Meet the Democrats’ last best hope of preserving a House majority

As the U.S. House of Representatives debated a resolution to hold former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in contempt of Congress this week, Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) issued a warning: Republicans, poised to reclaim control in midterm elections next year, had their own list of witnesses to call.

Bishop said those who would be hauled before a Republican majority in Congress would include Attorney General Merrick Garland, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, current White House chief of staff Ron Klain, the president’s son Hunter Biden — and Marc Elias.

One of those things is not like the others: Elias, 52, has never worked in government, on Capitol Hill or in the White House.

But he has emerged as the most prominent Democratic attorney in America. As Republican state legislatures move to impose new restrictions on voting and new congressional district maps that aim to cement their control of the House of Representatives for the next decade, Democrats stuck deep in legislative minorities are increasingly looking to the courts to fight back — and Elias is at the tip of the spear.

This year, Elias has fielded more than 20 lawsuits challenging voting laws or district maps, most through a new law firm he launched in August specifically dedicated to aiding Democrats and progressive causes.

Along the way, he has generated a special kind of animosity among Republican operatives and attorneys, some of whom were once his allies in campaign finance cases.

“It’s just kind of weird,” Elias said of his newfound place among the pantheon of liberal boogeymen. “Mollie Hemingway” — the conservative author and journalist — “wrote like a whole chapter in her book about me.”

For most of his nearly 30-year career in Democratic legal circles, Elias has been a quiet figure, known in Washington as an adviser to senators and representatives but anonymous outside the Beltway. The son of immigrant parents who moved to New York City, Elias arrived in Washington just as House Democrats lost their majority for the first time in 40 years.

Elias spent those years in the wilderness helping the law firm of Perkins Coie build its political practice, under the tutelage of Bob Bauer, who later served as former President Obama’s White House counsel. Elias took his most prominent political legal job in 2004, when he served as general counsel to Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign.

As Democrats searched for a path back to power, Elias grew close with an up-and-coming congressman from New Jersey, Robert Torricelli. Torricelli won election to the Senate in 1996 and took over the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in 1999, Elias’s first foot in the door of a building where he would later maintain a second office.

When Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) took over the DSCC in 2005, he urged Democratic senators to professionalize their campaign legal teams by hiring the Perkins team.

Then, in 2008, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and comedian Al Franken (D) finished in a virtual tie in a battle for what would have been the 60th Democratic seat in the U.S. Senate. Elias led Franken’s legal team in the court fight that ultimately handed Franken a winning margin of just 312 votes.

Today, Elias acts as an adviser, both formal and informal, to a host of prominent Democrats. He is close with Vice President Harris, also a litigator, dating back to her run for the Senate in 2016. Schumer calls often. So do Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Elias interrupted one recent interview to take a call from a member of Congress who wanted an update on a redistricting case currently before a state court.

For an avowed Democrat, Elias spent part of the last decade building legal consensus with Republicans — especially those who, in the wake of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, worried that political parties were losing their power to outside super PACs that could raise and spend unlimited money.

In 2014, Elias led Democratic negotiations on a controversial rider in an omnibus appropriations bill that substantially raised the cap on money donors could give to political parties for the purposes of funding conventions, litigating recounts and operating their physical buildings.

“Everybody from the party operation world was supportive of that, and for a time, particularly right after Citizens United came out from the Supreme Court, he was pushing raising the party coordinated limits. Folks on my side, particularly from the party apparatus, were aligned with that,” said Jason Torchinsky, a Republican election law expert who has clashed with Elias in more recent years.

Elias even developed a symbiotic, if subtle, rapport with Don McGahn, then a powerful member of the Federal Election Commission and former President Trump’s future White House counsel. Elias filed several requests for advisory opinions that helped loosen campaign finance restrictions, which McGahn helped shepherd through the bipartisan commission.

Those alliances earned Elias the ire of good government groups and campaign finance reformers, who saw him as a partisan masquerading as a reformer. Even today, they are conscious of where his loyalties lie.

“On one hand, reform groups welcome having an ally where they might not otherwise have an ally to challenge maps or laws where they don’t have the resources. But on the other hand, you can’t escape the fact that his goal is for partisan purposes,” said Michael McDonald, a voting rights expert at the University of Florida who has worked for both Elias and reform-minded groups.

But the 2016 election that sent Trump to the White House changed Elias’s outlook. As the general counsel to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Elias said Trump’s election rattled his perspective on American politics.

“I thought we were all operating under a common set of assumptions. And I became very disoriented because I saw a lot of people who I had respected all of a sudden bowing down to this despicable person who was in the White House, who had no business being president and who had authoritarian impulses and desires,” Elias said.

Elias’s newfound prominence caused tension at Perkins Coie, an international law firm of more than 1,000 attorneys based in Seattle. Some of the firm’s partners chafed at the idea of such an avowed partisan in their midst — especially after Elias’s role in hiring the research firm Fusion GPS, which in turn hired former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, author of a dossier about Trump’s alleged connections to Russia that have now been largely disproven.

“I was increasingly outspoken in a way that I think was difficult. And I felt constrained,” he said. “I became more and more convinced that I wanted to practice law in an environment in which we only represented Democrats and progressive causes.”

A Perkins Coie spokesman did not return an email seeking comment.

Some election lawyers and legal experts have also criticized Elias’s decision to challenge some cases in unfavorable legal territory. Several voting rights advocates thought Elias made a mistake in challenging two Arizona laws relating to ballot collecting and out-of-precinct voting; in that case, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the Supreme Court’s six-justice conservative majority further undermined a section of the Voting Rights Act.

Elias rejects complaints from election reformers that he works exclusively to benefit Democrats on voting rights cases.

“I am a committed Democrat in that I fight every day to help Democrats win elections, and I make no apologies for that. But if you look at my litigation, it is not simply trying to allow Democrats to use drop boxes. It’s trying to allow everybody to use drop boxes,” he said.

In August, Elias took 14 other partners and 45 associates with him when he founded the Elias Law Group, a practice he says is “mission-driven” in a way big law firms are not.

“In order for us to represent you, you need to be one of either three things: to help Democrats win, to help voters vote or to help progressives make change. You don’t have to do all three, but you have to do one of those,” he said.

Some Republicans have raised questions about the amount of funding it would take to hire and employ so many top-tier attorneys. But Elias said the firm has no silent backers and that it began its life with more than 500 clients on the books.

“The funding we receive are the legal fees we charge the clients. There’s no mysterious funder back there,” he said. 

Elias’s legal work may now represent the last best chance for House Democrats as they stare into the abyss of a decade lost in the minority. Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country have drawn congressional district lines that virtually ensure they will win the Speaker’s gavel next year, and in many states they have eliminated so many competitive districts that the Democratic path back to power is virtually nonexistent.

Republicans who were once his allies now see Elias as one of their most prominent Democratic foes.

“Marc has one basic M.O.,” Torchinsky said in an interview. “It’s whatever he thinks is in the best interest of the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates. There is no other guiding principles, regardless of what he says publicly.”

The advent of faster and better technologies that can craft partisan lines has delivered a new era of gerrymandering, Elias said, one with which the current law surrounding the arcane practice has failed to keep pace.

“Like, it’s one thing to gerrymander with a pen and paper,” he said. “It’s another thing to gerrymander with computers. And yet it is a whole other thing to gerrymander where the computers can run hundreds of thousands of simulated maps in the course of a few hours. So what you’re seeing is hyperpartisanship with better technology and tools.”

Elias says he feels a new urgency in challenging voting restrictions, or gerrymandered maps, as the former president continues spreading misinformation.

“We should all have been radicalized by Donald Trump. We should all be terrified that what we saw for four years that ended with a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol could happen again. That should scare everybody,” Elias said. “Democracy has become a partisan issue.”

Voting rights were at the center of one recent case Elias spearheaded, in North Carolina in 2019. In that case, Elias aided Democratic candidate Dan McCready, who narrowly lost a bid for a rural seat in Congress to Republican Mark Harris. Harris had been aided by an illegal ballot-harvesting campaign, and the North Carolina Board of Elections ultimately ordered a new election.

Later that year, North Carolina voters headed to the polls again in a special election. A Republican named Dan Bishop won.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Al Franken Alejandro Mayorkas Amy Klobuchar Barack Obama Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Hillary Clinton House elections Jack Reed Joe Biden John Kerry Marc Elias Mark Harris Mark Meadows Merrick Garland Ron Klain

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