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North Carolina GOP Chair Robin Hayes, top donor accused of trying to bribe insurance commissioner

Committee supporting U.S. Rep. Mark Walker got $150,000 donation from indicted donor as he was being enlisted to lobby on donor’s behalf

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

CHARLOTTE (CFP) — Robin Hayes, a former congressman who chairs the North Carolina Republican Party, and the state’s top political donor have been indicted in what federal prosecutors allege was a “brazen” scheme to bribe Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey with $2 million disguised as campaign contributions.

North Carolina Republican Chair Robin Hayes

The indictment, unsealed April 2, charges Hayes with wire fraud, bribery and three counts of lying to the FBI. Also charged with wire fraud and bribery in the case is Greg E. Lindberg, 48, a Durham businessman who federal prosecutors allege initiated the scheme to bribe Causey in order to get more favorable treatment from insurance regulators for one of his companies.

The indictment of Lindberg is likely to reverberate through state Republican politics. He has contributed generously to various GOP groups and political committees supporting Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest and U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, who appears to have been mentioned in the indictment but was not accused of any crime.

Also charged were John D. Gray, 68, from Chapel Hill, a consultant working for Lindberg, and John V. Palermo, Jr., 63, from Pittsboro, an employee at one of Lindberg’s companies and former GOP chair in Chatham County.

Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey

Causey, who notified federal law enforcement of the bribery attempt and cooperated with investigators, was not charged.

In a statement, Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division said the men had engaged in a “brazen bribery scheme in which Greg Lindberg and his co-conspirators allegedly offered hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions in exchange for official action that would benefit Lindberg’s business interests.”

Prosecutors allege that Hayes agreed to use the state GOP to funnel Lindberg’s money to Causey’s campaign to keep the source from becoming public, and then lied to FBI agents when he was asked about the contributions and his contacts with Causey on Lindberg’s behalf.

Also mentioned in the indictment, but not accused of wrongdoing, is an unnamed “Public Official A,” who was allegedly enlisted to lobby Causey on Lindberg’s behalf after Lindberg donated $150,000 to a political committee supporting him.

U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, R-North Carolina

Citing Federal Election Commission records, Politico identified “Public Official A” as Walker, from Greensboro, a member of the House Republican leadership.

FEC records show that Lundberg made a $150,000 contribution to the Mark Walker Victory Committee, which was dated Feb. 17, 2018. Lundberg was the first contributor to the committee, which was registered on Feb. 13, 2018. His contribution was 10 times the amount of any other donor and accounted for about one-fourth of all of the money taken in by the fund during 2018.

The indictment said that on Feb. 5, 2018,  Gray contacted “Public Official A” to lobby Causey on behalf of Lindberg, who wanted the insurance commissioner to remove a deputy he felt was “maliciously” hurting his reputation and replace her with Palermo.

After Gray reported his conversation with Public Official A to Lindberg, he donated $150,000 to a political committee supporting that official, according to the indictment. Two days later, the official called Causey to “explain that Lindberg was doing good things for North Carolina business,” according to the indictment.

Responding to the Politico report, Walker’s office released a statement saying he was not a target of the investigation, has not been accused of any wrongdoing and that he had cooperated with federal prosecutors investigating the case.

The statement also noted the Lindberg has also donated money to Democratic officials and that the victory fund was controlled by the Republican National Committee.

Walker, 49, was elected in 2014 to represent the state’s 6th District, in and around Greensboro. He is part of the GOP House leadership as vice-chair of the House Republican Conference.

Hayes, 73, who served in the U.S. House from 1999 to 2009 and has chaired the state GOP since 2016, had announced on the day before the indictment was unsealed that he would not seek re-election as state chair in June.

His attorney issued a statement saying Hayes “steadfastly denies the allegations made against him” and is looking forward to clearing his name.

In a statement, the state GOP’s legal counsel, Josh Howard, said the party has been “cooperating with the investigation for several months, including staff members providing statements and responding to various document requests” and “remains fully operational and focused on its mission at hand.”

Lindberg’s attorney, Anne Tompkins, told the McClatchey newspapers that his client was innocent of the charges and was also looking forward to his day in court.

The Raleigh News & Observer had previously reported that Lindberg had become the largest political donor in the state over the last two years, contributing more than $3 million to candidates from both parties since 2016. Most of those contributions were made to political committees and political parties instead of directly to candidates, whose donations are capped.

About half of that money went to groups supporting Forest, who is expected to run for governor in 2020, the newspaper reported.

Lindberg is chairman of Eli Global, an investment company, and Global Bankers Insurance Group, which is regulated by Causey’s office.

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Democrat Jon Ossoff falls short of majority in Georgia U.S. House special election

Ossoff will now face an uphill climb in runoff against Republican Karen Handel

By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

ATLANTA (CFP) — Democrat Jon Ossoff’s insurgent campaign to flip Georgia’s 6th District U.S. House seat in Atlanta’s northern suburbs fell short of securing a majority in an April 18 special election, setting up a high-stakes showdown with Republican Karen Handel in a June 20 runoff.

Karen Handel

Jon Ossoff

With all of the precincts in the district reporting, Ossoff had 48.1 percent of the vote, followed by Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state, at 19.8 percent. Bob Gray, a technology executive who touted his work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, came in third with 10.8 percent.

Ossoff’s result was a surprisingly strong showing by a Democrat in what had been seen as a safe Republican seat. But his failure to clear an outright majority means he will now have to beat Handel in a head-to-head race.

Despite not clearing that hurdle, Ossoff told his supporters that the result was “a victory for the ages” and vowed to continue the fight.

“We have defied the odds. We have shattered expectations. We are changing the world, and your voices are going to ring out across this state and across this country,” said Ossoff,  a 30-year-old filmmaker and former congressional aide with no previous political experience.

“There is no amount of dark money, Super PAC, negative advertising that can overcome real grassroots energy like this. So bring it on.”

Handel, who managed to fight off attacks from her fellow Republicans to come in second, told her supporters that “nine weeks from today, we have an opportunity and a real responsibility to elect a member of Congress who shares our values.”

Telegraphing how her campaign will frame the campaign ahead, Handel called herself “a proven, independent and conservative leader who has delivered for the people of this district.”

For Handel, 55, the second-place finish was a welcome political comeback after back-to-back losses to Governor Nathan Deal in a GOP runoff in 2010 and a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in 2014. She served as secretary of state from 2007 to 2011 and as chair of the Fulton County Commission from 2003 to 2006.

Trump was an overarching presence in the 6th District race. Ossoff used anti-Trump sentiment to whip up Democratic enthusiasm and raise a staggering $8.3 million, using the slogan “Make Trump Furious.”

That prompted the president to make a robocall to voters in the district, saying “Ossoff will raise your taxes, destroy your health care and flood our country with illegal immigrants.” However, Trump did not endorse anyone, and the four unabashedly pro-Trump candidates in the race fared poorly, taking only about 20 percent of the vote.

The June 20 runoff is likely to be a bruising affair with national implications, as Republicans try to hold on to what had been seen as a safe seat and Democrats try to embarrass Trump by snatching it away.

The first round results show the uphill climb Ossoff faces: Together, 11 Republican candidates captured 98,000 votes, besting the 93,900 votes captured by Ossoff and four other Democrats. And while Ossoff carried a majority in the part of the district that lies in DeKalb County, he failed to clear a majority in the larger slices in Cobb and Fulton counties.

The 6th District seat became vacant in February, when Tom Price left to become secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Trump cabinet. The all-party special election drew a crowded field of 18 candidates.

Price had won the district by 76,000 votes in November, but Democrats smelled blood after Trump only managed to carry it by a scant 1.5 percent. Trump also lost the March 2016 Republican primary in the district to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

The 6th District has been previously represented by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Republican U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson. It had been considered so unassailable that in 2016, the Democratic nomination for the seat went to a man who didn’t even bother to campaign.

Despite public insistence by Republican leaders that an Ossoff victory was nothing more than a liberal fantasy, the National Republican Congressional Committee ran ads into the district, telling voters that Nancy Pelosi and her fellow liberals are are trying to use this race to stop the Republican agenda. The Republican National Committee has also moved resources into the district in anticipation of the runoff.

Race for GOP-held Georgia U.S. House seat closing with Democrat in lead

But polls shows Jon Ossoff may not avoid a runoff that could be fatal in metro Atlanta’s 6th District

ATLANTA (CFP) — On paper, the outcome of the April 18 special election to fill Georgia’s 6th District U.S. House district should be an foregone conclusion.

This seat in Atlanta’s upscale, leafy northern suburbs has been previously held by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Republican U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson. Last November, Tom Price, now secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, won it by more than 76,000 votes against a Democrat who didn’t even bother to campaign.

But after seeing the presidential results in the 6th District last November, Democrats smelled blood.

Donald Trump carried the district by a mere 1.5 percentage points, on his way to losing Cobb County, a GOP bastion that hadn’t gone Democratic since 1976. The eastern half of Cobb is in the 6th District, along with the northern portions of Fulton and DeKalb counties, which Hillary Clinton also carried.

When Trump put Price in his Cabinet, Democrats saw an opportunity in the all-party special election to fill this seat, if they could find a candidate who could make the race competitive.

Jon Ossoff, Ga. 6th District candidate

Enter Jon Ossoff, a 30-year-old filmmaker and former congressional aide who had never before run for anything. He galvanized Trump-disaffected Democrats with the slogan “Make Trump Furious.” He raised a staggering $8.3 million in one just one quarter, including $1.25 in crowdfunding from the liberal website Daily Kos — a fundraising haul larger than all of his 11 Republican competitors combined.

Not only has Ossoff proven himself to be competitive, he has shot to a large lead in the polls, a full 20 points ahead of his nearest competitor. But he still may need the political equivalent of a Hail Mary to actually get to Congress.

For to win the seat outright, Ossoff has to clear 50 percent in the April 18 vote against a field with 17 competitors. If he doesn’t pull that off, he’ll face a June 20 runoff against the second-place finisher, who will almost certainly be a Republican.

Recent polls have put Ossoff as high as 43 percent, well short of what he would need to win outright. However, Democrats are hoping that their enthusiasm for Ossoff, along with the low voter turnout typical of special elections, can propel their man over the top.

The results of April 11 special election for a Republican-held congressional seat in Kansas have buoyed those hopes. The Republican in that race won, but there was a 20-point swing toward the Democrat from what Trump posted in November. Even a fraction of that swing could put Ossoff in Congress.

A recent poll by Fox 5 in Atlanta also contained good news for Democrats. In head-to-head match-ups with the four leading Republicans in the race, Ossoff was in a statistical dead heat with all of them, raising hopes he might be able to win even if forced into a runoff.

But Republicans aren’t buying that argument. Given the district’s historical tendencies, they are confident their candidate will prevail in a one-on-one race with Ossoff. One of the Republicans competing for second place, Bob Gray, has gone so far as to dismiss Democratic hopes of poaching the seat as a “fantasy.”

Yet, with Ossoff’s campaign in high gear and Republicans still tussling with each other for second place, the National Republican Congressional Committee began running ads into the district, telling voters that Nancy Pelosi and her fellow liberals are are trying to use this race to stop the Republican agenda. The Republican National Committee has also moved staffers into the district.

Another wild card in Ossoff’s ultimate success will be which Republican he faces in the runoff, who will emerge after an increasingly fractious battle for second place.

Gray

Handel

Polls show the chase for the second spot in the runoff appears to be between Karen Handel, a former secretary of state and chair of the Fulton County Commission, and Gray, a technology executive and former city councilman in Johns Creek, one of the cities in the district.

Handel, a political fixture in North Fulton for the past 15 years, has high name recognition after failed runs for governor in 2010 and U.S. Senate in 2014. She has received a slew of endorsements from city and county officials throughout the district, as well as the support of former U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss.

Gray has positioned himself as a business-oriented political outsider aligned with Trump, and he is also receiving support from the conservative Club for Growth.

Two other Republicans with an outside shot at the runoff slot are Dan Moody, a former state senator from Johns Creek, who has the backing of U.S .Senator David Perdue, and Judson Hill, a former state senator from East Cobb who has been endorsed by Gingrich and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who carried Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties over trump in Georgia’s 2016 Republican presidential primary.

Both Gray and Moody have turned their fire on Handel, with ads that criticize her as an opportunistic office seeker and a flip-flopper in the mode of John Kerry. Handel has responded with an ad touting her experience as county commission chair and secretary of state and criticizing her opponents for being more talk than action.

Virginia Governor 2017: Contested primaries shaping up in both parties

Northam, Gillespie face challenges from anti-establishment rivals

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

virginia mugRICHMOND (CFP) — Any hopes Democratic and Republican leaders in Virginia had of avoiding contentious primaries in the governor’s race this year have been dashed, with both parties facing the same establishment-versus-insurgent battles that characterized the 2016 presidential contest.

With two months to go before the filing deadline for the June primary, the Democratic race has already drawn two major contenders, while the Republican race has four. All are vying to replace Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, who is barred by state law from seeking re-election.

On the Democratic side, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam appeared to be cruising to his party’s nomination unmolested until January, when former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello jumped into the race and began casting himself as anti-establishment, in contrast to the well-connected Northam.

On the Republican side, Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman who ran a surprisingly strong race for U.S. Senate in 2014, is being challenged by Donald Trump’s former Virginia campaign chairman, a veteran state senator who also worked for Trump, and a Tea Party-aligned distillery owner who has hired the campaign manager who helped take down Eric Cantor in 2014.

A poll from the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, released February 2, shows both primary races are fluid, with Gillespie and Northam leading but most voters undecided.

The governor’s battle takes place amid changing political currents in the Old Dominion. Once reliably Republican, Democrats have carried the state in the last three presidential elections and hold both U.S. Senate seats. Three of the last four governors have been Democrats.

Virginia also doesn’t have primary runoffs, which means that on the Republican side, the winner is likely to have garnered significantly less than 50 percent of the vote.

Ed Gillespie

Ed Gillespie

Gillespie, 55, from Fairfax County, is a former top lieutenant to President George W. Bush who has run both the national and state GOP. In 2014, he came within 18,000 votes of unseating Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Warner, in what was considered one of the biggest surprises of that election cycle.

Standing in Gillespie’s road to the nomination are Corey Stewart, 48, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, who ran Trump’s campaign in Virginia until being fired a month before the 2016 election; State Senator Frank Wagner, 61, from Virginia Beach, a former U.S. Navy officer who has served in the the state legislature for 25 years; and Denver Riggleman, a distillery owner and former Air Force intelligence officer from Afton.

County Supervisor Corey Stewart

County Supervisor Corey Stewart

Stewart, who instigated a crackdown on undocumented immigrants as county chairman, has boasted that “I was Trump before Trump was Trump.” However, he was removed from the Trump campaign last October after organizing a protest outside of Republican National Committee headquarters demanding that the GOP hierarchy not abandon Trump in the wake of the release of an audiotape in which Trump made sexually suggestive comments.

A key question in the GOP primary will be the extent to which Trump might assist Stewart — and how much good that would actually do in a state Trump lost.

State Senator Frank Wagner

State Senator Frank Wagner

Stewart will also have competition for the pro-Trump banner from Wagner, who was co-chair of Trump’s campaign in southeast Virginia. He has remained a Trump defender, endorsing the president’s controversial ban on refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries and criticizing Gillespie for not following suit.

In his campaign, Wagner is also touting his legislative experience and the fact that he is the only Republican candidate who is a native Virginian.

Denver Riggleman

Denver Riggleman

Riggleman, the least well-known among the Republican candidates, has hired the campaign manager used by U.S. Rep. Dave Brat in his upset win over then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary 2014. Backed by Tea Party activists and talk radio hosts, Brat tossed the powerful Cantor from Congress, in what is now seen as a prelude to the political earthquake that brought Trump to power two years later.

The Wason Center poll found that Gillespie was the choice of 33 percent of Republican or Republican-learning voters, with Wagner at 9 percent, Stewart at 7 percent and Riggleman at 1 percent. However, 50 percent remain undecided.

Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam

Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam

On the Democratic side, Northam, 57, a doctor and former U.S. Army major from Norfolk, served in the state senate before winning the lieutenant governorship in 2013. He has the backing of most of the commonwealth’s Democratic leadership, including McAuliffe, Warner and U.S. Senator Tim Kaine.

Perriello, 42, from Charlottesville, served a single term in Congress before being swamped in the Tea Party wave of 2010. His tenure was noteworthy for his vote in favor of Obamacare, which didn’t go down well in the more conservative parts of his central Virginia district.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriollo

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello

After leaving Congress, Perriello worked at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and was appointed by President Obama as a State Department envoy to Africa.

While Perriello’s voting record in Congress was moderate for a Democrat, he has been staking out ground on the progressive left in the governor’s race, saying he wants to make Virginia “a firewall against hate, corruption and an assault on the Virginia values of decency and progress.” He has also changed his position on using federal funds to pay for abortions, which he once voted against but now supports.

The Democratic primary race is likely to feature some of the remaining currents from the bruising 2016 battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Northam’s most prominent backer, McAufliffe, is a close confidant of the Clintons, and Northam endorsed Clinton over Sanders in the commonwealth’s presidential primary. That could provide an opening for Perriello, who is also close to Obama and members of the former president’s political brain trust.

The Wason Center poll shoed Northam at 26 percent and Perriello at 15 percent among Democratic and Democratic leaning voters, with 59 percent undecided.

Virginia is one of four Southern states that hold gubernatorial elections in off years but is the only one voting in 2017. Louisiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi will have elections in 2019.

Republican operative Ed Gillespie eyeing Virginia U.S. Senate race

Gillespie, a former Republican National Commitee chief and aide to President George W. Bush, may take on Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Warner

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitcs.com editor

virginia mugNORFOLK, Virginia (CFP) — Ed Gillespie, a high-level Washington GOP political operative, is considering running for the U.S. Senate seat in Virginia now held by Democrat Mark Warner.

Ed Gillespie

Ed Gillespie

Gillespie, speaking to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper January 5 after meeting with Republican activists in Norfolk, said he has concluded that Warner can be beaten and will decide whether to run by early February.

“I have concluded it is a winnable race,” Gillespie said.

Should Gillespie run, it would set up a classic establishment-versus-Tea Party struggle within Republican ranks in the Old Dominion. Two former miltary officers, Howie Lind of McClean and Shak Hill of Centreville, are already in the race, running as outsiders and playing for Tea Party support.

Also, Virginia Republicans select their candidates through a convention, rather than a primary.  That could level the playing field for an outsider candidate who can develop a strong cadre of supporters to turn out at the convention, which will be held in June in Roanoke.

U.S. Senator Mark Warner

U.S. Senator Mark Warner

Whoever wins the GOP nomination will face the formidable Warner, a former governor who already has more $7 million in cash on hand for the 2014 race — a huge head start over any of the Republicans in the field.

Both The Rothenberg Political Report and Cook Political Report classify Warner’s seat as safely in Democratic hands.

Gillespie told the Virginian-Pilot that he thinks Warner is vulnerable because he has voted with President Obama “97 percent of the time.”

However, Virginia is no longer reliably Republican as it once was. Obama carried the state twice, and GOP candidates lost all three statewide races in 2013.

Although he has never sought office before, Gillespie, 52, is the connsumate Washington insider. He was a communications strategist in Bush’s winning campaign in 2000 and went on to chair the Republican National Committee. In 2007, he became a counselor in the Bush White House.

In April 2012, after Mitt Romney was finally able to claim the Republican presidential nomination, Gillespie signed on as a senior adviser to the Romney campaign.

Gillespie also has a long association with Karl Rove, the Bush political consigliere who has frequently drawn the ire of the party’s Tea Party wing.  He helped Rove create Crossroads GPS, the super-PAC that has backed establishment candidates facing Tea Party insurgencies.

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