James O'Keefe takes his con to Missouri

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

The Republican Party is running one of the more cynical and cowardly campaigns of deception in recent political history. Caught between the public’s overwhelming support for the Affordable Care Act’s protections for people with pre-existing health conditions and their own record of opposing those provisions, GOP politicians are brazenly lying to the public about their position in hopes of improving their chances in the midterm elections. From President Donald Trump down through the party’s congressional ranks, Republicans are presenting themselves as fierce defenders of the very protections they’ve been trying to weaken or eliminate altogether.

In one particularly jarring case, Josh Hawley, Missouri’s attorney general and the Republican candidate for Senate, is running campaign ads portraying himself as a champion of the provision, even as he’s signed on to a legal challenge that seeks to declare the entire ACA unconstitutional. It’s a breathtakingly dishonest con.

The right-wing media have not only been a willing participant in the GOP’s effort to gaslight voters, they’ve also spent the last week weaving a bogus counternarrative in which Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill, whom Hawley seeks to unseat, is the one who is really lying to voters about what she believes.

James O’Keefe, a right-wing huckster infamous for his nonsensical “undercover sting” videos, is behind this fraud. O’Keefe’s stings typically follow the same pattern: He picks a target, an organization which he presents as part of a sinister left-wing conspiracy; gets an undercover operative to infiltrate the group; has that operative ask leading questions to low-level members of the group while recording their interactions with a hidden camera; deceptively edits the footage, decontextualizing the comments in order to make the person recorded -- and the group -- look as bad as possible; and puts out a video trumpeting whatever “bombshell” he’s obtained as unequivocal evidence of vast corruption.

Sometimes, O’Keefe’s schemes fizzle in embarrassing, grotesque, or illegal ways (as with his last year’s effort to get The Washington Post to publish an operative's false story of sexual assault by Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, presumably to expose the paper’s low standards and desire to smear a Republican). Other times, he quite obviously does not have the goods, but claims otherwise, knowing from experience that his audience will happily eat the dogshit he shovels and that his nervous targets will fire the people featured in his videos just to make the story go away, allowing him to claim victory. This is a scam, but a very lucrative one -- tax forms for O'Keefe's groups for 2015, the most recent year in which forms for both are available, show that he made nearly $500,000, thanks to a network of wealthy conservative donors and their pass-throughs that has included the Donald J. Trump Foundation.

This time, O’Keefe’s target is the campaign of Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who is seeking re-election in a swing state that backed Trump in 2016, and his con is presenting normal politician behavior as nefarious “dishonesty and unethical conduct.” “The things that you’re about to hear her and her staffers say are not the types of things they would ever say publicly while on the campaign trail,” O’Keefe says in a video that features taped conversations his operative had with McCaskill and a handful of junior staffers about gun safety. The conservative flim-flam artist’s big get is that in response to the operative’s questions, McCaskill said she would support bans on bump stocks and high-capacity magazines, and that the staffers tell the operative that McCaskill doesn’t speak on the issue as much as she could for political reasons. The video’s takeaway: McCaskill is “saying one thing and doing something else” to get elected.

This is nonsense. O’Keefe presents no evidence that McCaskill has lied about her positions. And the positions she says she supports in his video are no shocking confession: As McCaskill herself told the operative, in the Senate, she voted to ban high-capacity magazines and co-sponsored legislation to ban bump stocks. It’s not a revelation that politicians in competitive elections stress the issues they think will benefit their campaigns, nor is it indicative of corruption -- it’s boring and normal, a point one could make about literally any candidate for any election in the country. That O’Keefe’s minion spent significant time inside the campaign and found nothing more damaging is actually a damning indictment of O’Keefe’s operation.

O’Keefe has a sizable audience on social media, but he depends on unskeptical coverage from news outlets to drive his narratives into the mainstream and garner substantial impact. His career is a testament to the power of the “hack gap,” Matthew Yglesias’ term for the asymmetry in American political media in which the right-wing is at times able to dominate the national political agenda because its propaganda apparatus fixates on unimportant stories as evidence of substantial malfeasance by progressives, with mainstream journalists subsequently focusing on those same stories to avoid bad-faith complaints of liberal bias.

That cycle is playing out in Missouri. In the recent past, O’Keefe’s unethical and journalistically inept antics have drawn increasing criticism from conservatives, and some have pointed out that his latest effort doesn’t amount to much. But by and large, his McCaskill video has gotten a big push from a broad selection of online right-wing outlets. Fox News has also trumpeted it -- the video debuted on Sean Hannity’s program and drew several days of extensive, credulous coverage from the network’s conservative hosts. And thanks in part to the agenda-setting power of the hack gap, the video drove coverage of the race in the local Missouri press weeks before the election. Meanwhile, Hawley’s brazen pre-existing conditions lies are falling off the radar.

“In order to get elected,” O’Keefe suggests near the end of his video, the McCaskill campaign believes “you have to say things you don’t believe in and conceal the things you do believe in.” That’s clearly true for one of the candidates in that race, but he isn’t the one O’Keefe is targeting.