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Justice Department and 11 states sue Google in antitrust case: 'Long overdue'

This is a developing story and may be updated.

The U.S. Justice Department announced Tuesday an antitrust lawsuit against Google—a filing that marks the biggest case tackling tech power since the one targeting Microsoft in 1998.

The filing is joined by 11 states, all of which have Republican governors, Reuters reported.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) responded to the announcement by pointing to the House antitrust subcommittee's recent report finding that Google, along with other tech giants, hold monopoly power.

"This step is long overdue," Cicilline tweeted of the government's new lawsuit, adding, "It is time to restore competition online."

Open Markets Institute, a research and advocacy group, framed the lawsuit as a "big moment."

In a Twitter thread Monday ahead of the announcement, the group wrote that "Google... acquired its dominance of the internet search market by bribing smartphone manufacturers and wireless operators not to install rival search engines on devices they sold."



According to the Associated Press, the legal action could mark "an opening salvo ahead of other major government antitrust actions, given ongoing investigations of major tech companies including Apple, Amazon, and Facebook at both the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission."


National Democratic super PAC says it will double its spending to $12 million in battle for the Texas House

"National Democratic super PAC says it will double its spending to $12 million in battle for the Texas House" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

The national Democratic super PAC Forward Majority is doubling its spending to flip the Texas House, bringing its commitment to over $12 million.

The political action committee said in early September that it would drop $6.2 million to help Democrats capture the majority. But in an announcement first shared with The Texas Tribune, Forward Majority said it is now surging its spending to keep up with Republicans in the homestretch of the fight to control the lower chamber ahead of the 2021 redistricting process.

The Republican State Leadership Committee, the chief national GOP group focused on state legislative races, had vowed to top Forward Majority's initial $6.2 million investment, and it raised $5.3 million into a Texas-based account between July 1 and late September. Of that haul, $4.5 million came via GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam.

"The RSLC and Karl Rove aren't going to call the shots in Texas in this election," Forward Majority spokesperson Ben Wexler-Waite said in a statement, alluding to both the national GOP outfit and a state-level PAC with which Rove, the famous party strategist, is working. "Republicans are hemorrhaging millions on Texas state house races because they know their majority is in grave jeopardy and that this is the most important state in the country for redistricting."

Democrats are nine seats away from the majority, and they also have to defend the 12 seats they picked up in 2018. Forward Majority has been exclusively on offense, targeting its original $6.2 million effort at 18 Republican-held seats.

Forward Majority said its spending surge was prompted by millions of dollars in TV ad buys by Republicans in some of the most competitive districts, such as those of Republican Reps. Jeff Leach of Plano, Angie Chen Button of Richardson, Morgan Meyer of Dallas and Sarah Davis of Houston. In two of those districts — Meyer's and Davis' — Forward Majority is teaming up with Everytown for Gun Safety, the national anti-gun violence group, to try to counter increased GOP ad spending.

The ramped-up spending plan by Forward Majority reflects just how fiercely competitive the fight for the majority has become. While Democrats had plenty to boast about on the latest campaign finance reports, Republicans in general had more money to spend heading into late September, and they are getting seven-figure aid in the final weeks from not just the RSLC but also Gov. Greg Abbott's campaign.

"We've long seen several paths to flipping the Texas House and we will continue to do everything we can to ensure Democratic legislative candidates aren't drowned out by millions in special interest money," Wexler-Waite said.

Disclosure: Everytown for Gun Safety has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/10/20/texas-house-super-pac/.

The Texas Tribune is proud to celebrate 10 years of exceptional journalism for an exceptional state. Explore the next 10 years with us.

'Trumpcare' doesn't exist. That doesn't stop Big Tech from cashing in on ads for 'garbage' health insurance

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

“Trumpcare" insurance will “finally fix healthcare," said an advertisement on Facebook.

A Google ad urged people to “Enroll in Trumpcare plans. Healthcare changes are coming."

The problem is, there's no such thing as “Trumpcare."

Facebook and Google have promised to crack down on lies and misinformation about politics in the run-up to next month's presidential election, but they have run tens of thousands of ads in the past year containing false claims about health insurance reform and plans.

The “Trumpcare" ads don't appear to have a political aim and don't advocate for the reelection of President Donald Trump over former Vice President Joe Biden. Nonetheless, the Facebook ads touting these nonexistent products have been viewed some 22 million times in the past year, disproportionately in battleground states like Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to Facebook data.

The ads are placed by marketers targeting consumers — politically conservative ones in some cases — who become sales leads if they respond. Then the consumers get deluged with phone calls from brokers hawking health insurance plans that are not the comprehensive solution that's often promised, but instead are less conventional products that have traditionally been used as supplemental coverage or for when people transition between jobs.

The Affordable Care Act requires traditional health insurance plans to provide “minimal essential coverage," which includes preventive care, mental health care, substance abuse, maternity and more. The less-conventional plans are exempted from those requirements. Some of the plans are offered by name-brand companies like UnitedHealthcare, but critics say they're typically big moneymakers for the companies that can leave patients with unexpected medical bills. The plans' limitations often are not explained in the advertisements or in brokers' high-pressure sales presentations. Hundreds of complaints about the plans show up on consumer sites like the Better Business Bureau or Yelp.

“The marketing is extremely deceptive," said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown University's Center on Health Insurance Reforms. “Both the advertising and the brokers use terms that to the average consumer would make them think they are buying a comprehensive insurance plan that provides coverage if they get injured or sick. But quite often nothing could be further from the truth."

The misleading marketing may be ensnaring more consumers now, as an estimated 14 million Americans have lost employer-sponsored health benefits due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Google and companies involved in the marketing generally defended the term “Trumpcare," saying it's legitimate to use to describe the president's general philosophy about health care or his 2017 executive order that allowed short-term insurance plans to cover a time period of up to 12 months rather than three months. Facebook said the word “Trumpcare" on its own didn't violate its rules. However, Facebook and Google both initially accepted “Trumpcare" ads that, after they were flagged by ProPublica, the companies later said did violate their rules.

A ProPublica reporter responded to one of the “Trumpcare" ads and took calls from five insurance brokers. The brokers seemed to have no idea what type of ad had led to the call. They were focused on closing the deal. One said, wrongly, that “Trumpcare" was just a new name for “Obamacare." The other four acknowledged that there's no such thing as “Trumpcare."

“It's fake news," said one.

“Trumpcare" “is not even in existence yet," said another.

“They're starting to change over from 'Obamacare' to 'Trumpcare,' but it hasn't switched over yet," a third broker said.

Traditional health care plans sold under the Affordable Care Act must comply with a host of regulations, including not discriminating against people with preexisting conditions. But the plans are expensive, and some consumers may not qualify for the income-based subsidies that reduce the cost. For example, a 40-year-old single person who makes more than $50,000 would likely not qualify for a subsidy to help pay for an individual health care plan, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation Health Insurance Marketplace Calculator.

The less conventional plans — called short-term, fixed indemnity, accident-only or specified disease plans — offered by the brokers are less expensive. Some provide benefits for a short term or give a fixed payment to cover a portion of a doctor or hospital bill. Others pay out only if the beneficiary had some type of accident. A purchaser would need to read the fine print to know what they did or did not cover.

ProPublica contacted the Federal Trade Commission and insurance regulators in all 50 states and found hit-and-miss enforcement of misleading ads and sales tactics. Some states, like Delaware and Virginia, have meted out discipline for using misleading tactics to sell the limited plans. But many have not. Most who spoke to ProPublica said they have no jurisdiction over the online “lead generation" advertisers. The regulators say it's like playing “whack-a-mole," as those caught using abusive marketing tactics can simply incorporate under a new name and resume the same behavior.

Online “Lead Generators" Lure in Consumers

Identifying deceptive tactics related to health care plans is as easy as going online and looking.

Southern California marketer Stuart Millar said he's placed “Trumpcare" advertisements to join in “the gold rush of online entrepreneurship."

Millar has spent at least $350,000 on 12,500 “Trumpcare" ads from four Facebook pages with “Trumpcare"-themed names since last October. “Thanks to our President," one of them said, “U.S. health insurance companies have had to drastically drop their rates." (ProPublica can see how much Millar spent because he had proactively marked his ads as political, triggering Facebook to disclose this information.)

Millar isn't an insurance broker — one of the people who sell insurance and are regulated by the states. He's a “traffic broker," a marketer in charge of running ads to drive visitors to his clients' websites. There's little regulation of his activities. His ads have focused so much on the term “Trumpcare," he said, because it's clickbait. He called it far more attention-getting than the “left-wing one," his term for “Obamacare."

“I've got to find a fun way to make health care interesting," Millar said. “'Trumpcare' is interesting but health care in general isn't."

“Traffic brokers," like any Facebook advertiser, can select the specific demographics of the Facebook users who will see their ads.

Millar declined to get into details about how he targeted his ads, but said he mostly relied on Facebook's algorithm to find him the people who'd click. He said he tested thousands of iterations of the ad to make sure it found an audience. “What I went with was what converted," Millar said, a reference to people responding to the ads.

Some “Trumpcare" ads — not apparently linked to Millar — have been targeted at people Facebook labels as “interested in Donald Trump," according to targeting data provided by Facebook to users along with ads that are shared with the Ad Observer project.

Millar says he didn't come up with the idea of using “Trumpcare." That came from his clients, whom he wouldn't name. Many of Millar's ads led to a page featuring a red, white and blue “Trumpcare" logo on HealthPlansAmerica.org, which is owned by a company called Apollo Interactive. (The company is not a nonprofit, but anyone can buy a .org website address.)

Apollo Interactive isn't an insurance broker either. It's what's called a lead broker, yet another cog in the lightly regulated machinery of insurance “lead generation" marketing. That means it gathers profiles of people who are looking for health insurance. Those who input their information on these sites become “leads." And then they're put up for auction.

Officials from Apollo Interactive wouldn't say how the company sells leads. But Colin Sholes, an activist and former online health insurance marketer, said lead generators extract an anonymized sample of each person's data: ZIP code, age, gender. This profile, without any contact information, gets shared with potential buyers, who bid for it in an instant, automated auction. The winning bidder or bidders get the person's name and their contact information.

Leads are often sold as “shared leads" — meaning they're sold to more than one buyer at the same time. Some of the buyers are insurance brokers. Some are other lead brokers who bid so they can resell data that originated elsewhere. “It's a big web and everybody's interconnected," Sholes said. “A lot of data just floats around."

So how much is each “lead" worth? Sholes estimated that a lead for a person under 55 would cost as much as $20.

The lead might be even more valuable if it was sold as what the industry calls a “warm lead," he explained. Some companies exist just to buy leads, then have a call center agent call and, if a human picks up, the agent “warms you up," Sholes said. That means they check to make sure the consumer is interested in buying insurance. At that point the company sells the call to an insurance broker as a “warm" transfer. “A connected call," he said, might sell for up to $80.

Millar confirmed he got paid by the lead, but he refused to say how much. He did say that he made a profit on what he paid Facebook to run the ads. He was not aware of what happens to consumers who click on his ads, then purchase the health plans. “I didn't ever call in myself. I am not exactly sure how any of that works."

Facebook and Google Profit From the Misinformation

This fall, someone Googling for affordable health insurance might have come across an ad that said: “Healthcare changes are coming. Check out the new pricing tiers under the American Health Care Act."

The American Health Care Act — the bill most commonly called “Trumpcare" — failed to pass the Senate in 2017 when the terminally ill Sen. John McCain dramatically walked across the chamber's floor and gave a thumbs down, leading to the bill's defeat. So there were no new “pricing tiers" on offer, as the ad claimed, in 2020.

Those ads led to Apollo's HealthPlansAmerica.org site. Apollo Interactive attorney Chris Deatherage said in a written statement that the Google ads “appear to be old ads" from when AHCA “was actively being discussed in the legislature."

Deatherage said “Trumpcare" is an “abstract" term used to “tie together" various pieces of intended or existing legislation and policies and that Apollo's “Trumpcare" website said the term refers to Trump's “collective policy updates." He compared it to “Obamacare" — which specifically refers to the Affordable Care Act — and proposals for “Medicare for All," which are not law. He added that Apollo Interactive's website lets visitors connect with brokers who can explain the term.

Google's rules say it does not allow ads that “deceive users by excluding relevant product information or providing misleading information." Facebook says it bans ads with “deceptive, false, or misleading claims." But both accepted the “Trumpcare" promotions. Google even gave the misinformation prime real estate, with the ads as the top-listed results when people search for affordable health insurance.

Christa Muldoon, a spokeswoman for Google said, “Health care ads cannot make misleading claims about the advertiser's identity or the services they offer." She said Google removed the ads referencing AHCA under that policy after ProPublica contacted Google about them. She wouldn't explain why the company apparently let the ads run for years, despite violating Google's rules.

Until last year, Google also sold ads that lured in consumers with the phrase Healthcare.gov — the federal government site where you can purchase plans that comply with the Affordable Care Act — even though they were for private, lead-generation websites.

It's not clear how much Google earned from selling “Trumpcare" ads. Unlike Facebook, Google doesn't consider ads about “Trumpcare" political, so it doesn't publish any data about them. Muldoon would not say how much Google made from the ads.

But, she said, citing Trump's executive orders on health care, “We do not consider the phrase 'Trumpcare' alone to be misleading," so it's allowed in Google ads.

A report a year ago from Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, criticized Google and other search engines for showing ads for for-profit lead-generation sites listed above the official Healthcare.gov site when a person searched for “Obamacare" or even “Healthcare.gov." Casey called for search engines to put an “answer box" above all content, even ads, with a link to Healthcare.gov on searches for health insurance.

Muldoon hinted at a coming change to what kinds of health insurance-related ads the company will allow. She said that Google is “evaluating the health insurance space to strengthen our protections for users and prevent misleading ads."

After Newsweek flagged the Facebook ads in a blog post in August, the Lead Stories news organization published a fact-check saying that “there is no such thing as Trumpcare." That prompted Facebook to stop accepting the ads, under a policy that bans ads with content that fact-checkers have found to not be true.

Devon Kearns, a Facebook spokesperson, told ProPublica that some of the ads were removed for violating a Facebook policy that bans “scammy tactics."

But then in mid-September, more “Trumpcare" ads appeared on Facebook, from something called “National Center for Medical Records," which didn't return a request for comment. These ads led to another company's website, not Apollo's. One of them featured a smiling Trump with his arm around the shoulder of a doctor and the slogan: “Trumpcare from $1/Day."

Omissions and High-Pressure Sales

ProPublica wanted to learn more about the sales tactics involving “Trumpcare" ads, so we checked for ourselves. One of the reporters on this story, Jeremy, had been laid off in May. So he clicked on an ad in Facebook's ad transparency portal, featuring photos of a health insurance card and a tuxedoed Donald Trump with Melania Trump in a ballgown. It took him to HealthPlansAmerica.org, which prompted him to input his contact details, as well as his age, gender, address, income range and whether he had any “major medical conditions."

Jeremy is young and healthy, and he answered the questions honestly, so his information made him a hot prospect.

Jeremy entered a burner phone number that he acquired for this project — a good choice, because he got 67 phone calls the day he submitted the form; the day after, he got 46 more. The plans the brokers offered were legal, to the extent that they gave enough information to check. But to be informed, a consumer would want to know each plan's limits and exceptions and be provided with detailed information about what's covered, or not. The brokers often withheld crucial information.

Alex, from “the Enrollment Center," said his plan offered free preventive care and would let Jeremy pick his own doctor. Using the lingo of the Affordable Care Act he described the insurance as a “minimum essential coverage plan." But that's exactly what it was not. Jeremy, who is married with no children, had to ask if the plan covered maternity costs, something that might be relevant to a childless couple. Alex said that would require something else, a “major medical plan."

When Jeremy asked Alex to email the plan documents, so he could read what the plan covered or excluded, the line disconnected. Alex never called back.

When we called back several weeks later to ask for comment, the line was apparently disconnected.

Another company, “Modern Health," would not even provide a brochure about its health plans. A supervisor named Louis said he was “in charge of the company" and that it would be a violation of patient privacy laws to send information in writing about the plan. (It isn't.) Those details would supposedly have to come from the insurance company, and only after Jeremy signed up.

Anthony, who said he worked for the “National Health Enrollment Agency," also wouldn't send anything in writing. But his reason made it sound like he needed to lock in a fare on a flight that was rapidly running out of seats. “Once we disconnect the line, the companies aren't going to let me hold onto the plan," he said.

When Jeremy said he wanted to talk it over with his wife, Anthony countered: “Is she a licensed broker?" He offered to add her to the call rather than have the couple discuss it alone.

None of the salespeople volunteered the details a consumer would need to make an informed choice. Brandon, the salesman from Modern Health, for example, offered a plan from a company called “HealthShield." It's for “things like emergency surgeries, hospitalization, ambulances and prescriptions," he said. He went into painstaking detail about the amount it paid for certain items. But when asked if he'd shared everything Jeremy needed to know, he said, “It does have your essential package that a lot of people sign up for, especially at this time." Only later, when asked what category of insurance the plan fell under, did he say that “they do remove certain things, which include substance abuse, mental health and maternity benefits."

Reached for comment for this article, a man who said that his name was Brandon Greer and that he was now in charge of Modern Health said “I'm not sure" when asked if these omissions might confuse consumers. He said that the company instructs its salespeople to note the exclusions “upfront." He then ended the call.

When we tried to reach the National Health Enrollment Agency minutes later, to get a comment for this story, the phone rang at the offices of Modern Health. The person who picked up denied knowing what the National Health Enrollment Agency was and hung up when asked his name.

Omitting the details of health insurance plans can harm consumers. In August, the Government Accountability Office, the auditing and investigative unit of Congress, published a secret shopper investigation of the sales tactics for the plans. GAO investigators tested 31 brokers by using a fake persona, a person who had a preexisting condition. Eight of the 31 brokers made misstatements, the report says. One was selling the GAO investigator — who claimed to have diabetes — a health insurance plan that the broker said would cover the investigator's diabetes, but it really didn't. In a different case, the investigator told the broker that they had diabetes, but the application completed by the sales representative said there was no treatment or diagnosis for diabetes in the past five years. “This indicates that the broker may have intentionally falsified information," the report said.

The GAO didn't disclose the names of any of the brokers in its report, but it said it referred them to the Federal Trade Commission and state insurance regulators.

“Garbage" Insurance Generates Profit for Brokers and Insurance Companies

USHEALTH Advisors, one of the companies whose broker contacted Jeremy, posts videos online to show off how much money its brokers are making selling limited insurance plans.

“How much can you earn monthly at US Health Advisors?" asks one of the videos, posted by US Health Advisors Coral Springs.

“$16,000," says a bearded man in a black shirt and tie.

“$18,000," says a woman in a sleeveless top.

“$34,000," says a man in a dress shirt and tie, a family photo in the background behind him.

Then, the closer: “$42,000 — in one month," a man says.

Justin Brain, the USHEALTH benefits specialist whose number is on the US Health Advisors Coral Springs Facebook page, said commissions vary depending on a broker's “production," or sales totals. He declined to say how much the commissions were per sale, but he said the video is used for bringing in new sales recruits to “give them what's possible."

An April study by the Urban Institute found brokers making commissions of around 25% for the type of plans offered by the company. Other insurance brokers told ProPublica the commissions on some plans could be as much as 50%.

The video closes with a USHEALTH Advisors logo that adds, “A UnitedHealthcare Company." UnitedHealthcare is a massive company that provides health insurance and benefits. It's part of UnitedHealth Group, one of the largest companies in the country, with $242 billion in annual revenue in 2019. UnitedHealthcare declined to say how much the brokers made in commissions.

A USHEALTH broker pitched Jeremy a plan sponsored by Freedom Life Insurance Company of America, which is also a UnitedHealthcare company. The broker characterized the coverage as similar to Affordable Care Act plans and sent a 36-page brochure that laid out the details of the offer.

The document he sent made it clear that the Freedom Life plan would provide limited coverage that could leave a person with hefty bills. But it would take an exceptionally savvy consumer to sort through dozens of pages of insurance jargon to understand that. At ProPublica's request, Jeffrey Hogan, the Northeast regional manager for Rogers Benefit Group, a national benefits marketing firm, examined the document.

Hogan pointed out that it disclosed on Page 3 that the plans would “supplement" any “essential health benefit plan," meaning one of the more comprehensive plans sold under the Affordable Care Act. If this plan was meant as a supplement, then it would not be ideal for an uninsured couple. This was not mentioned in Jeremy's sales presentation from the Freedom Life broker.

One portion of the plan listed its “maximum" benefit for various “defined" sicknesses. It did not say what its “minimum" payment might be. The daily maximum paid under the plan for an X-ray would be $50. For a CAT scan it would be $200. For an outpatient lab it would be $30. Each of those procedures could cost many hundreds of dollars more than the maximum benefit.

Hogan called the plan a “cascading mess" of coverage for specific conditions. “I wouldn't sell this stuff if it was the last piece of garbage on earth," Hogan said.

The limited benefit, accident or defined benefit plans like the ones offered by Freedom Life are highly profitable for the companies that operate them, Hogan said. “They pay very little out on the dollar," he said.

In 2019, Freedom Life took in $171 million for Accident and Health policies covering about 291,000 people, according to a report by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Its “loss ratio" was 46%, the report said, which means Freedom Life spent less than half of what it brought in from premiums on medical claims and funding its reserves. That leaves plenty of revenue for profit and to pay commissions and fees to brokers and lead generators.

By comparison, the plans sold under the Affordable Care Act have a minimum loss ratio of 80% to 85%, meaning 80 to 85 cents of every dollar must be spent on medical care for the people paying premiums. If companies spend less, they are required to refund the difference to consumers or employers.

Hogan said that he's been selling insurance for 35 years and that it wasn't easy for him to sift through all the jargon and limits and caveats about coverage in the Freedom Life document. One of the most insidious details was “buried" on Page 22, Hogan said. That's where the company disclosed that any cost incurred as a result of a preexisting health condition would not be covered under the short-term plan included in the package. “This just makes my blood boil," Hogan said. “This hurts people."

Maria Gordon-Shydlo, a spokeswoman for UnitedHealthcare, said in an email the plans provided by USHEALTH provide “valuable health coverage options to meet people's individual financial and care needs." Its brokers present various options, including Affordable Care Act plans, to help people find the plan that's best for them, she said.

Jorie Jacobi, a 31-year-old from St. Louis, signed up for a plan through Freedom Life Insurance in 2018 when she was working as a freelance writer. She searched for affordable health insurance on Google and put in her phone number on a website that promised she'd receive quotes. She got inundated with phone calls that went on for more than a year.

Jacobi is relatively healthy, so she figured she didn't need to pay for the more comprehensive, higher-priced plans offered under the Affordable Care Act. She spoke to a USHEALTH agent selling Freedom Life and said she was under the impression at the time that the package of limited health plans provided by Freedom Life would make sense for her. Her monthly premium came to $224 — not cheap, she said.

Jacobi admits that she didn't do her due diligence when she signed up for the coverage. “I feel silly about this now, but I just trusted them," Jacobi said. She doesn't remember her exact conversations with the agent, and UnitedHealthcare said that there are no recordings of the sales calls, and that it would not provide a recording or transcript of a follow-up call. Jacobi insisted that she would have made sure she had coverage for routine visits to her internist and obstetrician-gynecologist, but after she went to the doctors she received bills for lab work that came to $311 and $710.

After about a dozen hours on the phone with Freedom Life's customer service representatives, Jacobi said the bills still hadn't been paid. So she wrote a negative review on Yelp. That led to a phone call from a company vice president who helped make sure the insurer paid the bills.

In another case, the Freedom Life plan did not cover a drug Jacobi needed. And when she needed a minor surgical procedure she learned it would not be covered by the plan, so she paid cash.

Gordon-Shydlo, the UnitedHealthcare spokeswoman, said Jacobi had selected coverage that had a lower premium but only covered specific diseases, accidents and other items. The insurer complied with its “stringent application process" and addressed Jacobi's questions and correctly paid her claims, Gordon-Shydlo said.

Jacobi is now covered by a health plan sponsored by her employer. She regrets getting caught up with Freedom Life. “It makes you feel really stupid that you fell for it," she said.

Regulators Play “Whack-a-Mole"

Frank Pyle has been chasing junk insurance companies for years as the director of market conduct enforcement for the Delaware Department of Insurance. “As soon as you take one down another one pops up in its place."

Pyle said regulators across the country are aware of misrepresentations by insurers selling limited, short term, accident and defined sickness plans.

Pyle and his team in Delaware have to get throwaway phones when they play secret shopper on the lead generating websites, because the lines get inundated with so many calls from brokers.

In one investigation, Pyle said his team listened to a random sample of 87 recorded sales calls from a particular company. At least half of them contained some form of deception, he said. The level of misrepresentation seemed to depend on the savviness of the consumer, he said. A consumer would ask if the limited plan was the same as an Obamacare plan and the broker would tell them it's just as good. If the consumer asked if the plan covered diabetes, the broker would tell them it did when it didn't, he said. The case resulted in a fine against the company, he said.

When some states identify violations, they impose weighty penalties, like fines or revoking the license of a broker. But in others the penalties are light or sometimes limited to warnings.

Numerousstateinsurance commissioners have warned consumers to “be wary of telemarketers from the 'national enrollment center,' 'national healthcare center,' or other official-sounding names."

The Virginia State Corporation Commission settled a case for $6,300 with Freedom Life that alleged the company misrepresented benefits or terms of a policy with advertising that was “untrue, deceptive or misleading" and failed to give applicants a summary of their rights. The company agreed to a corrective action plan that addressed the alleged violations, documents show. Gordon-Shydlo, the spokeswoman for UnitedHealthcare, which owns Freedom Life, said in an email that the company's brochures included notices about the limitations of the products and that the company did not admit to any violation of the law.

It was hard to find state regulatory agencies that had taken action against lead generating companies. One state insurance regulator, who spoke anonymously because he didn't want his colleagues to be criticized, said his agency “probably" has the authority to regulate the lead generators, because they are engaged in selling or soliciting the sale of insurance. “But it's something we haven't done in the past," the regulator said. “It's something that hasn't been the best use of our time."

New Mexico's superintendent of insurance issued an official warning, saying it intended to hold insurance brokers and companies responsible for “abusive marketing practices by lead generators." It also said the kinds of sales tactics used by brokers — such as referring to limited plans with terms associated with “Obamacare" plans — were misleading and deceptive, and banned them.

Corlette, the Georgetown insurance expert, said the Federal Trade Commission could take a “more aggressive" look at deceptive advertising and lead generating. An FTC spokeswoman said in an email that the agency is “concerned with illegal lead generation across the board," but could point to only five enforcement actions that related to the deceptive marketing of health care plans. Only one of the cases took place within the past five years. None involved Millar or Apollo Interactive.

The FTC's jurisdiction includes almost any sales claim that is “unfair" or is misleading and would affect a consumer's decision to buy, says Aaron Rieke, a former FTC staff attorney. Because the agency is “super understaffed for their jurisdiction," he said, its attorneys aim to take enforcement actions that yield real systemic improvement for consumers. But the fact that the lead-generation ecosystem includes many small players who buy ads on Google, Facebook and elsewhere presents a “structural challenge" — because “swatting [them] down doesn't feel like a very effective way to go."

Pyle said the state regulators should hold the insurance companies responsible for their advertising tactics, including the actions of lead generators. In 2016, the Delaware Department of Insurance fined Companion Life Insurance Company $487,000 for violations that included “deceptive acts," documents show. Many of the problems in the case came from the lead generators the insurer was paying to do the outreach to consumers, Pyle said.

A person in the Companion Life compliance department referred ProPublica to its parent organization, BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. But no one returned requests for comment.

Pyle said he's troubled that legitimate insurance giants own some of what he calls the “bad companies." “I'll be honest with you," he said. “I am surprised UnitedHealthcare is involved as much as it is."

Pyle said regulators from various states have regular meetings and are considering pursuing criminal action against insurance company executives. “If the insurance company is paying someone to work on their behalf, they are responsible for their actions," Pyle said. “You can fine these companies and they consider it the cost of doing business. But if you lock up their CEO in federal prison, they'll think twice about harming our consumers."

Imagining the unimaginable: A second term for Donald Trump

With the high-water mark of the election just 14 days away, the tragedy of Nov. 8, 2016, haunts me more and more.

Four years ago, nearly everyone, including Donald Trump himself, was convinced Hillary Clinton was all but guaranteed a resounding victory. I remember articles predicting that Clinton would win the entire East Coast, including South Carolina. Later, following the third debate of that campaign season, I distinctly recall watching Steve Schmidt on MSNBC announcing in his dramatic monotone, "Hillary Clinton will be the 45th president of the United States." Election forecasters from Nate Silver to Sabato's Crystal Ball agreed.

None of that happened, of course, for a variety of reasons, including the attack by Russian military intelligence and what I've been calling the "American nervous breakdown." Sixty-two million of our fellow citizens lost track of right and wrong — brainwashed by a daily infusion of propaganda crapped into the world by Russian troll farms and the conservative entertainment complex. Millions of us lost track of why experience and presidential character were important, and the ideals of humility, decency and honor were rejected in favor of immature trolling, and petty vengeance.

And how'd that work out, Trump voters? Our republic is in worse shape today than it's been in a century, perhaps since the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of us are dead due to Trump's herky-jerky response to a global pandemic. America is a global pariah. The economy is considerably worse than it was four years ago and 40 percent of our nation's grownups continue to be willingly suckered by a maniacal, sociopathic con man.

So sue me for being Captain Scarypants again, but despite the polls showing Joe Biden with a seemingly formidable lead, I'm still greatly concerned that Trump will somehow scam and sue his way to a second term. If he does, what will that mean for the United States?

With Trump, there's no way to know precisely what he'll do from moment to moment, much less next year or four years from now. As we've witnessed, his thing is to jump from childish vendetta to childish vendetta, and one transactional blunder after another. His actions, as always, will depend greatly on how whiny and victimized he feels. And he's always whining.

Even though there's no time-traveling DeLorean that enables us to forecast what another four years of the Trump crisis will look like, I can think of five specific things that will absolutely happen.

Trump will prosecute dissidents. He's already started with the Black Lives Matter protesters earlier this year, but now he has a real taste for it. No matter what, Trump will sue to have vote-by-mail ballots thrown out, and will appeal any adverse decisions all the way to the Supreme Court. In the process of doing so, protests will likely erupt, giving Trump his first post-election opportunity to order his secret police to gas, shoot and arrest protesters. He's already threatened to do exactly this, telling his loyalists, "Our country is gonna change. We're not gonna allow [more anti-Trump protests] to happen." Last week Trump bragged about what looked an awful lot like the extrajudicial murder of an American citizen by U.S. marshals in Washington state. Expect much more of that. As Michael Cohen wrote in his book, "Trump never actually jokes."

Conservatives will own the Supreme Court for a generation. Unless something emerges that forces her to withdraw, it looks like Amy Coney Barrett will be confirmed, giving conservatives on the high court a clear majority of 6-3. Meanwhile, Stephen Breyer, one of the three remaining Democratic appointees, is 82 years old, so it's reasonable to assume he'll retire or pass away within the next four years. Trump will name his replacement, leaving Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor as the last remaining liberals. If Clarence Thomas or Sam Alito decides to retire, Trump could add another justice or two, extending conservative control for 25 more years, and the ideological regression of America will be turbo-boosted to "ludicrous speed."

The pandemic will continue for years, not months. Trump has no intention of doing what's right. He never has. His genocidal "herd immunity" plan will continue to infect millions, while the CDC will be neutralized. In terms of a vaccine, if the scientists vouch for it, Trumpers won't take it, and if Trump vouches for it, everyone else will refuse to take it. As long as Trump is president, we'll be dealing with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future. I have no idea how our society can endure given all that, and my worst fear is that we'll have no choice but to live with the ongoing threat of infection and death.

The best approach? Assume the worst. He's given us no reason to assume otherwise. I fear he'll attempt to establish himself as the American Putin, maybe creating a new title and post for himself so he can remain in power, while juggernauting through the last roadblocks toward a full-on kleptocracy. Suffice it to say there are untold hazards ahead, with each hammer-blow further stripping away our constitutional system until America more closely resembles Russia — dismal, depressed and undemocratic.

I hope I'm wrong about all of this. But based on what we know about Donald Trump, as well as the sinister end-of-days cranks helping him along, I can't in good faith trust that things will transpire normally. We've got a Pandora's Box full of reasons to believe our country has been seized by villains who don't care whether the entire system is crushed under Trump's ponderous bulk. Given everything that's happened, I worry that they've covered their bases with election-stealing contingencies that include shenanigans we haven't even considered yet. After the shock of election night four years ago, I'm not willing to take anything for granted, including the polls.

There is also reason to believe an unprecedented coalition of American voters will successfully oust Trump, while perhaps humiliating him and his idiocratic movement back to the permanent margins of our politics. This has to be the result of the election. After all, the choice is either a decent, experienced man (who you might disagree with on policy) or a shrieking, saucer-eyed con artist who dry-heaves lies and incarcerates children while bragging to his cult about murdering American citizens. There are 14 days left to make sure it's not the latter outcome. If everything works out the way it should, I'll be thrilled to retract everything I wrote today. Please, America — make me do it.

'See you in court' money: Biden’s campaign has ‘pre-funded’ a massive legal budget

With Republicans engaging in a variety of voter suppression tactics and President Donald Trump refusing to commit to accepting the election results if they favor former Vice President Joe Biden, the Biden campaign is expecting multiple legal battles after election day. And an important part of the campaign's budget, journalists Scott Bixby and Hanna Trudo emphasize in an article published by the Daily Beast on October 20, is its legal budget.

Bixby and Trudo note that Biden's campaign entered "the final full month before the election with a record $432 million in cash on hand" — a figure the Beast attributes to a statement by campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon. Biden's campaign, according to the Beast reporters, "could suspend fundraising entirely and drop more than $20 million a day, every day, until the election without bouncing a single check."

Bixby and Trudo explain, "According to top-level donors and an ambitious schedule of upcoming fundraisers, there's no plan to slow down — just in case the trove of 'fuck you' money needs to become 'see you in court' money…. The campaign is still leaning hard on its donor network, explicitly pointing ahead to its potential need to fund legal battles in multiple states following the election."

One of the Beast's sources, described by Bixby and Trudo as a "top-level" Democratic donor, told the online publication that Biden's campaign has "pre-funded" the legal costs it anticipates. The campaign, according to the reporters, is setting aside money for legal fees because of "lingering anxieties that President Donald Trump will make good on his public statements implying that he may refuse to accept election results if he loses, which could trigger court fights in multiple states and appellate courts — the kind of legal battle that could get very expensive very quickly."

"Even if the election is wrapped up more tidily than Trump's warnings indicate," the Beast reporters point out, "legal fights over ballot access have already begun in states around the country. In Michigan alone, a court case seeking to extend the deadline for counting absentee ballots beyond 8 p.m. on Election Day seems destined for the (Michigan) Supreme Court after a state appeals court ruled, on Friday, that the extension — the result of a Democratic suit seeking to curb limits on mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic — was unnecessary."

Michael Gwin, a spokesman for Biden's campaign, told the Beast, "The Biden campaign has assembled the biggest voter protection program in history to ensure the election runs smoothly and to combat any attempt by Donald Trump to create fear and confusion with our voting system, or interfere in the democratic process. We're confident that we'll have free and fair elections this November, and that voters will decisively reject Donald Trump's erratic, divisive and failed leadership at the ballot box."

Richard H. Pildes, who teaches constitutional law at New York University Law School, observed that these days, large legal budgets are normal for political campaigns.

Pildes told the Beast, "Campaigns these days do typically set up separate funds for recounts and election contests for possible post-election litigation. The reason is that under federal election law, a campaign can raise contributions to these funds from donors who have already maxed out their contributions to the campaigns."

50+ intel experts say Hunter Biden e-mail story has all the marks of ‘Russian involvement’

Supporters of President Donald Trump are hoping that e-mails found on a laptop allegedly belonging to former Vice President Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, will be the "October surprise" that derails the older Biden's presidential campaign. The New York Post, owned by Fox News' Rupert Murdoch, published that story after receiving an alleged copy of Hunter Biden's hard drive from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — and more than 50 intelligence officials, according to Politico's Natasha Bertrand, have signed a letter saying that the story has the markings of a Kremlin propaganda operation.

Bertrand explains, "While the letter's signatories presented no new evidence, they said their national security experience had made them 'deeply suspicious that the Russian government played a significant role in this case' and cited several elements of the story that suggested the Kremlin's hand at work.'"

Intel experts who signed the letter range from Russ Travers, who served as acting director for the National Counterterrorism Center, to Rick Ledgett, former deputy director of the National Security Agency. Former Central Intelligence Agency directors or acting directors who signed the letter include John O. Brennan, Leon Panetta, Gen. Michael Hayden, John McLaughlin and Michael Morell.

The letter reads, "If we are right, this is Russia trying to influence how Americans vote in this election — and we believe strongly that Americans need to be aware of this."

The intel experts also said, "We want to emphasize that we do not know if the e-mails, provided to the New York Post by President Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, are genuine or not — and that we do not have evidence of Russian involvement… (But) there are a number of factors that make us suspicious of Russian involvement…. Such an operation would be consistent with Russian objectives, as outlined publicly and recently by the intelligence community, to create political chaos in the United States and to deepen political divisions here — but also, to undermine the candidacy of former Vice President Biden and thereby help the candidacy of President Trump."

Trump and Biden face deadlocked race in North Carolina as election day approaches

President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are deadlocked in a tight race for the state of North Carolina as Election Day approaches.

According to The Washington Post, national poll results suggest Biden has just a 1 percent lead over Trump with 49 percent to the president's 48 percent. Libertarian presidential nominee Jo Jorgensen and Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins reportedly account for just 1 percent of the vote. Among likely registered voters in the upcoming election, Biden is 48 percent while Trump appears to be at 46 percent and the third-party candidates account for the other 3 percent of the vote.

The latest poll results come as both candidates travel to critical key states in hopes of swinging the election in their favor. However, their campaign styles are nearly as different as their political views. As Trump delivered a speech before hundreds of rallygoers in Nevada over the weekend, Biden hit the campaign trail for a significantly smaller appearance in Durham, N.C.

During Biden's visit to Durham, he discussed a number of critical topics including Medicare, coronavirus, and of course, Trump. As North Carolina reported more than 2,000 cases in a single day, Biden also stressed the importance of the upcoming election, deeming it the "most important election of our lifetime."

"The very soul of our nation is at stake," Biden told the crowd. "It's go time. This is the most important election of our lifetime."

He added, "The president has known how bad this virus would be since January and he hid it from you. His excuse is that he didn't want Americans to panic. Americans don't panic. Donald Trump panics."

Trump has taken a more defensive stance in his rallies by focusing on verbal attacks, and taking personal and professional jabs at his opponent. Despite contracting COVID-19, the president continues to disregard masks and social distancing, potentially exposing his supporters to the virus.

Trump is also expected to travel to Gastonia, N.C., on Wednesday.

Trump’s inner circle ‘furious’ with FBI’s Wray for undercutting Biden smear: report

According to a report from Politico, high-ranking members of Donald Trump's administration are "furious" with FBI Director Christopher Wray for siding with the intelligence community and calling recent revelations about former Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter part of a Russian disinformation campaign.

As the New York Post story about the Democratic presidential nominee's son continues to fall apart — with even Fox News reportedly passing on it before Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani took it to the Post — Wray, who has had a strained relationship with the president is allowing his department to investigate Russia instead of the Biden's.

That, in turn, has angered White House officials looking for a helping hand to help out the president's cratering re-election campaign.

According to Politico, "Trump's inner circle was already furious at Wray for echoing the intelligence community's finding that Russia is acting to damage Biden's candidacy, as well as his description of antifa as 'an ideology' rather than an organized entity. Now, they're ratcheting up calls for Trump to fire his handpicked director."

The report goes on to note that Republicans had been hoping that Wray would open up a full-scale investigation into the sketchy accusations based upon unverified information reportedly found on the younger Biden's laptop computer.

For his part, Wary is reportedly loath to enter the fray with an eye on the election just two weeks away, and his own future uncertain.

"Other congressional and law enforcement sources noted that Trump might lack the leverage to bend Wray — who, like past FBI directors, was appointed to serve a 10-year term, a setup designed to insulate the bureau from politics — to his will," the report states. "A public offensive against Biden by the FBI would doom Wray's chances of remaining atop the bureau in a potential Biden administration. Wray, they say, would have no incentive to burn the rulebook in order to score a point for Trump, particularly when he enjoys relatively bipartisan support in the Capitol."

According to those who know Wray, he is unlikely to take the president's side this time.

"Chris does not need my advice," explained Chuck Rosenberg, a former FBI chief of staff. "He is smart and thoughtful and principled and has the best interests of the FBI and the nation in mind."

You can read more here.

Understanding the North's climate change trifecta

A wildfire burns outside Fairbanks, Alaska, after a lightning strike.

(Catherine Dieleman), Author provided

Catherine Dieleman, University of Guelph

The Arctic Circle became unbelievably hot on June 20. In the Russian community of Verkhoyansk, temperatures topped 38C, marking what may be the highest air temperature ever recorded within the Arctic.

The temperatures at Verkhoyansk are part of a larger trend across western Russia this summer, with small communities throughout the region reporting temperatures that are smashing local records that have stood for decades. During the latter half of June, surface temperatures throughout western Siberia were as much as 10C above historical norms, marking one of the hottest Junes on record despite relatively cool temperatures at the start of the month.

For scientists the world-over these record-breaking temperatures are alarm bells, demonstrating the kind of extreme weather events we can expect to see more often if climate change continues unchecked. However, it is the long-term fallout from modern heat waves that has many northern scientists deeply concerned, as they will affect our planet for decades to come.

The fires that follow

During heat waves surface temperatures soar, often triggering a chain of fire-promoting weather conditions including extreme thunderstorms. These thunderstorms have hundreds of lightning strikes that can ignite the dry soils and vegetation that serve as fuel for fire.

In northern regions like the boreal biome, these fire-promoting conditions can cause large-scale wildfires that burn millions of hectares of forest in a single summer.

Historically, humanity has considered wildfire a true disaster and spent considerable resources to suppress them. We now understand that despite the initial loss of established trees and soils, wildfires are a natural and integral part of the boreal biome.

Modern wildfires, however, are occurring with increasing frequency and intensity, covering a larger area due weather events like severe heat waves. In extreme fire years, these modern wildfires can burn deep into the organic soils that characterize boreal forests. These carbon-rich soils have been built up over thousands of years and hold approximately 30 per cent of the world's terrestrial carbon stocks.

When fires burn deep into soils or return too quickly to a forest, they lose their “ancient carbon" stocks. Instead of being held in the ground these ancient carbon reserves are combusted and released back into the atmosphere, increasing the carbon levels. The higher carbon dioxide levels generated by wildfires intensify climate change impacts like heat waves, which can lead to further wildfires, forming a powerful “positive feedback" loop with climate change.

While these trends alone are alarming, northern researchers warn that the fallout from heat waves won't stop when the fires burn out. In northern regions where the soils historically stay frozen year-round, a whole new set of changes are beginning to take form.

When permafrost perishes

Permafrost forms on the landscape when soil materials remain below freezing for two or more consecutive years. In some areas permafrost forms in direct response to a cold climate.

As one moves further south, however, permafrost becomes increasingly dependent on the presence of thick organic soils, surface vegetation and a shady overstorey to survive the warm summer months. In those cases, the ecosystem acts like a giant protective blanket, limiting the sun's heat that is able to reach the frozen permafrost materials below.

White smoke rises from the tundra with mountains in the background.

Carbon-rich peat burns readily, making it good fuel for lightning-caused fires.

(U.S. National Parks Service, Western Arctic National Parklands)

When permafrost ecosystems burn, the wildfire consumes these protective layers, often triggering permafrost thaw. This can occur gradually, with the thawed layer expanding slowly over decades, or abruptly, with the thawed layer expanding dramatically over years. The land may cave in or sink, plant communities may change completely and local water flows may be rerouted.

In both cases, the loss of permafrost makes the massive Arctic carbon reserves more vulnerable to loss. With gradual thaw microbes are able to break down and release the previously frozen carbon back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. In contrast, abrupt thaw commonly occurs in ice-rich permafrost resulting in warmer but also wetter soils. Under these conditions decomposition still occurs but carbon is commonly returned to the atmosphere as methane, a greenhouse gas approximately 30 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

All this lost carbon may make the positive feedback with climate change even stronger. While scientists are working to understand if the vegetation that grows after permafrost thaw is able to offset all the carbon released during decomposition, most current models indicate that permafrost thaw will ultimately be a source of atmospheric carbon.

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Trump's final ad buy betrays just how broke his campaign really is

On a call Monday, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien revealed the campaign's total ad buy for the last two weeks of the presidential race would be a whopping a paltry $55 million ... split between no fewer than 11 states.

Um, just wow. And that's not only the Trump campaign, it represents coordinated spending with the Republican National Committee (RNC) too. Far from being a muscular way to close out the race, it feels more like a cry for help. By comparison, Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon said last week that she still anticipates raising another $234 million through the election.

The 11 states included on the target list for both entities are: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine-2, Michigan, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.


According to an Axios article last week, Stepien views Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, and Maine's 2nd district as the foundation of their path to 270—in other words, must gets. In fact, the article quoted Stepien calling that line up the "easy part," but apparently not so easy that they're forgoing dropping money in all four supposed gimmes.

As New York Times journalist Shane Goldmacher, who was on the call, noted, "On the one hand, Stepien says he is 'certain' that they are winning Ohio and Iowa. On the other hand, he announces the campaign will be up with ads in those two states in final two weeks." Go figure.

One state the Trump campaign appears to have finally given up on altogether is Minnesota. Earlier on Monday, the Trump camp had announced cancelling ad buys in several Midwestern states even as they were preparing to reinvest in some of them through this coordinated ad buy with the RNC. But Minnesota, which has pretty much always been a pipe dream for Team Trump, was dropped altogether.

Even before this final Trump ad buy in the closing weeks, Biden's ad spending had outpaced Trump's by a 2-to-1 ratio for months, according to The New York Times. In a review of the two campaigns' spending in 10 battleground states, the only state where Trump outspent Biden was Georgia—which doesn't exactly jibe with that state's inclusion in Stepien's so-called "easy" list.

Biden's spending strategy has clearly centered on the Midwest. "His dominance is most pronounced in three critical swing states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — where he spent about $53 million to Mr. Trump's $17 million over the past month largely on ads assailing the president's handling of the virus as well as the economy and taxes," writes the Times.

And while Trump initially enjoyed a digital ad advantage in the early part of the campaign, Biden has steadily closed that gap in recent months, achieving near parity in the last 30 days at $50 million for each ad campaign on Google and Facebook, according to the Times.

What is perhaps most interesting in these final weeks is just how small Trump is playing even as Team Biden has played very big—and not just in terms of overall spending. As this Politico piece explains, the Biden campaign has seen so many paths to 270 open up that in some cases they realized it would be more cost effective to make national buys rather than spending astronomical amounts in smaller battleground markets. It's a worth a read.

Under normal circumstances, most campaigns at this point would be making buys to leverage their position in 10 or even fewer states. But the Biden campaign realized that making some national buys through the networks would actually cost only slightly more, for instance, than purchasing air time in states with major Senate races like Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia, where pricing had gone through the roof. The big upside of the national buys was that they had the advantage of not only reaching the desired markets in key battlegrounds but also establishing a Biden presence in states that were newly on the radar, like Texas.

"We are looking at a very wide map right now," Becca Siegel, the Biden campaign's chief analytics officer, said. "Normally at this stage of the campaign, we would be narrowing in. But at this stage of the campaign, we have a lot of pathways that have opened up."

So as Trump closes out with a whimper, Biden is heading out with a roar, and his sizable cash advantage has made all that possible.

Republicans are growing anxious about losing a Senate seat in Texas — once again

The final two weeks of the 2020 election are upon us, and with the political climate continuing to favor Democrats overall, Daily Kos Elections is moving our race ratings in 11 more contests—nine shift to the left, while two move towards the GOP. We also now have a total of 11 GOP-held Senate seats rated as Lean Republican or better for Democrats. You can find all our Senate, gubernatorial, and House ratings at each link.

TX-Sen (Likely R to Lean R): Democrat MJ Hegar not only swamped Republican Sen. John Cornyn 2:1 in fundraising over the last quarter, she just got a big vote of confidence from the Senate Majority PAC, which announced it would invest almost $9 million to support her bid—the first time outside Democratic groups have spent money on a Texas Senate race in forever. (Yep, even Beto didn't get that kind of love.)

All polls still have Cornyn ahead, and Texas is still Texas. But the gap has narrowed, and with presidential polling showing a near-tie, the once unthinkable is now a whole lot more thinkable. Cornyn himself also seems to be feeling the heat: After spending four years positioning himself as nothing but an ardent Trump ally, the senator insisted to reporters over the weekend that he'd disagreed with the White House plenty of times but kept his dissent private.

CO-Sen (Lean D to Likely D): With reports that the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and the Senate Leadership Fund have both drastically scaled back their spending in Colorado's Senate race, Republicans have now all but abandoned Cory Gardner. Confirming the development, the top Democratic super PAC, Senate Majority PAC, has also cut seven figures from its planned advertising. Every single poll of this race has shown Gardner trailing Democrat John Hickenlooper, most by double digits. At this point, Colorado is simply too blue for a Republican with no real ability to distance himself from Donald Trump—like Gardner.

VT-Gov (Likely R to Safe R): Despite Vermont's deep blue hue, the state has continued its long history of electing Republican governors, and Phil Scott has remained exceedingly popular, in part because of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Limited polling has shown him crushing his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, and there's been no indication that outside groups plan to get involved here in the final weeks.

CA-21 (Lean D to Tossup): Democrat TJ Cox narrowly unseated Republican Rep. David Valadao in one of the biggest upsets of 2018, and he faces a difficult campaign to stop Valadao from reclaiming California's 21st Congressional District this year.

The only recent poll we've seen out of this southern Central Valley seat was a mid-September American Viewpoint internal for the pro-Republican Congressional Leadership Fund that found Valadao ahead 49-38. It may seem implausible that Valadao could have a huge lead in a district that Trump lost 55-40, but Democrats have not responded with better numbers, and Politico also recently reported that this was one of only a few seats that Team Blue is "growing increasingly nervous" about.

There are some other factors that could complicate Cox's chances even in a good year for his party. National polls show Trump running better with Latino voters than he did four years ago, which could help him make up some ground in this heavily Latino district. And Valadao has always run ahead of the GOP ticket in past years, sometimes quite dramatically. Cox may still be the slight favorite to hang on, but a Valadao win would no longer be a surprise.

FL-18 (Safe R to Likely R): Republican Rep. Brian Mast looked secure after he beat a well-funded opponent by a convincing 54-46 during last cycle's Democratic wave, but he faces another credible challenge this year from Navy veteran Pam Keith in Florida's 18th Congressional District.

A mid-September survey from St. Pete Polls found Mast ahead by a wide—but not insurmountable—50-42 margin even as respondents narrowly favored Biden in a district that had backed Trump 53-44 four years earlier. An early October Keith internal from Clearview Research then showed her ahead 45-43, and Mast's allies haven't responded with alternate numbers. There has been no notable outside spending so far in this seat, which includes the Palm Beach area and the Treasure Coast to the north, but an upset is possible if Nov. 3 is a strong night for Team Blue.

IL-13 (Lean R to Tossup): We had thought that Betsy Dirksen Londrigan's near-miss against Republican Rep. Rodney Davis in 2018 might have been a high-water mark for Democrats in central Illinois' 13th Congressional District, which isn't necessarily the most favorable sort of turf from Team Blue. But a recent survey for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) found her leading Davis by five points in her rematch after prior polls showed the race neck-and-neck, and we haven't seen any sort of GOP response.

The D-Trip has backed up its data with hard dollars: Along with the House Majority PAC, they've matched spending with the big outside Republican groups. This one is looking very close once again.

MI-03 (Likely R to Lean R): Michigan's 3rd Congressional District hasn't been competitive in a general election in some time, but outside groups from both parties are spending serious amounts of money in the contest to succeed Republican-turned-independent-turned-Libertarian Rep. Justin Amash, who is retiring after a tumultuous career.

The few polls we've seen have shown an unsettled contest in this Grand Rapids-based seat between Democrat Hillary Scholten, an immigration attorney, and Republican Peter Meijer, whose family owns an eponymous retail chain with almost 200 locations. A mid-September internal from Global Strategy Group for Scholten's allies at House Majority PAC showed a 41-41 tie as Biden led 49-41 in a district that backed Trump 52-42 in 2016; weeks later, the Democratic nominee released numbers from ALG Research that had her ahead 44-42. Meijer did get better news, though, when a late September survey from the conservative firm We Ask America had him leading 48-41 as Biden and Trump deadlocked 47-47.

This seat is still red enough that Meijer remains the frontrunner, but Scholten's chances are as strong as they've ever been.

NC-08 (Likely R to Lean R): While Republican Rep. Richard Hudson is still the favorite against Democrat Pat Timmons-Goodson, a former justice on the state Supreme Court, major outside groups on both sides have begun spending serious amounts of money late in the contest for North Carolina's 8th Congressional District.

The only two polls we've seen in recent weeks have both come from Democrats, and they've each shown a close race. A late September internal from Brilliant Corners for Timmons-Goodson showed Hudson up 44-42 as Trump led only 47-44 in a seat he took 53-44 four years ago. An early October DCCC Analytics poll was even more favorable: It found Timmons-Goodson and Biden up 42-39 and 47-43, respectively. Republicans have yet to release contradictory numbers.

There's also one other factor that could complicate Hudson's path in this seat, which includes Fayetteville and some of Charlotte's suburbs: Because of court-supervised redistricting, the Republican is seeking reelection in a seat where a quarter of all residents are new to him, which could prevent him from enjoying the full benefits of incumbency.

SC-01 (Tossup to Lean D): Freshman Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham won South Carolina's coastal 1st Congressional District in one of the bigger upsets of 2018, but he's the frontrunner going into the final weeks of his bid for reelection.

An early October DCCC internal from GQR found Cunningham leading GOP state Rep. Nancy Mace by a wide 55-42 margin as respondents backed Biden 48-47 in a district that Trump took 53-40 last time. Mace responded the following week with a Strategic National survey that showed her ahead 47-45 as Trump led 47-44, but even fellow Republicans don't seem to believe she's actually doing that well: Last week, Politico recently reported that Republicans privately believe Mace's prospects are "dimming."

Major outside groups on both sides are still spending heavily here, and a Mace win is still very possible, but Cunningham, for perhaps the first time in his political career, is the favorite.

TX-32 (Lean D to Likely D): Freshman Democratic Rep. Colin Allred flipped Texas' 32nd District after a very expensive 2018 battle, but it will be hard for businesswoman Genevieve Collins to reclaim it for her party.

This historically red suburban North Dallas seat swung from 57-41 Romney to 49-47 Clinton, and diverse and well-educated constituencies like this have only become more hostile to the GOP over the last four years. Major outside groups also aren't acting like this will be close: While both parties are pouring millions into the neighboring 24th District, they've steered clear of this race so far. Collins still has the resources to run a credible campaign on her own, but it would be a big surprise if she emerged victorious.

WA-03 (Likely R to Lean R): Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler is still the frontrunner against Democrat Carolyn Long, whom she defeated 53-47 in 2018, but their rematch for southern Washington's 3rd Congressional District has been looking more competitive recently.

In late September, Long released an internal from GQR that found Herrera Beutler up 49-47 as Trump led just 48-47 in a district he took 50-43 in 2016. That's the only survey we've seen here in some time, but major outside groups are acting like this seat is very much in play. The National Republican Congressional Committee and Congressional Leadership Fund went on the air on Oct. 13 to aid the congresswoman, the very same day the DCCC released its first anti-Herrera Beutler ads. Altogether, national GOP groups spent almost $900,000 during the week of Oct. 12, while the DCCC dropped $470,000 during that time.

Herrera Beutler still has the advantage, though, in this conservative seat. The incumbent pulled off a healthy win last cycle, and even Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell narrowly lost the 3rd District 51-49 that year while she was winning statewide in a 58-42 landslide. However, if 2020 turns out to be a stronger year for Team Blue than 2018 was, Long will have an opportunity to notch an upset.