An outside group planning to attack Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman for supporting single-payer health care is being led by a consultant whose firm works for the health insurance giant Cigna, documents show.
The super PAC, Penn Progress, says it is supporting conservative Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb in the Pennsylvania race because he represents the party’s “strongest chance to flip the seat” — despite the group’s own polling data finding that Fetterman, the lieutenant governor, is trouncing Lamb in the primary and performing better than Lamb against at least one top Republican candidate, according to reporting by Politico.
While Fetterman might actually be Democrats’ best chance to take the seat, Politico obtained a slide deck prepared for donors showing that Penn Progress is preparing to attack Fetterman as a “socialist” who supports a “government takeover of health care.” These are standard talking points used by Republicans and corporate health care propagandists — which makes sense, given the super PAC’s ties to the industry.
Penn Progress’ executive director, Erik Smith, leads a communications firm that works for Cigna, one the nation’s largest health insurers, according to a corporate financial filing. Smith was previously a spokesperson for a health care industry front group campaign created to oppose Medicare for All — and another Penn Progress consultant also worked for the front group.
“I am a volunteer for this effort because I’m a progressive who believes that maintaining control of the U.S. Senate is critical to the success of the Biden administration,” Smith told The Lever in an email. He rejected the idea that attacking Fetterman could benefit his firm’s clients, calling it “untrue and inaccurate.”
A Fetterman spokesperson characterized the attacks being planned by the super PAC as “a desperate move from a campaign that hasn’t been able to raise the money on its own, and hasn’t broken through with anyone except for some political insiders.”
The Lamb campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
“Voters Don’t Yet See Fetterman As The Liberal He Is”
The Pennsylvania primary is a vital one for Democrats, as they have an opportunity to pick up a Republican seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Pat Toomey. Biden narrowly defeated former President Donald Trump in the state by 1.8 percentage points in 2020. The primary election takes place on May 17.
So far, Fetterman has outraised Lamb. Fetterman’s campaign ended last year with $5.3 million on hand, while Lamb had raised $3 million.
There hasn’t been any outside spending in the Democratic primary race this year, but that could change soon.
Politico reported last month that Penn Progress has set a fundraising goal of $8 million. While the group only raised $35,000 last year, super PACs can raise money quickly since they are permitted to accept donations of any size.
Veteran Democratic strategist James Carville has started promoting Penn Progress, according to Politico. An email from Carville to potential donors said that Lamb was set to join a call with the super PAC’s supporters.
Penn Progress recently warned donors that Fetterman is leading Lamb by 30 points and even winning among Democrats who want a moderate candidate, according to Politico. The group’s polling also found Fetterman has a stronger lead than Lamb over Republican primary candidate Mehmet Oz, the television personality known as Dr. Oz.
A Penn Progress memo explained that “primary voters don’t yet see Fetterman as the liberal he is,” which is why the super PAC recently tested potential attack lines against Fetterman. The group’s proposed negative messages include the claim that “Fetterman supports far-left policies like a $34 trillion-dollar government takeover of health care.”
This is a highly misleading spin. Under a single-payer system, the government would insure everyone, but doctors and hospitals would still be privately-owned. Single-payer would save the U.S. significant money overall — because the current system is enormously wasteful, inefficient, and designed to make investors and corporate executives wealthy.
A recent study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that a single-payer system would radically improve people’s lives: Americans would be paid higher wages, work fewer hours, save on medical expenses, retire earlier, and experience better health outcomes.
While Fetterman’s website doesn’t explicitly mention Medicare for All, he has long been a proponent of single-payer. He says in a video on his website that health care is “a basic, fundamental human right, no different than food or shelter or education.”
Lamb, by contrast, has opposed single-payer proposals.
“My job as a legislator, though, is to think about, practically, how we would ever afford something like that,” Lamb said in 2019. “The estimates and the time that it would take are really tough. No one has specifically figured that out.”
“The last thing I’m going to do is support a big middle-class tax increase,” he added.
“It’s Not About John Fetterman”
The Penn Progress team has close ties to corporate health care interests that oppose single-payer.
The group’s executive director, Smith, is a founding partner and the CEO at the corporate communications firm Seven Letter. His firm bio says he develops comprehensive communication strategies for corporations and nonprofits, including those in the health care sector.
Smith, who advised both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, helped launch the Partnership for America's Health Care Future (PAHCF), an anti-Medicare for All front group backed by health insurers, drug companies, and investor-owned hospital chains. In 2018, PAHCF paid $140,000 to his firm, then called Blue Engine Message & Media.
A financial document filed late last year shows that Seven Letter counts Cigna as a “key client.” Cigna has opposed Medicare for All and reportedly threatened to leave Connecticut, where it’s headquartered, if the state passed a public health insurance plan.
More than a dozen Seven Letter clients were disclosed in a December 2021 financial filing from Public Policy Holding Company, a consortium of corporate consulting and lobbying firms that includes Seven Letter. The document was filed as part of the Public Policy Holding Company’s application to trade on the Alternative Investment Market of the London Stock Exchange.
The filing says “Seven Letter creates, develops and implements strategic communications and digital engagement plans for Fortune 500 companies, coalitions, nonprofits and national trade associations." The firm generated $9.9 million in revenue between July 2020 and June 2021.
According to the filing, Seven Letter’s clients include Major League Baseball, Ford, food service company Aramark, and the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD), a chemical industry lobbying group. NACD has lobbied against the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, Democratic legislation that would make it easier for workers to form unions.
The document indicates Smith owns a 3.4 percent stake in the overall Public Policy Holding Company. Other holding company subsidiaries work for the powerful drug lobby Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and drugmakers Bayer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, and Sanofi.
According to a memo obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Penn Progress has also hired Impact Research, a polling firm that has worked for Biden’s presidential campaign as well as the party committees that elect House and Senate Democrats. The firm, previously known as Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, conducted polling for PAHCF alongside Smith in 2018.
Smith told HuffPost that he’s working with Penn Progress because Lamb is the “best equipped” candidate to win the statewide race, since he’s won in a swing district three times.
“It’s not about John Fetterman,” Smith said. “It’s about the strength of Conor Lamb.”
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