In this edition: The drug war is back in vogue for Republicans, pro-Trump and pro-DeSantis PACs start food-fighting, and a PAC that wants to elect moderate Democrats in swing seats steps up.
Republicans want a new, non-metaphorical drug war
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
In the 2024 Republican primary, the war on drugs is back on. Literally.
Led by Donald Trump, all of the GOP’s official presidential contenders have endorsed a counter-terrorism operation against Mexico-based drug cartels, bringing tactics to the Southwest that America last deployed in Iraq and Syria — “just as we took down ISIS,” as Trump put it in a January campaign video. The idea, rejected by his cabinet when Trump floated it four years ago, is now mainstream Republican opinion.
“The Mexican cartels ought to be designated as foreign terrorist organizations,” former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson told Semafor in an interview, shortly before launching his campaign. “This administration has not done it, and it would help law enforcement be able to go after them in a more effective fashion.”
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley endorsed the terrorist designation — “just like we dealt with ISIS” — last month, during a visit to the Texas side of the border. Vivek Ramaswamy was already there, telling Semafor that “tactical operations, drone strikes, airstrikes and limited ground intelligence-guided capability could lead to, I think, even a higher probability of success than we had when we were going in to take the fight to ISIS.”
After dabbling with criminal justice reforms during the 2010s — Donald Trump himself proudly signed the First Step Act, which shortened some drug sentences — Republicans are back on war footing thanks to the surge in fentanyl overdose deaths in recent years. In state capitols, lawmakers are talking about once again ratcheting up sentences for drug sellers.
In Washington, a Republican-sponsored bill would let fentanyl dealers be charged with felony murder. In Arizona, another proposal would charge dealers with homicide. And in Tennessee, state Rep. Mike Sparks wants to classify fentanyl as a “weapon of mass destruction,” charging traffickers with terrorism, eligible for the death penalty if convicted.
“Look at the damage it can do,” Sparks told Semafor. “I think it’s done on purpose. I think that there are a lot of things being done on purpose to undermine this country.”
Some bills, like Sparks’s “WMD” proposal and the Ashley Dunn Act sponsored by Arizona state Rep. Quang Nguyen, have run into constitutional concerns.
“If the Supreme Court is going to slap me down, that’s their job,” Nguyen told Semafor. “Any member on the floor today saying that this bill is unconstitutional, guess what? That’s their opinion. I’d be happy to work with members to make it better, but I don’t need to pre-empt myself from introducing bills.”
The overarching Republican critique of Joe Biden’s presidency is that it encourages disorder, and that his White House never grabs the tools that could defeat it. The administration does have its own fentanyl-fighting strategy; Operation Blue Lotus, launched last month, pooled DHS resources to seize what it said was 900 pounds of fentanyl in one week. But it has ignored Republicans who call for direct military action.
Six months ago, in a paper relaunching the terror designation concept that was abandoned during Trump’s presidency, ex-Trump DHS deputy Ken Cuccinelli lambasted “the Biden administration’s willful refusal to defend the country.” In this view, just as Democratic timidity to fight cartels risks lives, their pursuit of harm reduction and criminal justice reform leads to more fentanyl overdoses.
Treating cartels like ISIS cells and dealers like murderers is their response. Trump, as usual, set the bar. Early in his presidency, Trump told then-Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte that he’d done “an unbelievable job on the drug problem,” during a drug war that killed at least 8000 Filipinos. (Duterte notoriously promised to kill 100,000 criminals during his first six months in office and claimed to have personally executed some when he was a mayor.) Last year, at a rally in Texas, Trump talked enviously about Chinese trials of drug dealers that take “two hours” instead of years, putting convicted dealers to death.
“You look at Singapore, you look at other countries, wherever they have the death penalty, zero drug problems,” Trump said. “Drugs are causing us tremendous problems.”
For libertarian-leaning conservatives, who for a period seemed to be gaining ground on drug policy within their party, the reversal has been a rude shock. Jeffrey A. Singer, a doctor and Cato Institute fellow who testified at a House hearing on the fentanyl crisis, saw Republicans pursuing a dead-end strategy; he was astounded to hear them cite America’s long post-9/11 counterinsurgencies as models.
“It’s the same way people react when they see a mass shooting — we need to do something,” said Singer. “If you could institute a miserable, prison-like existence for 300 million Americans, then yes, that would cut down on the drug trade.”
But the ground is shifting, and quickly. Last year, when a memoir from former Trump Defense Sec. Mark Esper confirmed Trump’s support for military strikes against cartels, it was covered like a scandal. This week, in a Fox News interview about the drug trade, House Oversight chairman James Comer asked why it wasn’t allowed.
“One of the things we learned post-Trump presidency is that he had ordered a bombing of a couple of fentanyl labs, crystal meth labs, in Mexico, just across the border, and for whatever reason, the military didn’t do it,” Comer said. “I think that was a mistake.”
ROOM FOR DISAGREEMENT
Critics of the GOP’s new line say it’s less about fentanyl — no one in government disagrees with fighting traffickers — and more about its focus on “law and order” politics and the border. “Republicans’ zealotry to blame immigrants at every opportunity means that they would rather politicize the real challenges of combating fentanyl,” said a spokesman for the immigration reform group America’s Voice this month.
THE VIEW FROM HUMAN RIGHTS GROUPS
According to Harm Reduction International, death sentences for drug offenses doubled worldwide last year. Mimicking those penalties in the U.S. would do little to help the fentanyl problem, they argue.
“The use of the death penalty for drug crimes is simply a violation of international human rights standards, and it does not have a unique deterrence effect on drug trafficking,” said Ajeng Larasati, the Human Rights Lead at HRI.
Florida. Shortly before midnight, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, supplanting the 15-week ban that was in place when he won re-election. Exactly one year ago, when DeSantis signed the 15-week ban, he said that it protects babies “who have beating hearts, who can move, who can taste, who can see, and who can feel pain.” He was more concise about the new bill, calling himself “proud to support life and family,” and emphasizing that the state had also expanded Medicaid for new mothers. DeSantis spoke at Liberty University’s convocation on Friday morning, never mentioning the new law, which was cited in his introduction.
Make America Great Again, Inc., “Pudding Fingers.”The anecdote first appeared in the 31st paragraph of a Daily Beast article compiling the worst stories about DeSantis from the GOP rumor mill. It accused DeSantis of “enjoy[ing] a chocolate pudding dessert—by eating it with three of his fingers” on a short flight. It was mocked for days in the media that DeSantis doesn’t interact with, and now it’s dramatized in this pro-Trump PAC ad, with an oddly young DeSantis stand-in clawing and devouring cheap pudding as a narrator discusses his support for entitlement cuts — exactly how a Democratic strategist with American Bridge suggested that DeSantis foes could use the image.
Never Back Down Inc., “Anthem.” As Semafor’s Shelby Talcott reported, this pro-DeSantis PAC spent $1 million to put this on national cable next week, buying into the news cycle. It’s a full-on Hollywood trailer, match-cutting between a little leaguer and the governor, veterans of the past and Lt. Commander DeSantis in uniform. “You’re coming after the rights of parents? I’m standing in your way,” DeSantis says, one of just a couple of sound bites to tie the drama together. The contrast with the “pudding” spot says everything about the GOP race — Trump can mock his opponents, but they’re nervous about alienating voters if they ever return fire.
Two Republican candidates from a crucial early primary state? Both of them trailing Donald Trump? We’ve been here before. Like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio eight years ago, both Haley and Scott are well-liked by their home state Republicans. Trump’s net favorable rating among GOP voters is 57 points and Haley’s is 55 points, while 69% of Republicans approve of how Scott is handling his role in the Senate. But just one in four Republicans support either South Carolininian in a race against the former president.
Trump lost Oklahoma’s 2016 primary, one of just four states that day carried by Ted Cruz, back when evangelical voters trusted the Texan but not him. That problem was solved by Trump’s presidency, and he now leads with all voters and wins easily when supporters of other candidates are asked for a second choice.
Next year’s election will put Casey on the ballot with an unpopular Democratic president for the second time. In 2012, Republicans fielded Tom Smith, the wealthy owner of a mining company who spent $16 million of his own money and lost by 9 points, better than any Casey challenger. Democrats want Casey to face Mastriano, who never raised enough money to compete in last year’s race for governor, not McCormick, who benefits from GOP buyer’s remorse after losing last year’s U.S. Senate primary to Mehmet Oz. Biden, at 27% approval, is more of a drag than Barack Obama was.
White House. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott launched his exploratory committee on Wednesday, then headed to early primary states, immediately facing quizzes about his stance on abortion.
In a sit-down with CBS News, he called himself “100% pro-life” but didn’t say what federal abortion restrictions he might support. One day later, he told WMUR that he could sign a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, which polls well — and which, not coincidentally, Republicans have advanced in the past. Still unanswered: If he’d support “personhood” legislation that defines life as starting at conception, which he co-sponsored two years ago.
In the first 48 hours of his tour, Scott didn’t differentiate himself from the field; his campaign video and committee website laid out basic priorities and values (“bring Americans together with faith,” “criminals should be sent to prison”) with few specifics.
Right after you finish this newsletter, three declared Republican presidential candidates will address the NRA Leadership Forum in Indianapolis: Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Asa Hutchinson. (Scott, Nikki Haley, and Ron DeSantis will appear via video.) On the docket: Whether candidates align themselves with the NRA’s school safety position (armed guards and hardened campuses), whether they support “red flag” laws that allow courts to issue temporary orders cutting high-risk individuals off from access to guns, and whether they’d oppose any new limits on gun stocks and magazine sizes.
Senate. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney filed paperwork to seek a second term this week, and Brad Wilson, the speaker of the House in Salt Lake City, filed paperwork to challenge him. Wilson told the AP that the state needed another “conservative fighter” in the Senate. Romney had to overcome a convention and primary contest in 2018, when Donald Trump had endorsed him — before Romney cast two votes to convict him in impeachment trials.
The closest congressional race of 2022 was a sleeper — a contest between Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo. and Democrat Adam Frisch, a former independent who picked up thousands of independent votes. Frisch got some key support from the WelcomePAC, which wants to help moderate Democrats get through primaries, compete in Republican-leaning seats, then win. Lauren Harper, the PAC’s co-founder, talked through its agenda with Americana.
Americana: What’s your plan for 2024?
Lauren Harper: Ideally, we’ll have three to five candidates who are competing in right of center districts across the country. These are places where Trump may have won, but he underperformed, winning with around 50-to-53% of the vote. National Democrats aren’t going to be spending there because they’re focused on incumbent protection and flipping Biden districts, but WelcomePAC-backed candidates like former Arnold Schwarzenegger aide Will Rollins in CA-41 can flip centrist voters to win those seats.
Americana: The conversation about whether the two parties are too extreme is being driven right now by No Labels, which is readying to run a third party presidential campaign in 2024. What’s better about the Welcome PAC strategy?
Lauren Harper: Unfortunately, in America, we have a two party system. Instead of creating a third party, why don’t we just create a Democratic Party that can appeal to a broader range of voters? We already see that a lot of Democratic candidates, including President Biden, are moderates who can garner support from moderate Republicans and independent voters, right? There’s really no reason to create a No Labels ticket, when you could just pick a Democratic nominee who can get support from moderate Republicans and independents. Centrists need to organize a faction within the party, not start a new one.
Americana: You worked for Beto O’Rourke in 2020. I covered that campaign, and I’d see him hold a town hall and get roasted if he disagreed with an activist’s question — will you ban fossil fuel production, things like that. How did your experience on that campaign affect you, and your strategy now?
Lauren Harper: Usually, town halls bring out the people who have already made up their mind on issues — where it’s abortion, guns, trans rights, or whatever. When they get inside, they’re not necessarily open to a nuanced perspective on their issue. They just are trying to make sure that the candidate they’re talking to is going to agree with them. And if they don’t agree with them, then they say: Oh, you’re not good enough for me, you’re not Democratic enough for me.
That doesn’t allow for much diversity within the Democratic Party. It doesn’t help it appeal to a broad range of voters who don’t have a very hard stance on some of those issues. We have to allow the Democratic candidates that we put up to be, number one, authentic and, number two, mainstream enough to be able to appeal to a broad range of voters. Not just voters on the left who show up for primaries.
Americana: If you’re the people putting out a welcome mat, who’s your antithesis? Who’s trying to pull it away?
Lauren Harper: The people in the Squad. Black voters, Hispanic voters, identify more in the center than they do on the far left. When you’re putting out progressive rhetoric, like defund the police, it doesn’t necessarily get people excited about being a Democrat. AOC has literally said Democrats are “too big of a tent.” We’re trying to highlight members of Congress like Abigail Spanberger, and Greg Landsman, and Shontel Brown. There’s so many incredible centrist leaders on the Democratic side that don’t necessarily get the same airtime as the Squad.