Staff Columnist

The battle of ideas has gone dark

Sen. Joni Ernst argues a point from opponent Theresa Greenfield at the Iowa Press U.S. Senate Debate at Iowa PBS on Sept
Sen. Joni Ernst argues a point from opponent Theresa Greenfield at the Iowa Press U.S. Senate Debate at Iowa PBS on Sept. 28, 2020.

Our top candidates for the U.S. Senate are fighting over dark money, who takes it, who colludes with it and who is the bigger hypocrite.

Sure, money from undisclosed donors is a problem. But so is the spending happening out in the open but out of the view of most voters.

Consider Plains PAC, a Kansas-based super PAC most famous for helping take down Kris Kobach in the GOP Senate primary in Kansas. But since September, Plains PAC has spent more than $10 million on the Iowa Senate race, mostly on media buys attacking Democratic nominee Theresa Greenfield.

Plains PAC is funded by another conservative super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, which already has spent more than $23 million boosting GOP Sen. Joni Ernst and attacking Greenfield.

Senate Leadership fund is bankrolled by a list of very wealthy donors. Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, have donated $50 million.

There’s Timothy Mellon, founder of a freight and rail company, who donated $20 million. In his self-published autobiography he wrote that Black Americans “became more belligerent” with the expansion of the social safety net and that people who rely on those programs are “slaves of a new Master, Uncle Sam.”

Stephen Schwarzman, chairman and CEO of Blackstone, a private equity firm, chipped in $20 million. Former casino magnate Steve Wynn, who stepped down as CEO of Wynn Resorts amid a series of sexual misconduct allegations, contributed $4 million.

Plains PAC is paying for an ad accusing Greenfield of backing a “government run health care scheme,” that would risk the closure of 52 rural hospitals in Iowa, citing a September 2019 Gazette story. It also argues the plan would jeopardize employer-based insurance, citing a New York Times piece.

As The Gazette makes clear, the closed-hospital estimate comes from the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a coalition of pharmaceutical, insurance and hospital lobbyists opposed to any expansion of Medicare to cover uninsured Americans. The Times piece says if a new public health insurance option is inexpensive and attractive, it could “shake up the private market.”

So a sketchy Kansas super PAC is using money from another Super PAC, bankrolled by guys rich enough to be Bond villains, to pay for ads touting a study panning expanded health care conducted by a bunch of lobbyists who oppose expanded health care.

But it’s OK, because it’s being done independently at arms’ length from the candidates.

“The Democrats’ plan, which would eventually lead us to Medicare for all, would actually bankrupt about 52 of our rural health care systems,” Ernst said in a September debate.

Greenfield does favor adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act, which would raise questions about reimbursements for rural hospitals. Ernst has called for a federal “backstop” for people with preexisting conditions, but hasn’t explained what that means. The GOP is trying to bury the ACA, but has no alternative plan.

Any real discussion of these issues is drowned out by substance-free attack lines, amplified by outsiders with fat checkbooks. The battle of ideas has been called off due to darkness.

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