The Back Booth: An ‘Orgy of Oppo’ on Madison Cawthorn and an Unprecedented Subpoena

Welcome to The Back Booth, a weekend edition of The D.C. Brief. Here each Saturday, TIME’s politics newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and the left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Subscribe to The D.C. Brief here.

It’s a rare day in Washington when one’s colleagues send a subpoena to a boss asking them to come testify about what exactly they did amid an effort to overturn an election, subvert democracy, and retain an incumbent President who insists against all facts that he won the vote.
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And, yet…

This week, The D.C. Brief chatted with two pros in the political trenches about the stunning invitation—without a no box—for House minority leader Kevin McCarthy and four other Republicans to testify before the committee probing the failed Jan. 6 insurrection, as well as the drama unfurling in Pennsylvania’s Senate race and the continuing war in Ukraine.

From the right, Ethan Eilon is one of the Republican Party’s best under-the-radar tech leaders. He has worked for the political arm of the network of the Koch orbit, congressional races and White House bids. He tinkered with the Republican National Committee’s delegate rules and helped the party weaponize its digital fundraising.

On the left, Jesse Ferguson has been one of the quiet forces inside rooms where power has been negotiated, won, or ceded over the last two decades. He had a hand in running House Democrats’ campaign advertising efforts, worked as their political spokesman, and was one of Hillary Clinton’s most effective attack dogs as she chased a return to the White House.

Both are now consultants. The conversation has been edited.

Elliott: Welcome to this week’s Back Booth. Dr. Biden is back from Ukraine, which seems to be holding. If you’re running in a swing district or competitive statewide, how are you positioning the seemingly endless stream of cash going into that country? I mean, it seems like the current aid package had almost no debate or questions asked.

Ferguson: Americans are overwhelmingly behind backing Ukraine in defending themselves from Putin. Some people see it as the compassionate thing to do and others see it as the way to defend freedom and democracy. It’s a faction of GOP politicians and GOP voters who would rather let Putin get away with this and aren’t worried about defending democracy any more.

Eilon: The Biden administration has failed to lead. They sat on the sidelines and watched as this war unfolded. In fact, recent polling shows the majority of Americans think Biden has not been tough enough on Ukraine. That failure is going to be top of mind, and consistent with voters’ views of the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The aid is important, that’s why it passed as quickly as it did, but it doesn’t make up for the failure of leadership that we’ve seen to date. Americans are already dealing with increasing inflation rates and soaring gas prices, and the situation in Ukraine has only made it worse. I doubt voters will forget that.

Elliott: I’m curious what you make of the state GOP’s open antagonism of Madison Cawthron ahead of the North Carolina primary. It seems pretty epic, even by today’s standards.

Eilon: Given the recent press, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. Ultimately, if you’re talking about scandals, that means you’re not talking about what the voters or the state needs, and I think you’re seeing frustration about that popping from the seams.

Ferguson: Yeah. It’s like an orgy of oppo that they’re dropping on him and I have no idea if he’ll get over the hump. I’m far from an expert on GOP primaries; they never invite me to the cloak room. Having people like him in Congress is a reminder of the risks that come when your candidates are more suited for right-wing social media than they are for governing a country.

Elliott: Sometimes, the district gets the candidate it deserves. It happens on both sides. There are plenty of Democratic representatives who are legendarily bad on constituent services and staff treatment yet still keep coming back.

Ferguson: In the long arc of time, for sure there are some Dem electeds who might not have been good in those jobs. But, in recent years—from the days of Scott DesJarlais to the days of Madison Cawthorn—the number of members of Congress who shouldn’t be members of Congress has tipped to one side.

Elliott: Pivoting slightly, though, it seems like they always have enough money. Ethan, you’ve been thinking a lot lately about crypto’s place in the campaign ecosystem. I’m curious what you’re seeing at the 30,000-foot level on that source of political money. (I admit: I don’t really understand how crypto is real.)

Eilon: Actual crypto giving, meaning donating Bitcoin or another crypto currency, directly to a campaign is still nascent. Only a handful of committees are accepting it, and there isn’t mass adoption from the political donor base on either side of the aisle at this point. It feels a bit like credit cards in politics in the mid/late ‘90s. Similar to that arc, I think the adoption rate will increase pretty dramatically as the overall tech adoption continues to grow. To me, that’s a when not an if.

In the meantime, there has been a significant uptick in the political giving coming out of the crypto industry as a whole, as players in that space try to bolster the folks who’ve been champions on the issue. That, and the fervor of its user base, will likely kick off a race—especially in the next presidential nominating contests—for which candidates are the most pro-crypto.

Elliott: So, a subpoena for the potential future Speaker isn’t something you see every day. What the heck happens next?

Ferguson: A live look at the Minority Leader’s reaction.

Eilon: I’m pretty sure what happens next is Democrats lose the House.

Ferguson: Could be. Kevin McCarthy testifying under oath isn’t going to increase—or decrease—the likelihood that Democrats control the House next year. But he’s spent more than a year trying to avoid this moment which leads to a reasonable question of what he’s trying to hide. Then again, the new Jan. 6 tapes may have already given away some of his secrets before he has to go under oath.

Eilon: My high-confidence prediction: Dem operatives are on TV afterward saying everything McCarthy said and did was wrong and bad, GOP operatives are on TV saying everything he did was right and great. The American people at home mute the volume and go back to wondering how Joe Biden, with Dems in control of Congress, managed to make it harder to put food on the table and gas in their cars at a rate unseen in 40 years.

Ferguson: There’s a growing group of voters who are worried about the criminality in this conspiracy and about the long term plot to overturn elections. It fits into the larger pattern of how the GOP has changed. It’s no longer about a City on a Hill, it’s about a mob of militants. There’s a reason the GOP didn’t want this investigation and have been consistently trying to obstruct it—because they’re scared about what it reveals.

Elliott: Gents, this has been some amusing exchanges. One last question: how are things actually looking in Pennsylvania? I just watched Hannity all but beg his viewers in Pennsylvania to consider general election electability—during an interview with contenders polling markedly in the second tier. Are Keystone State voters really headed toward nominating someone with a record of, let’s say, divisive rhetoric? Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell already has a Herschel Walker problem in Georgia. Could he also have a Kathy Barnette problem in Pennsylvania?

Eilon: The establishment media are always quick to decry outsiders who don’t fit the preconception of what a candidate from one party or the other is supposed to be. Sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong, but it seems as though voters are more open to people who don’t conform to what they’ve been told to expect than they have been in the past. In any event, midterms are about the direction of the country as much as anything else. With how things look right now I wouldn’t describe McConnell as the one with the problem.

Ferguson: Ethan’s right on this one. Too often candidates who are seen in the Beltway as unelectable end up getting elected. Let me remind you of a gentleman named Donald Trump. It does seem like the GOP is freaking out about Barnette at this point, but I’m not sure she’s more of a problem than Oz and others. In truth, several of the GOP candidates in Pennsylvania are pretty far outside the mainstream, especially in the vote-rich suburbs. One of their real roadblocks to winning the Senate is the good chance Democrats have to flip the Pennsylvania Senate seat this cycle.

Elliott: Thanks so much for your work on this.