Controversial West Virginia coal magnate jumps into U.S. Senate race

Don Blankenship, the former CEO and chair of Massey Energy, filed federal candidacy papers in December, officially launching his U.S. Senate campaign in West Virginia.

Blankenship’s early rhetoric fits the mold of some of the anti-establishment characters backed this election cycle by former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who’s declared a “war” on the GOP status quo. The difference in this case though is that the 67-year-old coal magnate was just released from prison.

Blankenship spent one year in federal prison on a misdemeanor count of conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards following an explosion at one of Massey Energy’s West Virginia coal mines in which 29 miners were killed in 2010. He was released in May.

Now, he’s running for Senate in a state whose economy has long been fueled by coal.

Blankenship’s candidacy

On November 29, a local TV station in West Virginia announced via Twitter that Blankenship would run in the state’s Republican primary. Blankenship filed his statement of candidacy a couple days later.

Eyeing the Senate seat currently held by Democrat Joe Manchin, Blankenship has entered a crowded field of Republican primary candidates, including state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, coal miner Bo Copley and U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins.

The Senate race is considered a toss-up, according to the Cook Political Report. And it could become another GOP battleground for Bannon and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as the two back different Republican candidates. Bannon has expressed support for Morrisey while McConnell has reportedly maintained that Jenkins is his preferred choice for the race. Robert Mercer, the billionaire GOP donor affiliated with Bannon, initially donated to Jenkins’ campaign but has switched support to Morrisey.

Bannon and Mercer may have already chosen their favorites in the race, but Blankenship shares many of their anti-establishment goals. Despite having twice donated $1,000 to McConnell’s campaigns, Blankenship no longer supports the majority leader.

In an August 2014 blog post, Blankenship characterized McConnell as a “quintessential politician” who doesn’t care about the interests of the coal industry.

“If he is fighting for coal he is not very good at it,” Blankenship, a Kentucky native, wrote in his blog post.

Despite donations to state and national Republican Party committees spanning two decades, Blankenship paints himself as a political outsider. Already, he has suggested government corruption will be a cornerstone of his campaign. Other priority areas include guaranteeing Americans the right to a fair trial and free speech — priority areas inspired by his own legal battles.

Since the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010, which led to his prison time, Blankenship has railed against the U.S. Department of Labor and the government at large, which he accused of orchestrating a cover-up on the scale of Watergate.

“Politicians put me in prison for political and self-serving reasons,” he wrote from prison in a 65-page booklet titled “An American Political Prisoner.”

Political contributions

Blankenship may be a newcomer to this Senate race, but he’s an experienced political donor. Massey Energy, the company he led from 2000 to 2010, was also active in federal lobbying.

Between 1989 and 2014, Blankenship donated $195,200 to Republican candidates and party committees. Of this total, $31,400 went toward the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Among current members of Congress, eight have received contributions directly from Blankenship since 1989. All eight are Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski (Ind.) and Sens. Pat Toomey (Penn.) and Rob Portman (Ohio).

Legal problems

Blankenship has had his fair share of controversy.

Praised by some in Appalachia for leading a relatively successful business for years, Blankenship has also been condemned for his disregard for his employees’ health and work conditions.

In 2010, industrial equipment in the Upper Big Branch Mine owned by Massey Energy kicked up sparks. The sparks ignited a pocket of methane, setting up a chain of explosions in the mine that killed and injured dozens of miners.

At trial following the disaster, it was revealed that Blankenship, whose company had a history of flouting regulations under his leadership, hid safety violations from federal safety inspectors.

According to grand jury testimony, Massey Energy had amassed 835 citations and accrued $900,000 worth of fines in the late 2000s for repeatedly violating mandatory federal mine safety standards.

Consequently, Blankenship initially faced up to 30 years in prison on several charges including felony conspiracy. This was later changed in 2015 to a misdemeanor charge that came with a one-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.

This high-profile case was not Blankenship’s first run-in with the law. Facing a $50 million fraud judgement in 2004, Blankenship, as head of Massey Energy in 2004, donated $5,000 to the political action committee West Virginians for Life, and another $2.5 million to the And for the Sake of the Kids PAC.

The latter PAC funded attack ads against then-West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Warren McGraw. After losing the election, McGraw was replaced by Brent Benjamin, a little-known attorney, who overturned the $50 million verdict in a case that inspired a John Grisham novel.

West Virginia race

As the West Virginia race heats up and an increasing number of candidates enter the race, so too have campaign contributions.

According to the latest FEC data, Jenkins had raised about $900,000 as of December 15, and Morrisey has raised about $675,000. Copley has yet to report contributions to his campaign. Manchin has raised close to $4 million, so far.

Blankenship has yet to receive contributions for the race, but he’s active on social media and already released several political ads. He has a Vimeo account with four followers and announced last month on Twitter that he planned to run political ads on “TV, Facebook and more,” a tweet that drew 48 mixed comments.

Endowment tax affecting Republican districts with GOP support

The GOP-led proposals to levy an excise tax on the investment income of some private colleges and universities would affect dozens of schools represented by a Republican lawmaker.

In a previous article, we wrote about how the proposed 1.4 percent excise tax on the endowment of private colleges and universities in particular would impact institutions with employees whose campaign contributions are predominantly Democratic Party-leaning.

The provisions were included in the tax reform proposals by the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees, whose combined members include 13 Republican senators and three representatives from states or congressional districts with schools likely affected, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Of the estimated 68 schools that would be impacted by the House excise tax, 35 are located in districts or states represented by Republican lawmakers, each of whom voted for the broader tax reform bill.

Three House Republicans – Claudia Tenney of New York, Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania and Todd Rokita of Indiana – were elected in districts with two private schools in jeopardy of paying the endowment tax, which higher education officials oppose for its effect on program services, tuition costs and financial aid for students.

Tenny, Meehan and Rokita each voted in favor of the House tax plan.

The 68-school estimate is based on an analysis of 2014-2015 enrollment and endowment data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and provided to CRP.

Below is a list of schools that would be subject to the endowment tax based on NCES’ analysis along with their congressional districts and representatives.

Eight of the 39 members on the House Ways and Means committee — where the House bill originated — represent a district with at least one school facing the endowment provision. Of the eight members, three are Republican. Thirteen members of the Senate Finance Committee represent 21 schools on the list.

Grinnell College, an Iowa liberal arts school of about 1,700 students, is one of the 68 schools facing the new tax burden. The college is represented in Washington by three Republicans, two senators and Rep. Rod Blum.

The endowment tax would be particularly painful for smaller schools such as Grinnell, which has fewer revenue streams compared to larger schools, said Raynard S. Kington, school president.

Endowment revenue provides critical research funding and assists the school’s historically large contributions to student financial aid, Kington said.

“Over 85 percent of our students receive some form of financial aid. So if you look at the demographics of our students compared to our peers, we have a lower percentage of students paying the full ride,” he said. “This means that other schools have millions of dollars in revenue that we don’t have.”

Grinnell wouldn’t be the only small liberal arts institution impacted by the GOP proposals. Of the 68 schools on the list, half are liberal arts colleges. They range from Pomona College, which had a 2014 endowment of about $1.27 million per student, to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, which had an endowment of about $255,000 per student.

Rep. Blum voted yes on the House bill in November.

Kington said he was told by Blum’s office the congressman intended to sign a “Dear Colleague” letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) objecting to the excise tax.

Whether Blum actually signed the letter or McConnell received it is unclear. Blum’s office did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls seeking to confirm the letter’s whereabouts.

While he cited on his website education as an important policy issue, Blum received scarce campaign contributions from employees of the education industry in the 2016 cycle. Most of the contributions to his campaign came from the finance and agribusiness industries.

Other House Republicans from districts will schools potentially affected include Meehan (Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College) and Indiana’s Jackie Walorski, whose district includes the University of Notre Dame. Each voted for the House tax bill as well.

Neither Meehan or Walorski has received overwhelming support from their local colleges and universities. For instance, while Walorski’s campaign received $4,416from individuals affiliated with Notre Dame in the 2016 election cycle, her Democratic opponent, Lynn Coleman, received around $12,475.

Despite the proposed endowment tax, higher education advocates say that representatives from both sides of the aisle appear receptive of their concerns.

Joseph Verardo, the vice president of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, said public outcry may have influenced the Senate’s decision to remove some other controversial higher education-related provisions in the House bill.

“Along with many other groups, we have worked together to ensure that senators are aware of the impact of these provisions,” Verardo said. “There has also been a large volume of calls made by students and others concerned about the impact this will have on higher education.”

Democrats donate Franken PAC contributions to charity

In the wake of sexual harassment allegations against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), a number of his fellow Democrats have stated that they have donated the money their campaigns received from Midwest Values PAC, a political action committee affiliated with Franken.

So far in the 2018 election cycle, Midwest Values PAC has contributed $145,500 to 26 candidates, including 17 of Franken’s Senate colleagues.

At least 21 Democrats who have received contributions from Franken’s PAC this election cycle have pledged to return or donate to charities the PAC contributions, according to official statements and news reports.

Abby Finkenauer, who is running for Congress against incumbent Republican Rep. Rod Blum of Iowa, has reportedly donated the $1,500 she received in late September from the Midwest Values PAC.

In a statement issued by her campaign, Finkenauer said, “I’ve decided to donate Senator Franken’s donation to my campaign to the Riverview Center, a nonprofit in Iowa that helps individuals affected by sexual assault.”

Last month, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said in a tweet that she will donate the $30,000 she’s received from Franken’s PAC over the past three election cycles to a food bank.

Similarly, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) also said in a tweet that he will donate the $25,000 he’s received from the PAC to the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) donated $20,000 she has received to WOVIN: the Women Veterans Initiative on November 16th.

*Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) last month donated the $20,000 she received during the 2012 and 2018 cycles to Girls Inc. of Lynn. Warren also donated to charity contributions from former film executive Harvey Weinstein after he was accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Democratic congressional candidate Angie Craig from Franken’s home state of Minnesota are among others who have reportedly vowed to donate contributions from Midwest Values.

Representatives who have remained mum about their intentions include Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota.

On December 7th, Franken announced his intention to resign from the Senate.

*UPDATE: Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office told MassLive in mid-November that contributions from Midwest Values PAC were donated to charity.

Higher Ed in the crosshairs of GOP tax bills

The tax proposals being pushed by Congressional Republicans carry consequences for one of the GOP’s least important donors – those affiliated with colleges and universities.

In November, the House Committee on Ways and Means unveiled a tax bill that included several provisions impacting the ecosystem of higher education. The proposal included placing a tax on the net investment income of qualifying private colleges and universities, eliminating the tax deduction on student loan interest payments, and counting tuition waivers as taxable income. The Senate bill retained the tax on endowments.

Under both the Senate and House versions of the bill, private schools with at least 500 full-time students and an endowment of at least $250,000 per full-time student would pay a 1.4 percent tax on their investment income. The threshold in the original House bill was $100,000 per student but was later raised to $250,000, cutting the number of schools subject to the tax by about half to around 60 to 70, according to various estimates.

Unique to the Senate bill, however, is the stipulation that the excise tax would only apply to those schools with tuition-paying students – that would save another two schools based on 2014-2015 enrollment and endowment data, according to an analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The House version would impact 68 institutions and 66 schools would qualify under the Senate bill, according to NCES’ analysis.

Universities argue that the tax would make schools more expensive for students as an important part of endowment income is applied to financial aid.

Duke University’s endowment reached a record $7.9 billion in 2017 and would be subject to the tax under both bills.

*Five percent of the total value of the school’s endowment, calculated on a rolling three-year average at the end of each fiscal year, is transferred to its operating budget. And the majority of those funds are spent on student assistance, support for programs and research as well as faculty positions, said Michael Schoenfeld, a spokesman for Duke University.

“If you take $20 million out of circulation, it either has to come from somewhere else or something needs to get eliminated,” Schoenfeld said. “In many cases, what would be eliminated is support for student scholarships or jobs.”

Political contributions from Duke University employees generally support the Democratic Party, which isn’t unique in the education industry.

In the 2016 election cycle, donations from those affiliated with the 20 colleges or universities that made the largest political contributions overwhelmingly leaned left. And of the $81.7 million donated by those across the education sector, 86 percent benefited Democratic candidates, parties and outside groups.

In the 2018 election cycle, the top 20 are also predominantly supporting Democrats with two exceptions – Bridgepoint Education, a for-profit education services company, and Thompson Education Center, an education community development project in the Catskills geared toward Chinese investors.

According to NCES’ 2014 fiscal year data, private schools with the top 50 largest endowments ranged from Harvard University’s $36.4 billion to Baylor University’s $1.15 billion. Sixty-six percent of the schools had employees contribute almost exclusively to Democratic candidates, party committees, leadership PACs and liberal outside groups in 2016. (“Almost exclusively” is defined as at least 90 percent).

In the 2016 cycle, Columbia University, which had an endowment of a little more than $9 billion in 2014, had 97 percent of its employees’ $1.7 million in contributions going toward Democratic Party candidates or committees. Harvard University, the school with by far the largest endowment, had 90 percent of its $2.4 million total contributions going toward Democrats.

Among the private schools with the 50 largest endowments in 2014, the only ones where employees donated the majority to Republicans were the University of Richmond (57 percent) and Baylor (82 percent).

The totals below reflect contributions from those affiliated with the schools including donations to leadership PACs and 527 organizations.

Private Colleges and Universities 2014 Endowment (1000’s) Cycle Total Dems Repubs
2018 $501,040 $446,707 $49,600
2016 $2,383,451 $2,136,823 $241,018
2018 $158,635 $155,705 $2,600
2016 $942,812 $921,235 $19,168
2018 $426,277 $415,603 $10,042
2016 $2,851,560 $2,161,437 $680,233
2018 $90,509 $86,815 $3,450
2016 $486,161 $465,607 $20,354
2018 $128,902 $121,198 $7,208
2016 $968,720 $886,761 $74,260
University of Pennsylvania
2018 $124,252 $122,368 $500
2016 $1,118,809 $1,088,400 $27,584
2018 $216,362 $209,443 $5,375
2016 $1,704,391 $1,624,825 $50,356
Notre Dame
2018 $20,311 $18,834 $1,300
2016 $198,982 $138,451 $60,531
2018 $102,759 $95,169 $7,550
2016 $637,702 $534,297 $99,155
2018 $57,561 $52,827 $4,375
2016 $750,146 $726,041 $20,490
2018 $118,134 $110,929 $7,090
2016 $486,466 $453,671 $21,455
Washington University In St. Louis
2018 $26,196 $25,936 $250
2016 $112,730 $109,484 $2,746
University of Chicago
2018 $86,893 $86,239 $200
2016 $579,730 $545,617 $32,746
2018 $44,957 $44,915 $0
2016 $199,084 $179,613 $18,596
2018 $67,694 $64,373 $1,656
2016 $621,897 $599,289 $20,024
University of Southern California
2018 $95,698 $81,616 $13,857
2016 $793,191 $667,120 $124,521
Dartmouth College
2018 $30,870 $30,440 $0
2016 $342,243 $242,298 $99,945
2018 $117,666 $61,227 $56,406
2016 $478,862 $319,645 $157,867
New York University
2018 $130,601 $121,473 $8,756
2016 $1,192,142 $1,147,311 $38,550
Johns Hopkins
2018 $134,308 $127,930 $5,927
2016 $880,399 $842,747 $33,923
2018 $33,540 $33,425 $0
2016 $239,376 $235,059 $4,145
2018 $21,119 $19,490 $1,281
2016 $198,949 $130,480 $66,165
University of Richmond
2018 $3,426 $3,321 $100
2016 $78,721 $33,673 $45,048
2018 $5,042 $5,015 $0
2016 $41,604 $1,500
Williams College
2018 $43,104 $5,790 $0
2016 $46,932 $45,860 $250
California Institute of Technology
2018 $36,585 $31,969 $4,616
2016 $176,966 $154,064 $13,527
Boston College
2018 $18,871 $18,516 $0
2016 $146,276 $141,016 $2,560
Pomona College
2018 $3,505 $2,905 $600
2016 $44,291 $44,291 $0
University of Rochester
2018 $21,425 $18,974 $2,410
2016 $139,220 $127,581 $11,636
Swarthmore College
2018 $4,371 $4,371 $0
2016 $50,865 $50,837 $28
Wellesley College
2018 $5,807 $5,607 $0
2016 $98,368 $98,368 $0
Grinnell College
2018 $3,041 $3,037 $0
2016 $21,378 $21,058 $80
Case Western Reserve University
2018 $52,667 $51,407 $1,000
2016 $81,729 $74,317 $7,412
Smith College
2018 $18,963 $18,916 $0
2016 $84,456 $82,284 $100
Boston University
2018 $63,866 $59,321 $3,750
2016 $391,768 $375,504 $12,214
2018 $113,756 $113,181 $300
2016 $374,544 $369,882 $4,342
George Washington
2018 $59,518 $57,528 $1,775
2016 $426,999 $407,368 $18,694
Washington and Lee
2018 $7,445 $7,443 $0
2016 $15,526 $10,635 $4,891
Brigham Young
2018 $15,112 $7,692 $6,420
2016 $74,821 $60,677 $12,609
2018 $94,177 $93,672 $450
2016 $1,076,259 $943,424 $130,235
Southern Methodist
2018 $9,285 $8,650 $635
2016 $43,720 $22,021 $21,699
Texas Christian University
2018 $5,729 $4,179 $1,550
2016 $41,803 $20,869 $20,494
Soka University of America
2018 $234 $134 $0
2016 $4,639 $4,631 $8
Carnegie Mellon
2018 $22,430 $18,521 $3,535
2016 $235,186 $197,817 $33,809
Bowdoin College
2018 $9,605 $3,424 $0
2016 $15,900 $14,550 $0
Lehigh University
2018 $2,427 $2,407 $0
2016 $50,883 $46,833 $4,050
Trinity (TX)
2018 $297 $297 $0
2016 $30,898 $30,210 $688
2018 $21,810 $17,826 $3,900
2016 $174,857 $113,916 $60,749
2018 $12,561 $11,586 $905
2016 $162,508 $137,266 $24,373
2018 $11,002 $7,991 $3,001
2016 $151,956 $27,402 $124,554

*Correction: An earlier version of the story stated 5 percent of the revenue generated by Duke University’s endowment is transferred to its annual operating budget. The transfer is 5 percent of the total value of the endowment, not the revenue.

How much influence does Bannon wield among big donors?

One of the most expensive elections this year has been the ongoing Alabama Senate special election. The GOP runoff saw two candidates, Roy Moore and interim senator Luther Strange, run head to head. Their differing sources of support —Moore’s grassroots, rural base plus the backing of a few key billionaires, in contrast with the support Strange received from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — exemplified the widening rift within the Republican Party.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to McConnell, pumped nearly $2.1 million into supporting Strange and spent over $4.4 million on ads opposing Moore.

At the same time, other groups like the Proven Conservative PAC, the Solution Fund and Senate Conservatives Action altogether spent a little more than $1.1 million in support of Moore.

In the wake of Moore’s win in September’s runoff, Stephen Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist and current executive chairman of Breitbart News, has said he intends to challenge every Republican incumbent other than Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in the 2018 midterm elections. Declaring “a season of war” on the GOP establishment, Bannon has made it his mission to oust McConnell from his role as Senate majority leader.

Bannon, who has connections to big donors as well as a large following on Breitbart (which received an average of 76 million views per month over the past six months), appears a formidable adversary for the GOP establishment.

Whether Bannon’s perceived clout will translate to dollars for candidates he’s openly supported may be another story.

In the Alabama primary, Bannon endorsed Moore, the controversial conservative judge, on August 28. By that date, around $130,000 in outside money had already been spent in support of Moore. The conservative outside groups Solution Fund and Conservative Majority PAC were responsible for about half of this.

Since Bannon’s endorsement of Moore, outside groups have spent nearly $976,000 in his favor. How much of that is due to Bannon’s influence is unclear.

However, the nonprofit Great America Alliance did spend over $100,000 in support of Moore after August 28. This group, which is tied to the Great America PAC Carey committee, a hybrid PAC/super PAC that also spent $25,000 in Moore’s favor, is overseen by Bannon protégé Andy Surabian. According to the Washington Post, Surabian is now a senior advisor for Great America Alliance. He was installed as advisor by Bannon on September 6 — just a week before the nonprofit’s first expenditure in support of Moore.

The group’s support for Moore hasn’t abated. In October, the nonprofit came out with their first attack ad against Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate who will be running against Moore in December.

Another case in which an increase in independent expenditures followed Bannon’s endorsement is in Wisconsin.

Just a couple weeks after the Republican runoff in Alabama, Bannon endorsedKevin Nicholson, a businessman who will likely run for the GOP nomination for the Wisconsin Senate race. Before Bannon’s endorsement, Nicholson was already getting some support from outside spenders.

The Americas PAC — a pro-Trump super PAC that spent approximately $349,000 against Hillary Clinton in 2016 — spent $223,000 for Nicholson in the month of September alone. Records show that Republican mega-donor Richard Uihlein donated $250,000 to the Americas PAC in September.

After Bannon’s endorsement in October, the conservative Solutions for Wisconsin super PAC that’s bankrolled by Uihlein spent an additional $209,000 in support of Nicholson. And last week, Restoration PAC, another super PAC that has received nearly all of its money from Solutions for Wisconsin, spent $637,000 to support Nicholson.

But in most cases, Bannon’s support hasn’t seemed to amount to much just yet.

Around the same time Bannon endorsed Nicholson, Bannon announced his support for Kelli Ward, a candidate running in the Republican primary for an Arizona Senate seat. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) became a target of President Trump after delivering scathing critiques of this administration. Flake, who would have run against Ward next year, revealed last week that he will not run for reelection.

Before Bannon’s announcement on October 17, the Great America PAC spent $20,000 on her behalf. Since the date of his endorsement, however, there has been no outside spending in support of Ward.

In Montana, Bannon endorsed Montana State Auditor Matt Rosendale on October 19, while the Surabian-managed Great America Alliance expressed support for Rosendale a week earlier. Since Bannon’s endorsement though, no super PAC or other outside spender has spent money on Rosendale’s behalf.

Similarly, Bannon and the Great America Alliance endorsed Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for the West Virginia Senate race on September 28 and October 11, respectively. However, Morrisey has also not seen any ad support from outside spenders, only verbal expressions of support.

Candidate Race Bannon Expresses Support On
Roy Moore Roy Moore Senate (Alabama) August 28, 2017
Patrick Morrisey Senate (West Virginia) September 28, 2017
Kevin Nicholson Senate (Wisconsin) October 16, 2017
Kelli Ward Senate (Arizona) October 17, 2017
Matt Rosendale Senate (Montana) October 19, 2017

Some of the anti-establishment candidates planning to run for Senate positions have not yet gained explicit endorsement from Bannon but have been endorsed by the Great America Alliance. On October 11, the nonprofit endorsed Marsha Blackburn, who plans to run for the seat Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) will vacate next year. Blackburn has not yet received any support from outside spenders.

While not an outside spender in this particular case, it is worth noting that the Great America Alliance’s affiliate Carey committee, the Great America PAC, has contributed $5,000 directly to Blackburn’s official campaign.

Bannon has not officially declared his support for Chris McDaniel, a member of the Mississippi State Senate who is eyeing a run against GOP incumbent Sen. Roger Wicker. But Bannon has been a long-time supporter of McDaniel. McDaniel, a Tea Party-backed politician who is vocal on Twitter about his disdain for the current GOP congress, is reportedly being pushed to run by Bannon.

Robert Mercer, a wealthy hedge-fund manager who was crucial to Trump’s election success in 2016 and has ties to Bannon, has donated $50,000 to Remember Mississippi, a conservative super PAC. The name “Remember Mississippi” is shorthand for the belief among conservative activists that McDaniel had a Senate seat stolen from him in 2014 when he ran against Republican incumbent Thad Cochran. But the transaction was made in June and no other outside spenders have demonstrated support for McDaniel since.

The total amount that has been spent by super PACs and other outside spenders on behalf of the candidates that Bannon has given either implicit or explicit support for is barely a dent in the $46.5 million spent by non-party outside groups so far this cycle.

Nevertheless, the battle for campaign cash between the two GOP factions has barely begun, and Bannon’s influence may not be apparent just yet.

Grant to Trump: How court cases influenced campaign finance

When Ulysses S. Grant ran for president in 1868, he benefited from large contributions from wealthy entrepreneurs, such as railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. “Never before was a candidate placed under such great obligation to men of wealth as was Grant,” one historiansaid of Grant’s donors’ largesse.

But if Grant was among the first presidents to receive large sums of campaign funds from rich businessmen, he was far from the last.

Money and politics in the United States have become increasingly intertwined, a relationship which reached new heights when the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) to allow corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money independently in support of or in opposition to a candidate. The effects of Citizens United have been pivotal, and calls to overturn the ruling continue to this day.

However, Citizens United didn’t appear out of nowhere. The ruling was only the latest in a series of important court cases that have loosened campaign finance restrictions.

‘Magic Words’

In the U.S., political contributions are considered an exercise of First Amendment rights. The reasoning behind this was that communicating ideas required spending money.

The 1976 Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo was the first case to establish this idea.

In 1975, Sen. James Buckley of New York and others filed suit in U.S. district court against the FEC and Senate secretary Francis Valeo claiming that the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act — the primary federal law regulating campaign finance — was unlawful. According to Buckley, the law’s limitations on campaign contributions and expenditures violated the First Amendment. When the law was upheld, the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court.

In Buckley, the judges ruled that contribution limits were necessary to deter corruption as candidates would feel indebted to big donors. Expenditure limitations, on the other hand, violated freedom of speech since there was no clear connection between expenditure amounts and corruption. In short, candidates could spend unrestricted amounts to advance their campaign.

The Court also deemed independent expenditures – or outside spending by groups in support of or opposition to candidates – constitutionally protected in the Buckley case so long as these expenditures were not formally coordinated with the candidate.

The idea of “express advocacy” was first formulated in the case, too. The Court defined express advocacy as communications that “advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified federal candidate” and are identifiable by eight so-called “magic words.” The words (and phrases) include “vote for,” “elect,” “cast your ballot for” and “reject.” Any ad using any one of these words would be considered “express advocacy,” according to the Court, and subject to federal campaign regulations.

Corporations have rights, too

Corporations’ right to participate in campaigns as a legal person, which was popularized in Citizens United, is not a new concept. Lesser-known cases after Buckley paved the way for the involvement of corporations.

Two years after Buckley, several corporations including the First National Bank of Boston were barred from contributing to a Massachusetts referendum on tax policy. The corporations took issue with the Massachusetts law and appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti that corporations could contribute money to ballot proposals.

Justice Lewis Powell, who delivered the opinion of the Court, argued that corporations, along with associations and unions, have the same rights as individuals to express political views.

Attempts to reign it in

In the 1980s, court cases challenged the definition of “express advocacy” put forward by Buckley.

In FEC v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life, the Supreme Court held that a communication does not have to use the so-called “magic words” to be considered express advocacy. Massachusetts Citizens for Life (MCL) had used treasury funds to create flyers encouraging people to vote “pro-life” and included the names of pro-life candidates running for office. Although MCL had not used any “magic words,” the judges ruled the ads were clearly an attempt to influence an election.

Also in the 1980s, the FEC took land developer Harvey Furgatch to court after he purchased a full-page ad in The New York Times and Boston Globe to encourage voters to prevent “four more years of incoherences, ineptness and illusion” under then-President Jimmy Carter. The case came to be known as FEC v. Furgatch. Furgatch’s defense was that the ad used none of the “magic words” listed in Buckley and remained vague enough to get a legal pass.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that speech could be express advocacy when it is “susceptible of no other reasonable interpretation” – as in this case. They ruled that implied meanings can be considered express advocacy, and therefore Furgatch’s advertisement expressly advocated the defeat of President Carter.

Despite these new limitations on independent expenditure, the ambiguous wording of these laws meant that they were ineffective regulatory tools. The lack of expenditure limits and loose regulations for outside spending created massive inflows of money into campaigns.

In response, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) in 2002 to eliminate soft money donations and more tightly regulate independently funded ads. Soft money encompasses the money donated to parties that support general political activities, such as voter registration drives.

The Act also prohibited corporations from funding electioneering communications, or broadcast advertisements mentioning a federal candidate within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days of a general election. It thereby ignored the ambiguities of the Buckley and Furgatch cases.

A year later, the Supreme Court upheld BCRA in McConnell v. FEC, determining most of BCRA’s provisions constitutional and noting the “substantial evidence to support Congress’ determination that large soft-money contributions to national political parties give rise to corruption…”

All this changed four years later in a case that a number of legal scholars believe was the stepping stone to Citizens United.

The rise of dark money

Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL), a politically active nonprofit, ran ads encouraging viewers to contact two U.S. senators during the 2004 presidential election. By running the ads, the group broke the BCRA’s rules restricting political ads funded by corporations in the 60-day period before an election. WRTL ended up suing the FEC, claiming that BCRA was unconstitutional.

In FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, the Court deemed BCRA’s prohibition on corporate electioneering communications as unconstitutional. Their reasoning was that ads crafted to focus on policy issues and implicitly advocating for or against candidates should not be considered express advocacy, and therefore cannot be regulated as such – essentially the opposite of the conclusions made in Furgatch.

As long as the ads left out the “magic words” then, a group could easily spend limitless amounts without needing to disclose their donors or report political spending to the FEC.

Wisconsin gave rise to massive spending by dark money groups like political nonprofits that are not legally obligated to disclose their contributions.

During the 2008 election cycle, the first presidential race after Wisconsin, dark money spending on presidential candidates increased from virtually zero to about$25 million. In the 2012 cycle, the amount soared to $141 million.

The Wisconsin Right to Life case is noteworthy not only for helping enable dark money spending but for demonstrating how much the composition of the Supreme Court matters, Brendan Fischer, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, said.

In 2006, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired and was replaced by Samuel Alito, a conservative-leaning justice, which shifted the dynamic on the court.

“Between the McConnell case and the Wisconsin Right to Life ruling, really nothing changed in terms of the statistics or practices of campaign finance,” Fischer said. “All that changed was the makeup of the court.

“[This case] is a reminder that the ideology of the court makes a significant impact.”

Citizens United

When Citizens United v. FEC was decided in 2010, its impact did not shock people closely monitoring campaign finance.

Citizens United wasn’t surprising, Fischer said, given the court’s previous rulings, including its findings in Wisconsin Right to Life.

Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation for the watchdog group Common Cause said that the Wisconsin case did a lot of the damage often attributed to Citizens United as well as much of the damage to campaign finance laws attributed to the Supreme Court.

Wisconsin Right to Life made permissible corporate funding and created the vague legal standard that acted as a major step toward Citizens United,” Ryan said.

In Citizens United, judges used the ideas stated in previous cases to make their conclusion: As long as money is not given directly to or used in coordination with a candidate, it is not corruptive, and corporations too have the right to freedom of speech.

Given that the Court had already deemed independent expenditure from an individual as not corruptive, it was only logical to expand this argument in Citizens United to conclude that independent expenditure from a group – including a corporation that has First Amendment rights – is also not corrupt, and therefore sanctioned. Now, corporations, as well as associations and unions, were granted legal rights to use unlimited sums of money from their treasury funds to fund independent expenditure.

This line of reasoning also led to the federal Court of Appeals’ 2010 decision in v. FECwhich reinforced Citizens United and removed all contribution limits to independent expenditure-only groups. The SpeechNow.orgruling created super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited money to advocate for or against a political candidate, including donations from corporations.

The Supreme Court’s most recent major case on campaign finance, McCutcheon v. FEC, addressed direct contributions rather than outside spending. In this case, Alabama resident Shaun McCutcheon objected to the aggregate contribution limit of $123,200, the amount that individuals were allowed to donate to all federal candidates and parties combined in a single election cycle. He sued the FEC, claiming that the aggregate limit on contributions violated his First Amendment rights.

The majority of the Court agreed with McCutcheon, concluding that one individual donating to many groups does not necessarily give rise to “influence over or access to” elected officials or parties the same way that a single large contribution might. While base limits (the amount allowed to be donated to each candidate) were deemed constitutional, aggregate limits were ruled a violation of a person’s freedom of speech.

Because of these rulings, over the last half century or so, federal campaign finance has become an extremely complex system, balancing transparency and avoiding corruption with freedom of speech and political participation.

Freedom of speech is certainly winning: In 1868, Ulysses Grant’s election effort cost $150,000 – or $2.7 million in today’s money. In 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign committee and outside groups supporting him spent nearly 150 times more. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, combined with outside groups, spent nearly 300 times more.

Contributions flood contentious Alabama special election

Alabama’s special election embodies what political analysts claim is a deepening rift between the GOP’s establishment and anti-establishment factions. Money has flooded the campaigns in Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff, as former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore maintains an apparent lead over interim Sen. Luther Strange.

Strange, who was appointed by former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley to replace U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has the backing of President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

McConnell’s endorsement has stoked criticism that Strange, a former state attorney general, represents the Washington establishment while Moore, a relative outsider in Alabama politics, is seen as the more conservative, populist candidate.

Some have simplified the choice in Alabama’s closely watched primary as either a vote of confidence in Trump (Strange) or a message to the “swamp” (Moore). Reflecting the widespread attitude that much is at stake in the runoff, copious amounts of money is being tossed into the race as the Republican challengers prepare to face off next week.

Strange has raised $3.9 million and spent about $4.1 million as of Sept. 6, according to filings with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).

The amount raised by his campaign more than doubles the $1.7 million then-Sen. Jeff Sessions received for his 2014 Senate bid. The majority of Strange’s financing has come from PACs, which make up 28.5 percent of his contributions, and large individual donors.

Moore, on the other hand, has raised money predominantly from small and large individual donors with little to no support from PACs.

According a Sept. 6 FEC filing, Moore’s campaign has raised $1.4 million and spent $1.1 million. As far as outside spending, the Solution Fund PAC has spent $54,000 in support of Moore while the Swamp Drainers Foundation and the Madison Project have spent $85,000 and $68,000 respectively in advertising and other communication materials against Strange.

Over the summer and in the past few weeks, money has flowed quickly into the race.

As of early September, the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), a super PAC affiliated with McConnell, has thrown $733,000 into the race in support of Strange and another $2.5 million in attack ads against Moore. In the past two months, 18 of the last 20 videos on SLF’s YouTube channel have covered the Alabama Senate race with a pro-Strange stance, and SLF spent $383,000 on postage and printing in the last week alone in support of Strange. The super PAC also funded $1.8 million in assorted ads opposing Moore from late August to early September.

The Senate Leadership Fund is not the only outside group ramping up their spending in the Alabama race on the eve of the election. The National Rifle Association’s PAC has spent a little over $1 million, including $874,000 within the last two weeks, in support of Strange.

Despite less funding, Moore has received his fair share of contributions as well as support from outside groups within the past couple months. The $1.4 million Moore’s campaign raised as of early September is more than double what they had raised by the end of July – or a 204 percent increase in contributions within the last two months.

The pro-Trump Great American PAC has spent $20,000 on online voter contactover the last week in support for Moore. Its new offshoot, the Great American Alliance, bankrolled a bus tour for the upcoming weekend – a tour featuring former Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin among others. The Alliance PAC also put money behind a series of pro-Moore television ads, two of which were uploaded to the PAC’s YouTube channel this week.

Meanwhile, former U.S. attorney and Democratic challenger Doug Jones awaits the victor of Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff. Endorsed by former Vice President Joe Biden, Jones won the Democratic Party primary with relative ease.

Currently with $253,000 in his campaign coffers, Jones has been gaining a steady trickle of contributions and quietly preparing for the Dec. 12 general election.

How to Better Understand Violence in Southeast Asia

The Diplomat

The assumption that violent incidents are sporadic events with a clear beginning and end has given many the comforting illusion that non-violence in Southeast Asia is the norm, and incidents like Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s current, grisly campaign against drugs is a break from the usual peace. The reality is that violence has often been, and remains, a tool for change in Southeast Asia.

Violence has often unfolded alongside politics in a region with a long history of struggle against foreign colonizers. The foundation of many of the ASEAN countries’ sovereignty included mass violence, such as the bitter struggle against Dutch colonists in Indonesia following World War II, and the bloody wars fought by the Vietnamese and Laotians to free their countries from foreign influence. Many Southeast Asian countries have since experienced decades of armed conflict between the state and insurgent groups fighting for their own independence. The countries’ histories of political violence have left wounds that continue to shape the political landscape, leaving some domestic institutions built upon these graves unable to rectify age-old grievances and thereby perpetuating episodes of violence.

Targets set by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 16 calls for an end to violence globally. But the lack of data and a focused definition of what constitutes violence has made it difficult to understand the wide range of violence in Southeast Asia and accurately measure progress in eliminating it.

Global datasets on violence such as the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) use a selective definition of what’s considered violence, “simplifying” violence to strictly armed conflicts. Other datasets, like those used by the Geneva Declaration’s Burden of Armed Violence reports, limits the concept of violence to homicides, which ignores many manifestations of violence like injuries caused by mob violence in Indonesia – one of the most prominent forms of violence on the archipelago. Moreover, existing cross-national databases like the UCDP project collect information using data sources far removed from the location where the events occurred, for instance English-language or national-level newspapers, which rarely cover non-lethal incidents and tend to under-report violence.

In a paper published last year as part of the Asia Foundation’s Cross Regional Violence Monitoring Knowledge Exchange project, co-authors Patrick Barron, Anders Engvall, and Adrian Morel claim that our limited understanding of violence has constrained the development of policies to prevent and manage violence. Morel, a program manager for the Asia Foundation, told The Diplomat that there has increasingly been an appetite for and interest in violence data because of the UN’s SDGs. “People are looking at ways to get the right instruments to measure our progress, and that’s when people started to realize there are a lot of gaps in our understanding of violence currently,” he said.

Violent incidents monitoring systems (or VIMSs) may fill many of these gaps. In several countries in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Timor-Leste, the Philippines, and Thailand, locally operated VIMSs have begun to capture much of the data that’s missing by drawing from local-level sources and adapting a broader definition of violence. Similar systems are being developed in Myanmar and Nepal.

In their paper, the Asia Foundation highlights three such systems: Indonesia’s National Violence Monitoring System (NVMS), the Philippines’ Bangsamoro Conflict Monitoring System, and Thailand’s Deep South Incident Dataset. In each of the countries where VIMSs have been set up, practitioners identified organizations and government departments already tracking violence at the local level. “Very often these people are already tracking violence, but they focus on certain subsets of violence or the data can’t be easily incorporated with global violence measuring systems,” Morel explained. “So we’re just identifying who is already doing the work, but just wants to do it a little bit better.” The practitioners then provided the funding and technical expertise to help standardize the methodology, as well as aggregate data.

VIMSs use local data sources, which improves data accuracy and ensures that smaller-scale incidents are recorded. Indonesia’s NVMS team retrieved data from 115 subnational newspapers and two national papers, a variety of academic papers, as well as NGO reports. The UCDP noted 20 violent deaths in Indonesia since 2006. The NVMS database, in contrast, captured 18,904 deaths for the same time period.

Also, by adapting a broader characterization of what constitutes violence, VIMSs capture the many varieties of violence that can take place beyond armed conflict, ranging from electoral violence to incidents sparked by land disputes. And by recording more types of violence than global datasets like the UCDP’s, VIMSs facilitate comparisons of the factors that drive violence in different parts of the country as well as between countries.

By using a broader characterization of violence paired with local-level data sources, VIMSs reveal the evolution of violence in post-conflict areas and generate evidence allowing for more effective policy responses. For instance, violence data collected from Indonesia’s easternmost province of Papua showed that more deaths in Papua are related to drug trafficking than separatist activities. Moreover, a more nuanced take on violence shows that in some of the post-conflict locations, new types of violence disproportionately affect women. According to data gathered by NVMS, after the 2005 peace accord, crime rates and domestic violence in Aceh, Indonesia rose and women began to account for a larger share of deaths. This more comprehensive dataset makes it clear that policy decisions to reduce violence need to focus on more than just separatist violence, and requires policymakers to recognize how women are disproportionately affected by violence.

Violence in Southeast Asia, including the many extra-judicial killings taking place in the Philippines right now as a result of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, could lead to broader political insecurity and have economic ramifications across the region. Preventing and responding to violence requires an understanding of the violence that’s occurring, and all of this requires good data. Without a broad understanding of violence in the Philippines, it may be easy to see the Philippines’ ongoing crisis as an isolated incident. A more comprehensive dataset that reveals where and what type of violence is occurring throughout the Philippines would shed light on events like the so-called “war on drugs,” and according to Morel, allow us to have a baseline understanding of where more high-profile violence comes from.

“From looking at the more comprehensive datasets, it’s clear that the distinctions often made between armed violence and other kinds of violence were academic in purpose, and in reality violence is a lot more fluid than that,” Morel said. “If you want to understand how these different incidents of violence feed into each other, you have to collect the data more broadly.”

Open Source Data: Just How Open Is Taiwan’s Government?

Ketagalan Media

When the Global Open Data Index released their latest worldwide ranking on openness of government data earlier this summer, Taiwan topped the list for the second time in a row, earning an “openness score” of 90 percent. In contrast to Taiwan’s success, in small letters underneath the main heading of the Index’s report are the words “11% of dataset entries in this index are open.”

Similarly, when the Open Data Barometer, another world ranking index on open data, released a ranking in May – this one excluding Taiwan – the researchers came to the sobering conclusion that the worldwide open data movement is “at risk,” with 93 percent of government data sets still not open. To fill in the gaps in information, I used the Open Data Barometer’s methodology to test approximately where Taiwan would rank alongside other countries in the world. Using a modified version of the Barometer’s system of analysis to calculate scores for Taiwan,[1] my conclusion is this, as governments worldwide stall, slow down or even backtrack on their commitments to open data, Taiwan remains an oasis of open data.

With the exception of government expenditure, land ownership data and information about the country’s educational and health industry performance, most of Taiwan’s open source data met the Open Data Barometer’s criteria for robustness, and was available online, free of charge and openly licensed, as well as up to date. According to my calculations, Taiwan scores higher than both South Korea and Japan – two of the highest scorers in the world – for the thoroughness of its crime statistics and government budget data. And the nation scored better on nearly all fronts compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors. In a country that only began to embrace true freedom of speech and the press in the last three decades and where textbooks continue to dance around the subject of the White Terror – the oppression of freedom in Taiwan by authoritarian rule from 1949 to 1987 – this is quite extraordinary.

And there continues to be strong movements to continue to not just improve the open source data system, but to ensure that the Taiwanese people know how to take advantage of it. The government somewhat consistently updates their websites to make them easier to navigate, recently making several versions of a detailed map of Taiwan more accessible to the public. There are also civil organizations and online communities like g0v, who have worked relentlessly to better connect members of the public with government information.


The Taiwan Advantage

A key component of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy is building cooperation as well as resource and knowledge sharing capacity between Taiwan and countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Australasia. This includes sharing information about anything from best agricultural practices for disaster risk management to ongoing potential security threats. And now, capacity-building for open source data should be included on this list.

In its most recent report, the Open Data Barometer commented that although the East Asia and the Pacific region performed well compared to Latin America and Africa, there are still many parts of Southeast Asia and East Asia that lack information frameworks. Civil organizations (i.e. Open Myanmar, Malaysia’s Sinar Project) have been doing what they could to provide data despite limited resources, but immense barriers persist. According to the results of the recent Open Data Barometer, Vietnam struggles with ensuring that all the information available is machine-readable, nor are their datasets considered robust enough under the conditions listed in the Barometer. In the case of Myanmar, a lot of information is just simply missing online. These are areas that Taiwan has done well in regardless of the type of data. Taiwan’s experience at collecting data and releasing it on relatively accessible platforms is knowledge that Taiwan can share with its neighbors to build stronger networks in the Asia-Pacific region.

Of course, free and open access to datasets, which are central to holding governments and corporations accountable, are not necessarily something many countries in the region are necessarily chomping at the bit for (consider the military junta in Thailand and the various one-party political systems in place right now). In fact, progress in this area has largely remained slow in this region because citizens’ right to information is not accepted by all government officials in each country. For instance, in Indonesia, despite initial progress made in 2014 with a new data portal,, the last two editions of the Open Data Barometer report have indicated a slowdown in progress in the last three years. Malaysia and Thailand, too, have demonstrated reductions in the access to open data over the last couple of years.

However, access to this data is also vital when it comes to information about land ownership so that researchers can conduct research on agricultural practices and land use, access to trade information is important for economists and policymakers, national health and census information is important for combatting diseases. Entrepreneurs can use the data on healthcare provision or education performance and build new services, and all businesses can use the data to make more thoughtful decisions. Many Southeast Asian politicians, who have been responding to widespread criticisms about corruption within the country’s police force and corruption amongst their own ranks, have also recently been winning public favor by promising greater government accountability and transparency. Politicians in Singapore continue to aggressively expunge corruption in the city-state, and leaders in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have all undergone increasing pressure to cleanse political parties of corruption. Releasing publicly data about elections, government budgets as well as about public contracts, are all necessary to enable a culture of transparency and accountability to prevent corruption. Taiwan (for the most part) shows that this is all achievable, and could provide the expertise to get everyone else on board.

Room For Improvement

However, I’ll add that none of this is to say that there isn’t room for improvement in Taiwan itself. Many of the online databases are clunky and sometimes disorganized, and navigating the websites is not always intuitive. Also, there are some huge gaps in the data.

For example, there is little to no public information with regard to the academic performance of Taiwan’s students. What’s available are information about how many students are enrolled in school in each grade, the average cost of tuition and a comparison of the cost of Taiwan’s schools compared to the cost of education in other countries. One gets the feeling that these statistics are cherry picked to only provide facts about topics that Taiwan relatively excels at. What’s missing is information that could actually give researchers and policymakers an idea of how the education system is doing: student attendance rates, graduation rates, teacher retention rates, or even just a comparison of test scores or grades at different schools. The national health performance data is slightly out of date, and there is no mention of how well healthcare services are serving people’s needs. And, perhaps testimony to Taiwan’s historic lack of investment in welfare services, including elder care, there’s little to no public information about the performance of Taiwan’s welfare services.

But that’s also exactly why greater cooperation between Taiwan and its neighbors is helpful. Strengthened knowledge sharing and sharing experiences and opinions about strategies for better data collection and dissemination is vital if the Taiwan and other Asia-Pacific countries hope to increase their residents’ welfare, and increase their capacity to counteract the myriad shared threats now facing the region.

About the methodology:

Using an adapted version of the Open Data Barometer’s methodology that measures how successful a government has been in implementing their strategy of increasing open data access, I answered a 10-point checklist as the researchers did with respect to the quality of data provided for the following types of data: mapping data, land ownership data, national statistics (i.e. GDP, population), government expenditure, company registration data, legislation data (access to laws and the constitution), public transport timetable data, international trade data, health sector performance data, information regarding educational performance, crime statistics, national environment statistics, national election results data and public contracting data. The Open Data Barometer methodology attached weightings to each type of data in the checklist based on an aggregation logic the team came up so that each column would generate a score between 0 and 100 (for a clearer understanding of this process, refer to the two tables below).

[1] To provide a little background about the Open Data Barometer, in their fourth edition of the Open Data Barometer, the research team created a ranking system based on three kinds of data: a peer reviewed expert survey with a range of questions about open data contexts, including a detailed assessment completed for 15 kinds of data in each country, a government self-assessment through a simplified version of the survey, as well as secondary data selected to complement the expert survey data. Because of labor constraints, I decided to focus my research on only assessing the ease of access to 15 types of data in the country. Knowing full well that the actual research conducted by the Open Data Barometer involved a lot more peer review than what my research team of one was capable of, what I have done is provide a mere sample, or a snapshot.

My State’s Inequality Foreshadowed Trump’s Win

The SAIS Observer

As I watched the election results come in throughout the night, I was floored. I may have moved from the United States several years ago, but I was confident that the U.S. I knew was becoming increasingly progressive, not reverting to xenophobia, racism and misogyny. I didn’t think it was possible that America was willing to vote for a Klan-endorsed candidate who has laid bare his contempt for women, “differently-abled” people, Muslims and minorities. As a minority woman, it was difficult for me not to see each of Clinton’s defeats as a personal loss.

I specifically did not anticipate Clinton’s loss in North Carolina. I was so confident in the idea that my state’s growing minority population and the influx of young, educated transplants would have clinched a Clinton win, albeit narrowly.

As we reflect on the election results, adjust to our new reality and curse Nate Silver for giving us a false sense of security, the question now becomes: What happened?

North Carolina isn’t just a swing state; it’s a microcosm of America. In North Carolina, the many problems dividing the U.S. are on full display, revealing the multitudes who support the anti-establishment and nativist positions that sealed a Trump victory.

North Carolina’s urban-rural divide has long defined a state that’s undergone one of the most rapid changes of any state in the U.S. Although the state’s economy has historically relied on cash crops and the tobacco industry, North Carolina’s now also the home of several of the country’s best universities, financial giants like Bank of America and BB&T, and boasts the Research Triangle, which has attracted some of the country’s brightest businessmen, engineers and scientists. In fact, there are now fewer native-born North Carolinians than transplants, the latter of whom have crafted pockets of social liberalism in a state that has traditionally voted for whichever party supports social conservatism.

However, along with the arrival of newcomers came persistent inequality — only five counties have average wages above the state’s average annual wage of $44,969, meaning that these five counties alone have much higher incomes than the rest of the state. The highest poverty rates in the state are all in rural counties, along with the highest unemployment rates.

The divide in North Carolina is reflective of the divisions seen across the board in the U.S., a country where inequality of income and education increases alongside a growing divide between the rural and the urban. In the wake of the recession, the distribution of household income has become more unequal, with 2014 incomes of the wealthiest one percent rising nearly 20 percent, while the other 99 percent saw incomes rising only one percent.

North Carolinians have made attempts to close the gap, ranging from improving public education to programs developing specific skillsets in rural North Carolina. Despite this, there has evidently been little change in the public perception of inequality — a spring poll conducted by a conservative research group indicated that the majority of North Carolinians think their government is going in the wrong direction.

Trump has awakened some of the darkest demons in the country, provided a voice for these very people who feel unrepresented and given people permission to openly express their anger. And, it is hard not to take a look at the situation in North Carolina and think that state politics have long been indicating the direction of the overall nation. Local policies like North Carolina’s now-notorious “Bathroom Bill” reveal the state government representatives’ efforts to stay in power and appeal to conservative values, rather than address the state’s real problems to create concrete changes. There’s a disconnect, and it’s been here all along.

As of writing, North Carolina’s still undergoing a contentious gubernatorial race between the Republican incumbent, Governor Pat McCrory, and the Democrat contender Roy Cooper. All we can do is hope that the winner of the race will redefine the future direction of the state.

The ultimate test, after a long, exhaustive presidential race, now lies in how to move a visibly divided country forward. Trump, who was elected on a platform of populist vitriol and who’s gone so far as to directly threaten members of the press, has seemingly little respect for legal precedent or proper protocol. Our values and institutions will undoubtedly be tested in the years to come. In a nation where the electorate seems more and more separate from those we elect, it may ultimately be up to the people to hold the government accountable — through writing, through protest and hopefully through political action.