Weapons Makers Rushing Campaign Cash to Democrat in Line to Chair Defense Industry’s Key House Committee

This race stands out for its focus on foreign policy and the pernicious influence of the weapons industry.

Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., speaks during a hearing on the FY2019 budget with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, and Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) and Chief Financial Officer David L. Norquist, on Capitol Hill, Thursday, April 12, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

Weapons makers are moving last-minute money to the Democratic congressman in line to chair the defense industry’s key House committee, as he is under assault from a fellow Democrat, who is attacking his pro-war record just ahead of a rare intra-party general election.

If Democrats take the House of Representatives, the next chair of the Armed Services Committee, which oversees military affairs and defense spending, will likely be Rep. Adam Smith, a hawkish Democrat from Washington state who represents a district in the Seattle-area, where important elements of the military-industrial complex are concentrated.

But standing in his way is Sarah Smith, a working-class activist and democratic socialist, hoping to channel progressive momentum to dislodge the incumbent lawmaker in an unusual Democrat versus Democrat general election matchup.

In a year that has seen several high-profile incumbent Democrats challenged, this race stands out for its focus on foreign policy and the pernicious influence of the weapons industry.

Sarah Smith has mounted a surprisingly spirited bid, attacking the “corrupting influence of the military-industrial complex” and demanding that the country shift “away from our economy of violence toward an economy of peace.” She has singled out Adam Smith’s votes in favor of war and against restrictions on cluster munitions, as well as his support for bills that have expanded the reach of the sprawling homeland security and surveillance state.

Sensing an opportunity to influence the race and the potential future committee chair, major weapons contractors have given the lawmaker last-minute campaign support. Lobbyists and executives associated with General Dynamics, one of the largest weapons makers in the world, have given over $10,000 in recent weeks, in addition to the $9,500 from the company over the last quarter.

In just the last week of October, Teresa Carlson, an Amazon industry executive overseeing the company’s bid for a $10 billion military IT contract, gave $1,000; Bechtel, which managed Iraq reconstruction contracts, gave $1,000; Rolls-Royce, which manufactures parts for a variety of military jets, including a model of the controversial F-35, gave $3,500; and Phebe Novakovic, the chief executive of General Dynamics, gave $2,700.

Adam Smith has served in Congress since 1997 and has compiled a relatively interventionist voting record. He cast a vote in favor of the Iraq War during George W. Bush’s administration and initially warned against winding down the war in Afghanistan during Barack Obama’s administration.

In 2016, in one of the first major floor votes to prevent the transfer of American arms to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen, Adam Smith was one of only 16 Democrats to join Republicans in voting the measure down. The bill explicitly restricted the use of cluster munitions, which often kill and injure civilians because the ordinance is designed to detonate and spread miniature explosives over a wide area.

Textron, the Rhode Island-based defense contractor that has long served as a leading producer of cluster bombs, has given Adam Smith $24,500 in campaign contributions over the last decade. The company announced two years ago that it would end the production of the weapon.

Last year, the lawmaker signaled a shifting attitude, telling The Intercept that the U.S. has no business “taking sides in the civil war in Yemen.” He soon signed onto a resolution to bring an end to American military support for the conflict.

In a statement to The Intercept, Adam Smith firmly rejected his opponent’s criticism.

“Throughout my career in Congress, I have cast key votes against defense interests,” he said. “I voted to end both the B52 and F22 programs. I have voted eight times against the defense budget. It is clear from my record that I put the national security of our country and the interests of my district first.”

In an interview, Sarah Smith said the shift has been too little, too late.

“We helped destabilize that region. Suddenly, these folks like Adam have reversed their position after they’ve received a progressive challenger, but the damage is already done,” she said.

“The bombs are still being sold and these defense companies are still making money. When he had a chance to do something, he failed,” Sarah Smith added.

Adam Smith’s campaign has massively out-raised his progressive challenger by an 11 to 1 margin, giving the incumbent a significant advantage, as he’s been able to air campaign commercials to get his message out. The local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, as well as several local activist groups, have volunteered for Sarah Smith’s campaign, giving the young challenger a boost of enthusiasm despite the moneyed gap in political resources.

Political prognosticators are giving Sarah Smith little chance: FiveThirtyEight projects Adam Smith has a better than 99 percent chance of winning the race.

But Sarah Smith’s campaign notes that the 9th Congressional District is one of the most diverse in the country, a dynamic that appears to favor insurgent candidates. The district is home to many refugees and those fleeing wars in the Middle East, conflicts, Sarah’s campaign has pointed out, that are rooted in the wars supported by her opponent.

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