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DeSantis cashes in on rising star status with big-money blitz

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Ron DeSantis holds his daughter Madison as he and his wife, Casey, pose for a photograph with President and Mrs. Trump.

The blitz comes as DeSantis draws widespread interest from Republican Party donors eyeing the next generation of party leaders, who have praised him for his anti-coronavirus lockdown policies and his combativeness toward the media. With the prospect of a Donald Trump comeback bid still uncertain, many contributors scoping out the party’s bench are flooding DeSantis with five-, six-, and even seven-figure checks for his 2022 campaign in Florida.

DeSantis’ cross-country fundraising swing draws parallels to former President George W. Bush, who courted donors outside his home state in the run-up to his 1998 reelection race. Bush received financial support for his gubernatorial campaign and, crucially, developed the national finance network that became a foundation of his presidential bid two years later.

“DeSantis is very smart to use his reelection and his national ascendancy to travel the country, raising money and building a network that could serve him well in 2022 and beyond,” said Scott Jennings, a former top Bush political adviser. “Circumstances are coming together for him quite nicely, and his operation appears agile enough to understand it all and take advantage of it.”

DeSantis allies say he’s focused solely on the 2022 contest and, if anything, finds talk of a 2024 run an unwelcome distraction. DeSantis faces the hurdle of running for reelection in a perennial swing state he won by only a fraction of a percentage point in 2018, and senior Republicans view him as one of the party’s most vulnerable incumbent governors up for election next year. The race has drawn a pair of potentially formidable Democratic candidates: state Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried and Rep. Charlie Crist, who is seeking a comeback after serving as a Republican more than a decade ago. Crist later switched parties.

Bush, by contrast, had the luxury of running for reelection in a state he had already won comfortably. When he ran again in 1998, he received more than two-thirds of the vote.

But Republican givers are treating DeSantis as a national figure. Invitations to Thursday’s fundraiser, which is being co-hosted by former San Diego County GOP Chairman Tony Krvaric and real estate investor Cathy Herrick, dub DeSantis as “America’s Governor.” Attendees are being asked to pony up as much as $100,000.

“The interest is sky-high and we expect a very successful visit,” Krvaric said in a text message.

DeSantis’ recent out-of-state fundraising travels have taken him to Lexington, Ky., where former U.N. ambassador and GOP megadonor Kelly Craft hosted a reception and dinner that drew around $300,000 for the governor’s reelection effort.

Craft, one of the party’s most sought-after contributors and a likely future candidate for governor of Kentucky herself, noted that many of the attendees had second homes in Florida. She said there was a desire to hear DeSantis talk about how he’d handled the pandemic.

“I just felt he was a perfect fit to come into Kentucky, especially with the group that we had. A lot of the folks have places in Florida and the reception was amazing,” said Craft. “This is a guy who has a national name but at the same time is focused on Floridians.”

DeSantis also raised money in Pennsylvania last month, and he attended a series of donor events in Texas, including one hosted by venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale and another by Kent Hance, a former congressman and past chancellor of the Texas Tech University System.

“We put together a 40-person lunch with six days’ notice and raised $80,000. The interest and demand were absolutely off the charts,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist and fundraiser who co-hosted another event.

The list of major out-of-state donors to DeSantis this year includes Chicago hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, who cut a $5 million check, and Boston-based private equity investor John Childs, who gave $250,000. Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, who resides in Atlanta, chipped in another $250,000.

It’s unclear whether DeSantis’ national fundraising travels will extend into 2022, as the election draws closer and the demands of a swing-state campaign intensify.

After crisscrossing the country in the summer and fall of 1997, Bush’s out-of-state fundraising tapered off in 1998, when he focused on campaigning in Texas. By the time the dust had settled on the 1998 race, Bush had cultivated a national network of donors that included Florida real estate developer Mel Sembler, Arizona auto dealer Jim Click, and Massachusetts technology executive Richard Egan. Some of the national donors who bankrolled Bush’s 1998 effort would ultimately become members of the “Pioneer” program that bundled large sums for Bush’s successful 2000 presidential campaign.

DeSantis isn’t the only governor cultivating a national donor base. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who is also up for reelection next year, has been traveling beyond the confines of her small state. Noem, who has raised money in such states as Tennessee, Texas and Florida, has received financial support from the likes of California-based donors Richard and Stacy Kofoed, both of whom were major Trump backers. The governor is being shepherded around the country by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

Should they run in 2024, however, DeSantis and Noem may confront other Republicans who have more established donor bases. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who developed a wide network of contributors during his 2016 presidential bid, earlier this year held a donor retreat where the prospect of a national campaign was a subject of discussion, according to a person familiar with the event. Cruz also has a large base of small dollar givers; during the first three months of the year he raised over $5 million, more than any other Republican senator.

But being forced to run for reelection next year may turn out to be a blessing for DeSantis, giving him entrée to benefactors who see good reason to cut checks. Other would-be presidential contenders who aren’t running in the midterm elections, such as former Vice President Mike Pence and ex-U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, are seeking out other ways to remain relevant, such as throwing themselves into congressional races.

“Some of the other candidates don’t have 2022 reelections,” said Jennings, “so they are in the phantom zone to some degree until Trump decides what he’s going to do.”

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Why Mike Lindell Can’t Stop

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Why Mike Lindell Can’t Stop

More than half a year after Trump lost the presidential election, and with establishment-minded Republicans growing weary of re-litigating its outcome, Lindell has become the embodiment of a specific friction point in the Republican Party’s post-election identity: where the belief that the election was rigged, still widely held among the populist Republican voting base, is crashing into a political and legal system that long ago accepted the reality that it wasn’t.

Just last month, a judge in Antrim County, Michigan, dismissed one of the last remaining election fraud lawsuits brought after the November election, a case to which many supporters, including Lindell, had pinned their hopes. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, declared recently: “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. I think that is all over with.”

Lindell hasn’t let go. For that, he’s becoming less welcome in some GOP circles. Last month, he was kicked out of a meeting of the Republican Governors Association in Nashville, Tennessee, to which he said he’d originally been invited. His business has also suffered. More than 20 retailers have dropped his product, and Dominion Voting Systems, the voting machine maker, filed a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit against MyPillow and Lindell earlier this year, accusing Lindell of spreading false accusations that the election was rigged.

Lindell calls the Dominion suit a “big joke.” But in a lawsuit filed recently against Dominion and another voting machine manufacturer, Smartmatic, Lindell estimates he could suffer damages exceeding $2 billion from what he claimed is the companies’ “reign of litigation terror and conspiracy to deprive Lindell and others of their constitutionally protected freedom of political expression.” In addition, he said his reputation has suffered and that he has been subjected to “threats to his personal safety and life.”

Not long ago, Lindell was considered a potential contender for public office in Minnesota, a business-entertainer-turned-politician not unlike Trump or Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler who served a term as Minnesota governor. Today, Lindell complains he can’t even get booked on TV. (His recent appearance on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” was “a miracle,” he said, even if Kimmel mostly mocked him.)

Lindell has said the election will be “pulled down” and that Trump will be back in office by August, something Trump himself has reportedly been telling people. At the MyPillow headquarters, Lindell hedged on the exact month, suggesting he “might be off by, maybe it’s September.” Regardless, he offered another firm deadline he’s certain of: “I will tell you this. The election is coming down, 100 percent, and there will be no machines in 2022.”

Even in Minnesota’s Republican-leaning Carver County, southwest of Minneapolis—and even among some supporters of Lindell’s who have known him for decades—there is a sense that that might not happen, and that if it doesn’t, the fallout might be too much for Lindell.

In her living room overlooking the Minnesota River not far from the MyPillow offices, Jeanette Lenzen, who with her husband, Dick, once rented Lindell an old bus shed where he made some of his first pillows, said, “Mike makes me nervous because he’s so hyper. … I like what he’s trying to do, but I think he might be going too far.”

Lindell, she said, is up against “the tweeters and the Facebook people,” who she said have “so much power.”

“He’s done so well, I worry that he’ll lose everything,” Lenzen said. “He just has all the faith in God that God’s going to help him get all this stuff. But sometimes, God says ‘No.’”

If you understand Mike Lindell’s biography, however, it’s not clear what, if anything, will make him stop.

Before Lindell was ever talking about God or Trump or election machines, before the idea for a pillow came to him in a dream, there was Schmitty’s Tavern, the bar he owned in Victoria, Minn., and whose atmosphere—if you plucked Lindell off a stage and dropped him back behind the bar—would approximate, in miniature, the election conspiracy circus he orchestrates today.

Before he purchased the bar with gambling winnings in 1990, a friend who had scouted it out for him told him the clientele was “falling-down drunk. They’re rowdy and throwing stuff. It’s a nut house!” Lindell recalled in his memoir. The friend “didn’t want to have anything to do with Schmitty’s.”

Lindell thought: “This sounds like my kind of place.”

Raised in a trailer park not far from the bar, near a pickle factory in Chaska, Lindell wrote that as a boy he never felt like he fit in with other kids, but “learned a technique that made up for it, a new habit that would become a pattern that lasted well into adulthood: showing off.” There were little things, like jumping into a snowbank from the window of a moving school bus. And there were things that nearly killed him, according to Lindell’s account.

“I fell into a lake and was trapped under a sheet of ice,” he wrote. “I was nearly electrocuted by a bolt of power so massive that it shut down half the town. I bought a motorcycle and wrecked it twice—the second time on the way to a skydiving lesson, during which I smashed into the ground at 60 miles per hour because my parachute didn’t fully open.”

“I began to feel invincible,” Lindell wrote.

By the 1980s, Lindell, after dropping out of college, had a part-time job as a bartender in Chaska and had learned to count cards, a skill he’d return to over the years at blackjack tables in Nevada when he needed money to cover debts. He was addicted to alcohol, cocaine and gambling, on the hook to his bookies for tens of thousands of dollars, with multiple DUIs and a theft conviction on his record.

In Schmitty’s Tavern, across from Steiger Lake, he created “a daily escape from reality,” he wrote. In his book, Lindell describes “people dancing on the bar, spraying each other with Super Soakers, hanging upside down from the rafters … someone setting off a brick of firecrackers.” Lindell was an accommodating host, allowing customers to write bad checks and waiting to cash them until payday, and he had a loyal following. He wrote, “I was selling alcohol, but I wasn’t selling alcohol, if you know what I mean. I was selling fun. Family. Belonging.”

Lindell added, “Maybe that was because, beginning in childhood, I never felt like I belonged.”

Today, Lindell is recognizable in living rooms across the country for the late-night infomercials that, beginning in 2011, sparked a massive expansion of MyPillow’s brand. The privately held company says it now employs more than 1,600 people and has sold more than 50 million pillows. Lindell is wealthy enough that he said he spent “millions of dollars” on network security for his Frank website and $2 million on private investigators to pursue his election fraud claims. He flies on a private jet.

Schmitty’s Tavern has since been re-named and remodeled by new owners, and it’s no longer as uninhibited as when it belonged to Lindell. But some of Lindell’s old friends and clients still drink there. When I walked in with a list of nicknames mentioned in the book—“Skelly, Petey, Pokey, Fly Man, Mohawk, Sibby,” among others—and asked if anyone knew them, Paul Johnson, who was drinking a Budweiser, said, “I’m Pokey.”

He recalled Lindell going “on benders for days, not just hours, days,” he said, a memory that squares with Lindell’s own memoir. At the time, Johnson said his expectation for Lindell was that “we’d end up finding him dead.”

“He’s a hyper guy,” Johnson said. “But he loves people.”

Johnson isn’t convinced, as Lindell is, that Trump will be reinstated. But he said, “I like what he’s doing. He ain’t going to back down, either.”

Sitting nearby, a man ordered two Jacks and Coke and said Johnson was probably right. But he felt like he’d seen this already—in Lindell’s two failed marriages, in a career that, before MyPillow took off, was always up and down.

“He always built things up and lost,” he said.

Nearly 20 years since Lindell sold the bar, it’s not hard to see the spirit of Schmitty’s still alive in Lindell’s new obsession. If Schmitty’s was, as Lindell wrote, “a place that made you forget your troubles for a while,” today he offers Trump loyalists a comforting fantasy that they don’t really live in an America where 7 million more people picked Joe Biden.

Lindell, in fairness, has a different takeaway from his time running Schmitty’s. The bar, he said, helped him learn marketing and how to “read people.” But when I suggested to him that in both instances he was creating a community around him, he did not disagree.

One difference today, Lindell said, is “the community’s a lot bigger. A lot bigger.”

It may also be more dangerous, at least to the nation, than drunk people shooting Super Soakers in a bar. In an interview at MyPillow with Eric Metaxas, the evangelical author and radio host, Lindell described himself as “a hub of a wheel” when it came to unsubstantiated claims about the election, when “people just started pouring it onto me because I was the last voice, so to speak. … There was nowhere else to go.”

The first piece of collateral damage might be Lindell himself. If Trump had won re-election in November—or had Lindell not plunged himself so completely into Trump’s fantasy that the election was rigged—Lindell would today have a credible future in Republican politics in Minnesota. The chairman of Trump’s 2020 campaign in the state, Lindell had been encouraged by Trump to run for Minnesota governor. The chair of the state Republican Party, Jennifer Carnahan, pre-endorsed Lindell, writing on Twitter last year that “we are going to make him our next Governor,” and Lindell himself said he was “99 percent” sure he’d run.

In the aftermath of Trump’s defeat, both Lindell’s interest in running and any chance of doing so effectively appear to have diminished. In January, shortly before Biden’s inauguration, Lindell was photographed walking into the White House with notes mentioning the possibility of declaring “martial law,” tying Lindell inextricably to the fringiest excesses of a president who lost Minnesota by about 7 percentage points. Responding to this newfound prominence, the in-state press in Minnesota began to examine him more critically. The Minnesota Reformer news site unearthed old allegations of abuse against Lindell by an ex-girlfriend and an ex-wife, claims Lindell has denied.

Like Trump, Lindell was banned from Twitter for spreading election disinformation. Then came the Dominion lawsuit and the flight of retailers like Kohl’s and Bed Bath & Beyond.

In an effort to show support, John Thomas, a Republican strategist from California who got to know Lindell at past Conservative Political Action Conferences, said he told Lindell recently that he’d purchased some of his sheets. (They were better after washing, Thomas said. Initially, “they chafed me a little bit.”) He was worried about Lindell’s business, he said, but Lindell didn’t share his concerns. He said Lindell told him, “They’ve already done their worst. What else can they do to me?”

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Pompeo launches political group ahead of summer campaign blitz

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Pompeo launches political group ahead of summer campaign blitz

Pompeo, who spent three terms in the House before joining the Trump administration, deflected questions about his interest in a White House run, saying that his focus was on bolstering Republican candidates up and down the ballot in 2022. While Pompeo has made trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, he said he also planned to be active in other states without the same central role in presidential nominating contests.

“It is unambiguously clear to me that if we don’t get it right in the next 16 or 17 months, what will happen over these next four years will make it incredibly difficult for whoever is elected president in 2024. So that is my singular focus,” said Pompeo, who noted that he had told party leaders in both congressional chambers that he would help ahead of the midterms.

The 57-year-old, Harvard Law School-educated Pompeo has embraced the role of campaign surrogate since leaving the State Department earlier this year. Since the end of February, he has appeared at more than 25 events, including more than a half-dozen for House Republicans and several for the party’s House and Senate campaign organizations.

Before the end of June, he is to make an appearance at the Republican National Committee’s summer donor retreat in Dana Point, Calif. and will hold a fundraiser for California Rep. Mike Garcia, who narrowly won reelection last November. In July, he is to speak at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. as part of a series on the future of the Republican Party. He is also expected to host an upcoming event for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is up for reelection next year.

“We’re going to go out, and we’ve started this already, but we’re going to go out and expand to a greater degree, helping candidates all across the country,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo said he was willing to intervene in contested Republican primaries, indicating that he would be looking to back candidates who presented the party with the best chance of winning the general election against a Democrat. He has already thrown his support to several candidates facing nomination fights, including Trump White House press secretary and Arkansas gubernatorial hopeful Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and New York Rep. Lee Zeldin, a gubernatorial contender who is running against Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York City mayor and Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

“You can absolutely imagine me getting involved in races where there are multiple Republican candidates,” Pompeo said. “My goal is pretty clear: I want to elect the most conservative electable candidate we can find in each of these races, whether its school board, city council, or a United States Senate seat.”

Pompeo follows two other high-profile Trump administration figures, former Vice President Mike Pence and ex-U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who have also recently set up committees that will allow them to support candidates. They provide a political foundation for the trio, who unlike many of the other potential 2024 contenders do not have the ready-made platform that comes with currently holding public office.

Like Pompeo, Pence and Haley are also expected to keep packed political calendars this summer. And with the House up for grabs next year, all three are engaging heavily in congressional contests.

It’s a well-worn strategy among future presidential hopefuls, who have used it to earn chits from lawmakers, cultivate donors and introduce themselves to activists across the country. Two years before his 1968 election as president, Richard Nixon campaigned heavily for Republican candidates in a midterm election that saw sweeping gains for the party. Two years prior to becoming the GOP nominee, now-Sen. Mitt Romney crisscrossed the country for Republicans during a 2010 midterm election where the party took control of the House.

The former secretary of state’s travel schedule shows how he has begun to court social conservatives, who traditionally play a key role in GOP nominating contests. Pompeo, an evangelical, has made a handful of appearances this year before Christian-oriented organizations, including a pair at Kansans for Life and one at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. The Family Leadership Summit, where Pompeo will appear later this summer, is overseen by Bob Vander Plaats, an influential Iowa-based social conservative.

CAVPAC, named after the U.S. Army Cavalry, in which Pompeo served, originally filed papers with the Federal Election Commission in February. But the committee’s public launch will provide it with more visibility, which is needed to help it raise funds. The year-and-a-half endeavor, Pompeo said, would require “a fair amount of money.”

Pompeo, who was Trump’s first CIA director before becoming secretary of state, was one of the few senior administration officials who maintained a consistently stable relationship with the former president over his four years in office. Pompeo, who as secretary of state succeeded Rex Tillerson, a frequent target of Trump’s ire, said he still spoke with Trump “from time to time” but declined to disclose what they discussed.

Pompeo dodged a question about whether he would run for president if Trump mounted a 2024 comeback bid, saying he hadn’t “given it enough thought” because he was focused on the 2022 elections, not the next race for the White House.

But he added that he was intent on “deliver[ing] good outcomes for the American people” and said that “wherever I can be the most effective in delivering those outcomes, whether it’s as a candidate, or in this case supporting candidates, that’s what my wife and I aim to do.”

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Opinion | The Republican Case for Federal LGBT Rights

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Opinion | The Republican Case for Federal LGBT Rights

For the national Republican Party, this issue gives us the chance to do some good, win back millions of voters we’ve alienated, and move on to other important areas where we still have the moral high ground.

Some Republican operatives think they’re better off continuing to fight on this front of the culture war, and plenty of Democratic operatives think the same. The partisan vote in the House reflects an unwillingness—on both sides—to negotiate. But gay and trans rights are no longer the wedge issue they were in the early aughts. Times have changed, and Republicans’ best bet now is to reach a negotiated peace with the other side.

Democrats know the current version of the Equality Act could never pass in the Senate in its current form. And it might seem that in the current environment, common ground is out of reach. But senators of both parties have no chance of portraying themselves as reasonable unless they make a good-faith effort to reach a deal. Democrats cannot clear this hurdle unless they deal fairly with Republicans like Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski, as well as conservative Democrat Joe Manchin. As for Republicans, they need to be willing to back an alternative rather than just saying “no.”

For religious conservatives, and by extension the Republicans who represent many of them, the problem with the current bill is that it appears to threaten their religious freedom and fails to adequately grapple with First Amendment concerns. They cannot support legislation that would imperil their operations, including the vital social services they provide in underserved communities around the country.

Several states have enacted laws similar to the Equality Act in recent years, but always with religious liberty protections. For instance, Rhode Island has a robust anti-discrimination law with reasonable protections for religious groups. These protections ensure that Catholic Social Services—and any other religious groups—can continue to provide valuable services in the state.

Similarly, Utah’s success in passing anti-discrimination legislation offers a path forward. Although its state government is controlled by Republicans at every level, Utah has some of the strongest protections for gay and trans people in the nation. In 2015, with the support of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and state LGBTQ leaders, Utah’s Republican legislature passed a comprehensive non-discrimination bill with reasonable protections for religious organizations.

I worked on the campaign to pass it, and found that Republicans were far more open to gay rights if a bill simply respected these protections, and Democrats were able to get behind it as well. It was a fair outcome that both sides liked. As a result, the law has enjoyed widespread support among the public. The people of Utah are tied with Vermont for the second-highest rates of support for LGBTQ non-discrimination protections.

In Congress, instead of working toward such a deal, many Democrats grandstand and posture, insisting—wrongly—that they can pass the Equality Act as currently written. Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, for instance, has never complained about the religious exemptions in his own state’s anti-discrimination laws, yet for some reason he draws a line in the sand at the federal level, denouncing any effort to provide similar exemptions in the Equality Act. Meanwhile, most Republicans complain about these missing provisions without offering their support for a bill that included such guarantees.

Utah should serve as a blueprint for both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. The Fairness for All Act, an alternative version of the Equality Act, draws from the popular Utah law. Senate Republicans should introduce this bill and use its language to amend the Equality Act.

Support by Republican lawmakers for these types of changes would deliver a broader win to religious conservatives as well: Perhaps surprisingly, the best and possibly only way to achieve robust religious-freedom protections nationwide is by agreeing to LGBTQ non-discrimination protections, codifying an expansion of civil rights for religion alongside protections for sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.

This move would also help Republicans gain back some of the ground they lost with voters over the past several years. Public opinion polling shows that support for LGBTQ civil rights continues to climb, particularly in more educated, suburban districts.

With public support at sky-high levels, a version of the Equality Act will pass eventually. The question is: Which version? And will Republicans take the opportunity to shape it?

Religious conservatives should seize this chance now to influence the process before the culture shifts even more decidedly against them on LGBTQ issues. By making peace on this issue, religious conservatives could get the legal protections they want while also showing themselves to be decent and reasonable people—winning them political goodwill for any future disagreements that might emerge, and allowing lawmakers to move on to pressing issues like the crushing federal debt, defeating coronavirus, unaccompanied minors at the border, human rights abuses by the Chinese Communist Party, crumbling infrastructure and energy independence.

Responsible legislation is within reach, but you can’t win if you don’t play. Reaching a settlement on these issues is better for people of faith, better for LGBTQ people, and better for the country. Republicans should sit down with Democrats and insist on a deal that works for both sides. Common ground is possible.

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