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Activist Lawrence Lessig was once a presidential candidate, now he's interviewing them

WASHINGTON — Lawrence Lessig has a twinge of regret about not joining the massive field of candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, so he’s doing the next best thing — starting a podcast to interview and cajole them to support his agenda of political reforms.

The prominent Harvard Law School professor and political activist briefly ran for president in 2016, an experience that he describes as both “the worst of times” and “the coolest thing I've ever done.”

He didn't make the Democratic debate stage last time, but thinks he would this year under new Democratic National Committee rules that prioritize small donors. "I kind of regret that in February when they announced the rules, I wasn't in a position to spin it up and try to run," he said during an interview over iced tea in Washington this week.

So instead, he’s using his new podcast to go deep with candidates on campaign finance reform, voting rights, gerrymandering and more, and to push what he calls "POTUS 1” — a play on the name of a similar bill House Democrats’ passed this year called HR1.

Lessig argues a future Democratic president should prioritize political reform before health care, climate change, immigration, or anything else, “because it makes everything else easier.”

The first episode of his podcast, sponsored by his group Equal Citizens, launches this week with an interview with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., whom Lessig praised as “better than I was” for her “democracy dollars” idea to give every American $600 to donate to candidates they support.

He’s not too impressed yet with the details put forward by the rest of the field, including his former Harvard Law colleague Elizabeth Warren, nor does he have much sympathy for the longshot candidates in the race, even though he once was one.

"I look at some of these candidates and I’m wondering why they’re running,” he said, saying he ran to advance a clear set of policy ideas, while some candidates today seem in it for themselves. “It’s like a vanity show.”

ActBlue sets off-year fundraising record ahead of difficult midterm

Nearly $1.3 billion flowed to Democratic campaigns and groups through the online fundraising platform ActBlue in 2021, a record amount for a non-midterm or non-presidential election year. 

The 4.5 million donors who made contributions through ActBlue last year fueled nearly 18,000 Democratic organizations, according to figures shared first with NBC News. Nearly $353 million was raised through the platform in the last three months of the year alone.

"Donors have built a strong foundation. They are engaged and ready to mobilize for candidates and causes on the ballot this year," ActBlue’s executive director Erin Hill said in a statement. 

Democrats are gearing up for a difficult midterm election cycle, with historic trends and President Joe Biden’s low approval rating pointing to likely losses in the battle for Congress. But ActBlue’s figures could be a sign that small-dollar donors will continue to fuel Democratic campaigns, which have enjoyed financial advantages in the last two election cycles.  

The 2021 figure is more than double the $523 million that flowed through the platform in 2017, as Democratic online fundraising exploded ahead of the 2018 midterms. Grassroots donors channeled their anxiety over former President Donald Trump into contributions to Democratic campaigns that election cycle, resulting in eye-popping hauls for House and Senate candidates. 

But strong fundraising doesn’t always translate into success at the ballot box. Although Biden won the White House in 2020, Democrats lost House seats and several hotly contested Senate races, despite record fundraising. 

Republicans have tried to replicate Democrats’ online fundraising success, launching their own platform known as WinRed in 2019. Donors sent $559 million to GOP campaigns and organizations through WinRed in 2021, including $158 million in the final fundraising quarter of the year.

Elizabeth Warren takes sides in key House primaries

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., took sides in three House Democratic primaries Wednesday, including two contests where redistricting has forced sitting House members to run against each other. 

Warren endorsed Georgia Rep. Lucy McBath and Michigan Rep. Andy Levin in their respective primaries on Thursday. McBath is facing fellow Democratic Rep. Carolyn Bordeaux in the newly drawn 7th District while Levin is facing Rep. Haley Stevens in the 11th District. 

The progressive senator’s decision to weigh in on these primaries is the latest sign that these contests could become proxy fights for the direction of the Democratic Party. She also endorsed Austin City Council member Greg Cesar in the open seat race for Texas’ 35th District, touting Casar’s support for “Medicare for All.” 

McBath flipped Georgia’s 6th District in 2018, and Bordeaux’s victory in 2020 was one of the few bright spots for House Democrats that year. But the Republican-led Georgia legislature made McBath’s 6th district more conservative, while Bordeaux’s 7th District became more Democratic, prompting McBath to take on the first-term congresswoman. 

Levin and Stevens are competing in the 11th District, which shifted to the left under the new congressional lines Michigan’s independent redistricting commission approved last month. Stevens, who flipped a GOP-held seat in 2018, is the more moderate lawmaker. Levin, who replaced his father in Congress, is a member of the Progressive Caucus.

Top Senate GOP outside effort raised $94.4 million in 2021

Senate Republicans’ affiliated campaign apparatus — its top super PAC and its affiliated nonprofit — raised a combined $94.4 million in 2021 as the battle for Senate control takes shape. 

The massive haul, raised by the Senate Leadership Fund and One Nation, is $26 million more than the two groups raised in the last off-year (2019). A spokesman for SLF and One Nation also confirmed that when the totals from its two other allied groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, are added into the mix, the Republican apparatus ended 2021 with $87.5 million banked away. (Super PACs and various non-profits are organized differently, with different laws governing how the groups fundraise and when the groups have to disclose it.)

Fox News first reported the fundraising totals. 

SLF, which is aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is a major player in Senate races. It spent $266 million on advertising alone during the 2020 cycle (through the Georgia runoffs), where Republicans were defending their Senate majority. And it’s expected to spend hundreds of millions this cycle as Republicans aim to take back the body. 

Spokespeople for the Democrats’ comparable outside group, Senate Majority PAC, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. SMP spent $229.9 million last cycle on advertising alone, and is also expected to be a major player in the Senate races again. 

One Nation has already spent $15 million on TV ads this cycle, with SLF adding another $200,000. SMP has spent $2.3 million so far this cycle, with its allied non-profit Majority Forward adding another $5 million, per the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.

Bridget Bowman contributed

Teachers union survey finds support for teaching about racism in middle and high schools

A majority of parents think that middle and high school students should learn about critical race theory and white privilege in school, according to a new poll commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers and released Tuesday. 

The poll, which surveyed 1,308 registered voters who are also parents on behalf of the teachers union, found that 71 percent supported teaching middle and high schoolers about the extent of racism in America today, 61 percent supported teaching critical race theory and 58 percent supported lessons on systemic racism and white privilege. A majority also supported teaching about gender identity, sex education and the “values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

The poll found less support for teaching these topics to elementary school students, with just under half of respondents in favor of lessons on critical race theory, systemic racism and white privilege for younger children. 

The poll did not provide respondents with a definition of critical race theory or ask how they defined it. It is an academic concept typically taught in graduate-level college courses that evaluates ways that racism is perpetuated by laws, policies and institutions in American society, but conservatives have appropriated the term to refer to discussions and initiatives around race that they believe are too progressive. 

Previous polling by Fox News, Yahoo! News and universities has found significant portions of the American public do not know what critical race theory is. Rancor over race-related lessons in schools has already become a major issue in state legislatures this year.

Parents also indicated in the AFT poll that they largely felt confident in how public schools have handled the Covid-19 pandemic. Only 22 percent said they believe their child’s school moved too quickly to go back to in-person instruction, and nearly three-quarters favored requiring students and teachers to wear masks in school.

The respondents were evenly split between those who identified as Democrats and Republicans, both at 42 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Fight over campaign-finance law adds to contentious GOP primary

In Georgia’s highly competitive GOP gubernatorial primary between incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp and challenger David Perdue, one organization has bombarded Perdue with almost $1 million worth of TV ads.

“That’s David Perdue — putting China and himself first, Georgia and Georgia families last,” goes one of the ads.

The group behind the advertisements is Georgians First Leadership Committee. 

It’s able to coordinate with Kemp, raise unlimited funds from donors and solicit contributions during the state’s legislative session.

It has campaign-finance-reform advocates crying foul and Perdue launching a lawsuit in response.

And it was created by a bill Kemp signed into law last May, allowing only incumbents serving in leadership roles — like governor and lieutenant governor — and party nominees to form these types of committees.

That means that since July, Kemp has been able to raise unlimited funds with virtually no restrictions through his leadership committee. Meanwhile, Perdue (who is challenging Kemp) and Stacey Abrams (the frontrunner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination) have been locked out of forming these leadership committees, and locked into state campaign contribution limits.

Only after they win their respective primary contests in May will Perdue and Abrams be authorized to form such leadership committees.

“What it means is that those who are in power can raise lots of money,” said Paul Herrnson, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and an expert on campaign-finance issues.

“And those who are not — can't.”

An uneven playing field?

Since incumbents are the only ones able to form leadership committees before the primary elections under the Georgia law, they can tap unlimited funding sources others don’t have access to until much later in the election cycle, activists and campaign-finance experts argue.

“This is a problem because it puts more money into the hands of incumbents … and those incumbents in Georgia generally are Republicans,” said Aunna Dennis, the executive director of Common Cause Georgia.

Plus, these leadership committees have no contribution limits. By contrast, principal campaign committees in the race for Georgia’s governor have $7,600 contribution limits.

“That is a huge problem for democracy,” Paul S. Ryan, the vice president of policy and litigation for Common Cause, said. 

Another oft-cited ethical concern with this new law is that the leadership committees are allowed to collect money during the legislative session, something that was previously strictly prohibited.

“Up until this point … you couldn’t raise money [during the session],” said Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

“The idea was that you wouldn't have a situation where a lobbyist writes you a big check just before a vote on something which is dear to the heart of that lobbyist,” he added.

Kemp’s legal team pushes back against this concern, arguing in recent legal filings that leadership committees accepting contributions during the legislative session actually levels the playing field during the legislative session, so that incumbents can keep up with challengers’ levels of fundraising. 

“Challengers like Perdue may fundraise year-round, while incumbents are prohibited from fundraising for a substantial part of the year— the portion directly leading up to the primary election,” Kemp’s lawyers wrote.

But in a lawsuit challenging the law, Perdue’s campaign contends that the Supreme Court has previously ruled that imposing different campaign limits on two candidates running for the same office is unconstitutional. 

Perdue’s campaign also echoes the argument from campaign-finance-reform advocates: The law disadvantages challengers and allows for the appearance of corruption during the legislative session.

Yet Kemp’s lawyers counter that Perdue’s standing as a former U.S. senator, his personal wealth and his endorsement from former President Donald Trump precludes him from any competitive disadvantage he claims he has against Kemp and the Georgians First Leadership Committee.

Kemp’s office declined to comment to NBC News.

Voting rights, election integrity rank among top issues in NBC News poll

Voting rights and election issues have dominated the headlines in recent weeks, and they have also been top-of-mind for voters, according to the latest national NBC News poll.

Twenty-five percent of all adults surveyed in the poll listed “voting rights and election integrity” among the issues they consider the most important facing the country. The only issues that ranked higher were jobs and the economy, which was a key issue for a combined 42 percent of respondents, and the coronavirus, which 29 percent chose as a top issue. 

The January survey was the first time pollsters included “voting rights and election integrity” as an option in the range of issues, which also included the cost of living, border security and immigration and climate change.

“It performed higher than I expected,” said Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican firm that conducted the poll along with the Democratic firm Hart Research Associates.

McInturff added that the response “lets you know that it's become a national issue.”  

The poll was conducted from Jan. 14 -18, just as Democrats tried to move forward on sweeping election legislation, which may have contributed to its higher rank among the top issues.  

The survey also revealed a stark partisan divide: Respondents were asked which issue — voting rights or election integrity — was more important. 

Sixty-seven percent of Democrats said voting rights were more important, versus 75 percent of Republicans who said election integrity.

Former President Donald Trump’s repeated lies about the 2020 election have also taken hold with his core supporters. Eighty-three percent of Republicans who said election integrity was more important also considered themselves supporters of Trump more than the Republican Party.

The NBC News poll, which surveyed 1,000 adults, including 650 who could be reached only by cell phone, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Cuellar launches new ad after FBI raid: "I'll never stop fighting for South Texas"

Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar is out with a new ad just days after the FBI searched his home and campaign office — a spot that makes no reference to the investigation but frames Cuellar as a mainstay in the district who will "never stop fighting for South Texas."

The ad, released both in English and Spanish, features Cuellar talking about how he achieved the "American Dream," working his way through school as the son of migrant workers. 

"I know the American dream can grow here, with good schools, affordable health care and better pay," Cuellar says in the ad

"This land gave my family a chance. That's why I'll never stop fighting for South Texas." 

Cuellar was already facing a tough primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros, the immigration lawyer who narrowly lost to him last cycle. But last week's FBI raid, which reportedly has to do with an investigation into Azerbaijan and U.S. businessmen, has injected uncertainty into the race ahead of the March 1 primary. 

The congressman's office has said that he "will fully cooperate in any investigation" and is committed to ensuring that justice and the law are upheld.”

Cisneros issued a statement last week saying the campaign is "closely watching" the developments but "in the meantime, we are focused on our campaign to deliver change to South Texas families and will not be making any additional comments at this time.” 

DNC emphasizes organizing, litigation as party regroups on voting rights fight

With a sweeping federal election overhaul stalled in the Senate, the Democratic Party is underscoring voter education and organizing efforts with a promise to "invest more than ever" ahead of critical midterm contests.

The Democratic National Committee, in a memo obtained first by NBC News, detailed past and ongoing voter protection work, litigation, and organizing infrastructure as a model of what they say has been successful in past years as the party regroups for a cycle in which many states have undergone changes to its voting rules since the 2020 presidential election.

Voting rights advocates have long argued that these organizing and state-level voter education and litigation efforts, which are costly, are not enough. Still, without Congress passing federal legislation, Democrats have few other options to counter the dozens of mostly Republican-led restrictive laws. Republicans control the majority of state legislatures and much of the redistricting process that will help decide future state legislature control, too.

“Our goal is simple: to invest more than ever before to help Americans overcome Republican obstacles to voting while we continue to fight back in courts and at the polls,” wrote Reyna Walters-Morgan, the DNC's director of voter protection and civic engagement, in the memo.

The DNC said they’ll build on the “I Will Vote” initiative, a longstanding effort that was expanded into voter education, protection and registration in 2020. Some of the DNC’s initial $20 million midterm investment — which was announced in April 2021 — will be spent on “dozens” of voter protection staff in states including Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin, according to the memo.

The DNC also plans to use data tools to monitor everything from voter rolls to issues at the polls, as they work to detect problematic voter roll purges or other problems at polling sites, the memo said, while also boosting state parties.

For example, in Michigan, the national party is helping the state party oppose a legislative maneuver that would use a ballot petition to circumvent the Democratic governor’s veto on voting rights, the memo notes. The national party in particular helped fund legal costs related to the state level certification of the language that could appear on the ballot petition, and said they plan to continue to boost the state party's work.

Meet the Midterms: New Biden voters in Georgia ‘turned off’ by GOP election fraud claims

Today's MTP Daily aired live from Georgia, a state that is chock full of just about every storyline that will help play a role in shaping the 2022 midterms. 

Watch the video below to hear from a panel of voters — all chose President Joe Biden in 2020 after either voting third-party or for President Donald Trump in 2016 — discuss the impact of Trump's repeated false claims he won the election, as well as how that plays into their perspective moving forward. 

McBath gets two endorsements in Georgia’s redistricting face-off between Democratic members

Two high-profile Democratic political groups are backing Rep. Lucy McBath in her primary against fellow congresswoman Carolyn Bourdeaux in Georgia’s member-on-member, post-redistricting matchup.  

The Congressional Black Caucus's political arm, CBCPAC, tweeted its official support for McBath's re-election early Wednesday. And the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund later announced its endorsement of McBath, who has advocated for gun legislation reform since her 17-year-old son Jordan Davis was shot and killed in 2012. 

McBath, who currently represents Georgia's 6th U.S. House District, and Bourdeaux, from the 7th District, are facing off in the state's newly drawn 7th Congressional District ahead of the November general election after maps were re-drawn in Georgia.

Everytown for Gun Safety in its statement backing McBath also announced its support for Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) over fellow Democratic Rep. Sean Casten in Illinois’ newly drawn 6th Congressional District. Like McBath and Bourdeaux, Newman and Casten were forced into competing against each other after new House District maps were crafted in the redistricting process.

“The gun safety movement has grown into a national force because volunteers like Representatives Lucy McBath and Marie Newman are willing to do whatever it takes to keep their communities safe, including leading the fight on Capitol Hill,” Everytown for Gun Safety President John Feinblatt said. “Representatives McBath and Newman can count on the support of Everytown, just as we have counted on their unflinching leadership when it comes to advancing life-saving laws.”

 

The organization vowed to provide financial support to both McBath and Newman in their contests along with a "grassroots army of Moms Demand Action volunteers supporting them, knocking on doors, making calls and talking with their friends, families and neighbors." McBath and Newman are former volunteers for Moms Demand Action — a leg of Everytown — the group stated.

 

Everytown previously endorsed both Bourdeaux and Casten in their 2020 elections. Neither of their campaigns immediately responded to a request for comment. 

Arizona Senator Kelly will back filibuster change for voting bills

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., announced Wednesday he will vote to change the Senate’s filibuster rules for voting legislation even as both the rules change and the underlying Democratic push to pass landmark elections bills appear doomed

Kelly, who had long avoided taking a firm position on reforming the filibuster until Democratic leadership decided to take a vote on the issue, announced his decision in a statement where he decried the “dysfunctional” Senate. 

“If campaign finance and voting rights reforms are blocked again this week, I will support the proposed changes to pass them with a majority vote. Protecting the vote-by-mail system used by a majority of Arizonans and getting dark money out of our elections is too important to let fall victim to Washington dysfunction,” he said. 

The plan by Senate Democrats is their latest attempt to pass a sweeping voting and elections bill by sidestepping the filibuster, a 60-vote threshold to debate legislation. Most Democrats want to change the rule to allow senators to only block voting bills while they're speaking on the floor. But Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., oppose altering the filibuster, robbing Democrats of the votes needed to actually change the rule. 

Republicans have been trying to play Kelly off of his Democratic colleague, Sinema, on the issue of the filibuster for months, running ads using Sinema to frame Kelly as not independent enough to represent a state President Joe Biden won by just 10,000 votes. But Kelly’s been in a squeeze on the issue, as much of the Democratic base has been adamant that their party do whatever it takes to pass its voting legislation, attacking Sinema for defending the filibuster

Kelly is a top Republican target in 2022 after winning a special election in 2020 to serve out the final two years of the late GOP Sen. John McCain’s term. That year, he defeated former GOP Rep. Martha McSally by 2 percentage points. Kelly is running for a full term this year. 

Multiple Republicans are competing for their party’s nomination, including Attorney General Mark Brnovich, energy executive Jim Lamon, and Blake Masters, who runs billionaire Peter Thiel’s investment firm and foundation. 

—Garrett Haake contributed reporting.