech promoted "the fantasies of Terry and the left because they can't run on their failed record and radical vision for the future."

The McAuliffe campaign has seized on Youngkin's attempt to distance himself from Trump, who is widely unpopular in Virginia, where Biden won by 10 points last year and Democrats have dominated most recent statewide elections. McAuliffe, who previously served as the state's governor from 2014 to 2018, has offered to pay for Trump's travel expenses so the ex-president can campaign for Youngkin. Democrats have also sent out mailers touting Trump's endorsement of Youngkin.

But despite Biden's popularity in 2020, his approval in Virginia has slipped nine points from earlier this year to 48%, according to a recent Morning Consult poll. McAuliffe won his 2013 race by just two points, and polls currently show him with a very slim 1.5-point lead, according to FiveThirtyEight's polling average. (Virginia governors may not run for re-election, but a former governor is not barred from seeking the office again.)

Youngkin has largely focused the final days of the campaign on education amid widespread conservative panic over "critical race theory," calling for parents to dictate their children's school curriculum. McAuliffe fired back at a recent debate, arguing that parents should not be "telling schools what they should teach." Youngkin this week launched a new ad featuring a mother who tried to get Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel "Beloved" banned from schools, claiming that her nearly college-aged son suffered from "night terrors" due to the book's graphic depiction of slavery. The state legislature twice passed bills that would allow parents to opt their children out of reading books with explicit content but McAuliffe vetoed both bills.

"Just look how he's closing his campaign," Biden said on Tuesday. "He's gone from banning a woman's right to choose to banning books written by a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize-winning author, Toni Morrison."

Obama also attacked Youngkin for focusing on manufactured outrage over school curricula.

"We don't have time to be wasting on these phony trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage that right-wing media peddles to juice their ratings," he said Saturday. "And the fact that he's willing to go along with it, instead of talking about serious problems that actually affect serious people. That's a shame."

Not just Sinema: This Democratic senator took $1M from pharma — and shoots down bill to lower drug costs

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., one of the top recipients of campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry, said last week that he won't support a House plan to allow Medicare to negotiate lower drug costs as part of President Biden's Build Back Better plan.

Menendez told NBC News' Sahil Kapur last week that he is a "no" on H.R. 3, a longtime Democratic priority that was advanced earlier this year by the House Ways and Means Committee. The bill would save $456 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office, which Democrats hope to use to pay for other priorities in the bill like expanding Medicare coverage and health care access.

Menendez told Salon on Friday that the House bill "does not currently have a pathway to pass the House of Representatives," where Democrats hold a razor-thin majority. He did not rule out supporting legislation to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and is waiting to see the plan being drafted by Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who announced that he was working on a compromise solution earlier this year amid pushback from lawmakers in states with a heavy pharmaceutical industry presence. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, told Politico that the legislation had already been "eviscerated" in negotiations under pressure from Big Pharma-aligned Democrats.

"Sen. Wyden is working on the Senate proposal, the principles of which he laid out earlier this summer and they are not H.R. 3," Menendez said in a statement to Salon. "I continue to wait to see what proposal comes out of the Senate Finance Committee, which I expect will include language to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices. I continue to believe the focus must be lowering patient costs, and that will drive my analysis of any proposal."

Menendez told NJ Advance Media earlier this week that allowing Medicare to negotiate prices would not guarantee that consumers would pay lower costs, saying that his goal was to "ensure that the consumer at the counter gets relief and not just simply the government."

The House proposal was introduced by Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J. In an official statement, the committee pushed back against Menendez's argument that the bill does not provide relief for consumers.

"H.R. 3 would lower prescription drug prices for both seniors on Medicare and Americans with private health insurance," a committee spokesperson told Salon. "It empowers the federal government to negotiate fair prices for Medicare and makes those prices available to private health insurance plans. As a result, consumers would finally pay lower prices at the pharmacy counter."

As the committee statement later emphasized, the CBO has estimated that H.R. 3 would lower both prescription drug prices and health insurance premiums, and that prices would decrease by nearly 55% for the first group of drugs negotiated by the federal government. "It's clear that negotiation is the most meaningful way to rein in out of control prescription drug prices in the United States," the statement concluded.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., a leading proponent of the drug pricing bill and chief deputy whip for the Democratic House majority, told Salon in an interview that the legislation would in all likelihood ultimately include private health plans, thanks to pressure from employers who shoulder a "significant burden" from the cost of prescription drugs. His goal, he said, was to "make certain that employers get premium reductions," but added that applying Medicare costs to private plans could run afoul of budgetary rules.

"I definitely want consumers to get relief, as well as taxpayers and employers," Welch said. "The goal that Sen. Menendez is outlining is one I share."

Welch said H.R. 3 would accomplish that goal but acknowledged that as things stand the bill did not have enough votes to pass both chambers of Congress.

"We're going to have to make some modifications and we're in the process," he said adding that the goal of "having this benefit consumers" was the most important ingredient.

The Senate framework for the final bill is expected to include some Medicare negotiation and a cap on out-of-pocket costs, David Mitchell, the founder of the patient advocacy group Patients for Affordable Drugs Now, told Salon.

But Politico reported last Friday that pressure from pharma-backed lawmakers, including Menendez, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., is likely to force Democrats to make major concessions on the number of drugs that could be negotiated.

Welch told Salon that negotiators are trying to address concerns about innovation raised by lawmakers from districts with a large pharmaceutical presence, like Peters, who represents San Diego and some of its affluent suburbs.

Mitchell, however, dismissed those concerns as a Big Pharma talking point. "Pharma itself reports that it expects to spend $300 billion on marketing and advertising," he said. Of the $500 billion in corporate profits that even the most aggressive bill, H.R. 3, might have taken in revenue, pharmaceutical companies "could cover $300 billion of that by reducing marketing and advertising expenditures" and deploying them to research and development.

Lawmakers like Peters and Schrader have lobbied to exclude drugs from being negotiated during their period of exclusivity, which can last as long as 12 years, and to limit the negotiations to drugs listed in Medicare part while excluding Part D, which purchases four times as many drugs.

"This provision would not fulfill the Democrats' promise to help patients and all Americans by allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices," Audrey Baker, a spokesperson for Patients for Affordable Drugs Now, told Salon. "It would rob Medicare-negotiation legislation of its impact and would leave patients continuing to suffer from high drug prices.

"To be abundantly clear, a bill that does not allow negotiation on drugs covered by both Medicare parts B and D and on drugs still in their period of exclusivity is not a negotiation bill, and will not deliver the relief patients need."

The final legislation is also likely to drop a proposed excise tax on pharmaceutical companies that refuse to negotiate, according to Politico. Schrader told the outlet that the bill is expected to keep "just a little bit of negotiation."

Menendez and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., previously introduced their own drug pricing plan. While H.R. 3 would cap seniors' out-of-pocket costs at $2,000, Menendez's bill would set a cap at $3,100, but would not allow Medicare to negotiate prices.

The pharmaceutical industry has supported legislation that would cap out-of-pocket costs but would not allow for any price negotiation, which Mitchell called the "pharma scam."

"Pharma and the Menendez-Cassidy bill both aim to do this thing where pharma wants to be able to charge whatever it wants, don't lower prices [and] someone else pays for it," he said. As a result, Mitchell said, consumers would never see how high the prices are, but "the fact is, I will wind up paying for them as a patient, either through higher premiums, higher taxes or less money in our paychecks."

Menendez, whose state is home to headquarters for 14 of the 20 largest pharmaceutical companies and more than 300,000 industry jobs, has been one of the top beneficiaries of Big Pharma's tsunami of campaign contributions over the last two years as the drug bill has moved closer to passing. Menendez has raised more than $1.1 million from the pharmaceutical industry over his career, and leads all senators in campaign contributions from the industry this election cycle, with more than $50,000 — even though he's not up for re-election until 2024.

This spring, as the bill made its way through Congress, Menendez received contributions of at least $1,000 each from the CEOs of eight top drug companies, including more than $5,000 from the heads of Pfizer and Merck, Stat News reported earlier this year. The pharmaceutical industry also spent more than $170 million on lobbying in the first six months of the year, more than any other industry, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

"While it might be true that the Senator has received donations from the pharmaceutical industry, as many other Senators have, it's no secret that New Jersey is considered the 'Medicine Chest of the World,'" a spokesman for Menendez said in a statement to Salon.

"The work the pharmaceutical industry does in the state is vital for the innovation of lifesaving therapies in general and specifically for New Jersey's economy, employing over 300,000 people. In spite of this, the Senator's focus is clear and has repeatedly urged the pharmaceutical companies publicly and privately to be part of the solution when it comes to tackling the high cost of prescription drugs."

Menendez has joined Sinema in opposing the House bill, but while he has left open the possibility of supporting a provision for Medicare negotiation, other Democrats have said that Sinema does not yet favor "any proposal to deal with prescription drugs." Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., one of the driving forces in seeking to slash Biden's $3.5 trillion proposal, has said he supports the Medicare negotiation legislation, telling reporters earlier this month that it "makes no sense at all" that Medicare is not allowed to negotiate drug costs.

Peters and Schrader, two of the biggest recipients of Big Pharma cash in the House, voted against the bill in committee and are pushing their own alternative to drastically cut the number of drugs that Medicare could negotiate and the amount it could save. Sinema, who has raised over $750,000 from the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, has opposed that proposal as well, even though she campaigned for her seat in 2018 on a promise to lower prescription drug costs. "I'm trying to get her to come my way because I think frankly, I think it would just be good to put this issue to rest," Peters recently told Politico.

A spokesperson for Menendez sought to distance him from the other Democrats who are endangering Biden's proposal.

"Senator Menendez has never once said he will oppose allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices in the reconciliation package," the spokesperson told Salon. "Throughout this process he's been clear on his priorities to address this issue in a way that benefits consumers at the pharmacy counter, not just providing savings for the government. He's certainly not one of the Democrats in the Senate threatening to derail the President's agenda and continues to work closely with his colleagues to advance multiple priorities in the reconciliation package to deliver results for New Jerseyans. He remains laser-focused on ensuring this package benefits all of New Jersey."

But pressure from Menendez and others to change the drug-pricing proposal likely means that Democrats will be unable to raise as much revenue as they had hoped to pay for other top priorities.

Doggett, who chairs a Ways and Means health subcommittee, questioned this week whether it was worth passing the legislation at all "if it's going to be some meaningless thing."

Welch said the final bill is also likely to cut revenue significantly for other Democratic priorities.

"The less savings we have, the more difficult it is for us to increase access to health care through lowering premiums and the ACA, expanding Medicaid in states that don't have it, expanding Medicare to include hearing, dental and vision," he told Salon. "The money we save by getting fair pricing in pharma would be immensely beneficial to our prospects of expanding health care."

This Billionaire donor who funded Jan. 6 group is now pouring dark money into Glenn Youngkin campaign

A billionaire Trump donor who funded a group that marched on the Capitol ahead of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot is bankrolling a dark-money group boosting Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin's attacks on Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe.

The Republican-aligned Restoration PAC this week launched new ads attacking McAuliffe, who served a previous term as governor, over crime rates. (Virginia's unusual term limits restrict governors to one term, but does not bar them from running again after leaving office.) The PAC has spent $1.767 million funding ads against McAuliffe, making it by far the largest independent expenditure group in the race.

The group is funded almost entirely by Republican mega-donor Richard Uihlein, co-founder of the Wisconsin shipping supply giant Uline. Uihlein contributed $24.5 million to the group in the 2020 election cycle, making up 97% of its funding, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. He put another $1.5 million into the group in May, according to FEC filings.

Uihlein and his wife Liz are among the biggest Republican donors in the country, having given more than $65 million to former President Donald Trump, Republican candidates and conservative groups since 2019. The Uihleins have also contributed $4.3 million over the past five years to the Tea Party Patriots, including $800,000 in October 2020, making them by far the group's biggest donors. The Tea Party Patriots participated in the "March to Save America" rally that preceded the Capitol riot and were one of 11 groups listed as part of the "#StopTheSteal coalition," according to WBEZ. The group also contributed to Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who was accused by "Stop the Steal" organizer Ali Alexander of helping plan the rally, which Brooks has denied. Tea Party Patriots also contributed to Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who led objections to the certification of Electoral College results in the Senate.

Restoration PAC last month also gave $942,000 to Women Speak Out Virginia — 2021, a PAC affiliated with the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List that launched a $1.4 million campaign to attack McAuliffe on abortion.

Uihlein's foundation also contributed $275,000 to Trump booster Charlie Kirk's Turning Point Action between 2014 and 2016. The group was listed as a participant in the Capitol protest and Kirk took credit for "sending 80+ buses full of patriots to DC to fight for this president" in a since-deleted tweet.

Turning Point Action also previously received $50,000 from the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative dark-money group that helped Trump fill federal courts with conservative judges and is pushing to restrict voting. The group also funds the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), giving it $2.1 million last October and a total of $12.7 million since 2014. RAGA's fundraising arm, the Rule of Law Defense Fund, sent out robocalls urging supporters to "march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal" on Jan. 6.

The Judicial Crisis Network has multiple legal aliases it uses for other initiatives, including The Concord Fund and Free to Learn Action. That latter group has launched a $1 million ad campaign focused on "critical race theory" in schools, an issue Youngkin and other conservatives have seized on. The group is spending $1 million attacking McAuliffe for arguing that parents should not dictate school curricula.

The Judicial Crisis Network is also closely aligned and shares staff with the Judicial Education Project and its Honest Elections Project, a conservative initiative pushing voting restrictions. The Judicial Education Network is almost entirely funded by the Donors Trust, a dark-money group backed by the Koch network. Donors Trust in 2019 gave more than $20 million to at least a dozen groups who would later question the results of the election. Last year, the Honest Elections Project announced a six-figure ad campaign stoking fears of a "brazen attempt to manipulate the election system for partisan advantage" before the election even happened.

Youngkin has tried to walk a fine line on Trump's election lies as he tries to solidify his Republican base without alienating independent and suburban voters in the increasingly blue state. He refused to acknowledge President Biden's election victory while seeking the Republican nomination, doing so only after he had already triumphed over Republican rivals. And while Youngkin has said he would have voted to certify the election results, he is nonetheless calling for an "audit" of voting machines in Virginia (something the state already does) and boosting election conspiracy theorists.

Youngkin, the former CEO of the private equity firm the Carlyle Group, is also the primary funder of Virginia Wins, contributing $1 million to back Republican candidates in down-ballot races. The PAC has funneled tens of thousands to candidates who attended the Stop the Steal rally, organized transportation for others to attend the event, defended Capitol rioters or pushed election conspiracy theories, Mother Jones reported on Thursday.

Youngkin did not respond to a request for comment.

"It's no surprise that some of the most powerful, pro-insurrection dark money forces are rushing to Glenn Youngkin's side in this campaign," Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for the Virginia Democratic Party, said in a statement to Salon. "They are supporting Youngkin because he's all in on their agenda — and they have full confidence that if elected, Glenn will do exactly what Donald Trump says. He belongs nowhere near the governorship."


Happy Holidays!