Interest Groups Rush to Sway Senators on Kavanaugh Nomination

(Bloomberg) -- The GOP’s race to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is sparking a furious battle between liberal and conservative groups to sway half a dozen pivotal senators who are giving little hint of how they’ll vote.

Many senators are falling along party lines over the nomination of Kavanaugh, a 53-year-old appellate court judge who would replace Justice Anthony Kennedy. That clears the way for an onslaught of TV ads, rallies and door-to-door canvassing designed to pressure the swing-vote lawmakers, many of whom face election in November.

The progressive group Demand Justice is beginning to air $5 million in anti-Kavanaugh ads in the states of five key senators, including Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Republican Susan Collins of Maine. On the other side, the conservative Judicial Crisis Network says it will spend at least $10 million, beginning with initial ads centered on Heitkamp and three other Democratic senators from states President Donald Trump won in 2016: Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama.

“They have a really tough choice to make,” said Carrie Severino, the group’s chief counsel and policy director. “This is a nominee who is very popular with their constituents and who was nominated by a president who is popular in their states.”

Those are the two priciest among efforts getting underway during the confirmation process’s very early stages, with Kavanaugh on Wednesday shuttling through the Capitol on a second day of private meetings with senators. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky says he wants to see the vacancy filled before the Supreme Court starts its new term Oct. 1.

The groups’ efforts reflect the magnitude of the change Trump’s nominee may bring to the court: Kavanaugh could solidify conservative jurisprudence for years and potentially cast a deciding vote to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion ruling.

Narrow Majority

Republicans have a narrow 51-49 majority, and GOP Senator John McCain of Arizona is away as he battles brain cancer. To defeat Kavanaugh, Democrats would need to forge a united front and flip one or possibly two Republicans against him. All Senate Republicans last year supported Trump’s first Supreme Court pick, Justice Neil Gorsuch. Democrats Heitkamp, Manchin and Donnelly joined them.

On Tuesday, the first full day following Trump’s announcement, the competing advertising campaigns already were underway.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska ran more than 200 broadcast TV spots that day in the home state of GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski, encouraging her to demand that the nominee declare his position on Roe, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political advertising. "Tell Lisa Murkowski we can’t gamble on this," the ad says.

Liberal groups, who met with top Democrats in the Capitol Tuesday, are largely following the strategy of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who is highlighting the potential impact on abortion rights and the viability of Obamacare.

The approach is designed to turn public opinion against Kavanaugh. By focusing on two issues, the strategy seeks to give Manchin and Donnelly, two red-state Democrats who oppose abortion, another basis of opposition. It’s also aimed at Collins and Murkowski, who both support abortion rights and last year helped defeat a GOP effort to replace Obamacare.

Progressive groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice America and the People’s Defense, said Wednesday they will hold Aug. 26 rallies in all 50 states to demand senators oppose Kavanaugh’s confirmation. They say Kavanaugh could alter the landscape on civil rights and corporate law, in addition to overturning Roe.

Yet most of the other efforts are narrowly targeted. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is running digital ads in Maine and Alaska, and is organizing grassroots efforts in those states with like-minded groups, including Planned Parenthood, NARAL and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Adding Pressure

"So long as Senate Democrats stay unified, progressives will unleash more home state pressure than ever before in a Supreme Court fight to ensure Republicans like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski don’t break their promise to their constituents on issues like choice," said Adam Green, co-founder of the PCCC, which touts nearly 1 million members.

NARAL said it will undertake its own “six figure” ad campaign focused on abortion rights that will run on social media and on websites of home-state newspapers of senators including Collins, Murkowski and Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, who is considered the most vulnerable Republican on the ballot in November. The group also is going after GOP Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Tea Party favorite who faces a tough challenger, and Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, who may have a close race in 2020.

Demand Justice’s ads will focus on Murkowski, Collins, Donnelly, Manchin and Heitkamp. In the Democratic senators’ states, ads that begin running this week will center on Kavanaugh’s potential threat to the Affordable Care Act, calling on all three to “hold strong” and continue fighting to protect people with pre-existing health conditions, said Brian Fallon, the group’s leader. The message for voters in the states of the two female Republican senators will focus on abortion rights, he said.

By contrast, the pro-Kavanaugh Judicial Crisis Network is targeting the Democrats who supported Gorsuch, since it may be hard for them to oppose Kavanaugh, Severino said. Jones’s Alabama special-election win in December, eight months after Gorsuch was seated, opens another opportunity to snag a red-state Democrat, she said.

FreedomWorks, a right-wing advocacy group, plans to organize its millions of online followers to target vulnerable Democratic senators with phone calls, letters and tweets encouraging them to confirm Kavanaugh. Heitkamp, Manchin and Donnelly are the top marks.

Koch Network Plans

At the same time, the conservative political network founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch has pledged to spend at least $1 million on advertising and other initiatives to try to secure Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

The network’s flagship political operation, Americans for Prosperity, says it will have activists knocking on doors in some key states as early as Saturday to try to rally support and lobby senators to back the nominee. Internet ads are already running and mailers are planned.

The group is casting a wider net than others, launching efforts in 10 states Trump won in 2016 that have a Democratic senator running for re-election this year.

The main senators targeted by interest groups so far aren’t giving many clues about what they’ll do. Murkowski and Collins said they’ll review Kavanaugh’s record and testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Collins told reporters Tuesday that Kavanaugh has “impressive credentials” and “it will be very difficult for anyone to argue that he’s not qualified for the job.”

“If Democrats think their pressure campaign in Maine is going to work,” Collins said Thursday, “they’re sorely mistaken.”

Democrats likewise said they’ll likely need to wait until confirmation hearings.

“I’m not making any rash decisions,” Manchin said. “I’m going to look and do a deep dive.”

Jones said he’ll be open-minded. He said he’s not worried about the advertising efforts to sway undecided votes.

“It’s really sad that millions of dollars are going to be spent,” said Jones, who won’t face voters again until 2020. “That money could be used in so many other positive ways other than media advertisements to try to sway somebody.”

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