Con­ser­va­tive groups are out­spend­ing lib­er­als in Gor­such nom­i­na­tion fight

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - @PKCapi­tol PAUL KANE paul.kane@wash­

Con­ser­va­tive spend­ing has already swamped the lib­eral op­po­si­tion to Neil Gor­such’s nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court in the weeks lead­ing up to his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings, which are set to begin Monday in the Se­nate.

By a nearly 20-to-1 mar­gin, con­ser­va­tive groups have vastly out­spent their lib­eral coun­ter­parts on tele­vi­sion ad­ver­tis­ing on be­half of Gor­such, ac­cord­ing to Repub­li­can es­ti­mates of ad pur­chases since the end of Jan­uary. Most of the con­ser­va­tive fire has been di­rected at seven Demo­cratic sen­a­tors in states where Pres­i­dent Trump won last year, try­ing to push them into beat­ing back an ex­pected block­ade of Gor­such’s nom­i­na­tion from lib­eral Democrats.

So far, none of the 48 Se­nate Democrats have said they will back Gor­such. But the ge­nial judge’s tour of Capi­tol Hill has yielded few controversies, and if Gor­such is con­firmed, Democrats may look back with re­gret on their pal­try in­vest­ment in a cam­paign out­side of Washington to beat him.

Across the coun­try, from Trump’s an­nounce­ment of Gor­such on Jan. 31 un­til last week, to­tal ad spend­ing was more than $3.3 mil­lion sup­port­ing Gor­such, with just $181,000 from lib­eral groups op­pos­ing his con­fir­ma­tion, ac­cord­ing to the GOP es­ti­mate.

Democrats and lib­eral groups did not dis­pute that they are be­ing badly beaten on the air­waves in the fight over Trump’s first nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court. Some es­ti­mates from con­ser­va­tives sug­gest the spend­ing deficit is even wider. It’s a shock­ing dis­par­ity given the in­cred­i­bly high stakes for a nom­i­na­tion that could keep the high court tilted to the right for decades to come.

Se­nate Democrats are well aware that their most po­lit­i­cally vul­ner­a­ble in­cum­bents have faced an on­slaught of proGor­such ads. They say they hope that the en­er­getic anti-Trump move­ment will turn its grass­roots en­ergy to the Supreme Court bat­tle.

“I think most of the ad money has prob­a­bly been on the proGor­such side in a lot of th­ese states, but you’re see­ing grass­roots or­ga­ni­za­tions mo­bi­liz­ing in a lot of th­ese states as well. And, you know, if there’s one les­son from the last cam­paign, it’s that those move­ments have im­por­tant im­pact,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chair­man of the Demo­cratic Se­na­to­rial Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

There is not a lot of time left for anti-Gor­such forces. His con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing to fill the seat of former jus­tice An­tonin Scalia be­gins Monday be­fore the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, and lead­ers say they hope to bring a vote to the Se­nate floor by April 7.

Un­der the ban­ner of the Con­sti­tu­tional Re­spon­si­bil­ity Project, the lib­eral coali­tion launched an ad cam­paign last week in Ari­zona and Ne­vada, tar­get­ing a pair of Repub­li­can sen­a­tors up for re­elec­tion next year, Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Dean Heller (Nev.).

Some lib­eral groups, par­tic­u­larly Planned Par­ent­hood and NARAL Pro-Choice Amer­ica, have ac­cess to mil­lions of sup­port­ers. They de­liv­ered a pe­ti­tion to the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee with 1 mil­lion sig­na­tures last week in op­po­si­tion to Gor­such.

But the left — or the “Re­sis­tance” in Trump-era ver­nac­u­lar — is di­vided among a wealth of tar­gets since Trump was in­au­gu­rated, in­clud­ing the charge to roll back the Af­ford­able Care Act, im­pose a travel ban on cer­tain im­mi­grants and slash large chunks from do­mes­tic pro­grams in the fed­eral bud­get.

The emerg­ing health leg­is­la­tion in the House, for in­stance, contains lan­guage elim­i­nat­ing fed­eral fund­ing for Planned Par­ent­hood, forc­ing that group to keep a key part of its en­ergy fo­cused on that.

More ads are com­ing, how­ever, as the ac­tivists hope to tap the large vein of op­po­si­tion to Trump and his agenda.

“Peo­ple un­der­stand the stakes are high. This Gor­such con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing brings a lot of dif­fer­ent threads to­gether,” said Josh Dorner, spokesman for the Con­sti­tu­tional Re­spon­si­bil­ity Project. “You’re go­ing to see more en­ergy build­ing.”

The lop­sided lean to the po­lit­i­cal cam­paign is not a new phe­nom­e­non in Supreme Court bat­tles. In the past decade or so, con­ser­va­tive donors have been much more will­ing to open their check­books to fi­nance cam­paigns to win the ju­di­cial con­fir­ma­tion wars.

Never was this more ob­vi­ous than af­ter the Fe­bru­ary 2016 death of Scalia, leav­ing the court at a four-four dead­lock in terms of ide­o­log­i­cal bal­ance. This gave then-Pres­i­dent Barack Obama an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity in his fi­nal months in of­fice to ap­point a third jus­tice and tilt the court to lib­er­als for years to come.

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.) in­stantly an­nounced that he would not al­low whomever Obama nom­i­nated — ul­ti­mately Judge Merrick Gar­land — to re­ceive con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings and a vote. Much was made at the time that this could hurt Repub­li­can sen­a­tors up for re­elec­tion.

A small group of Demo­cratic cam­paign op­er­a­tives pro­posed an ag­gres­sive $30 mil­lion cam­paign that would tar­get five Se­nate Repub­li­cans run­ning for re­elec­tion in states that Obama had won twice.

Ac­cord­ing to a 17-page Pow­erPoint pro­posal, which was re­cently pro­vided to The Washington Post, the plan called for cre­at­ing the “SCOTUS PAC,” es­sen­tially a su­per PAC that lib­eral groups and wealthy donors would con­trib­ute to and run sev­eral mini-cam­paigns pres­sur­ing the key Repub­li­cans.

“Re­search about the nom­i­na­tion process has been dom­i­nated by right-wing groups that stood up a re­sponse within hours [of Scalia’s death] and had a seven-fig­ure paid me­dia cam­paign ac­tive within days,” the pro­posal said.

The idea fell flat with West Wing ad­vis­ers and other lib­eral strate­gists.

In­stead, a bare-bones cam­paign was run out of con­sult­ing firms close to the White House and con­gres­sional lead­ers. They failed to ap­ply­ing pres­sure on those five Repub­li­cans.

That pat­tern might be re­peat­ing it­self with Gor­such.

“It’s def­i­nitely lop­sided,” said Car­rie Sev­erino, chief coun­sel of the Ju­di­cial Cri­sis Net­work, the lead­ing mem­ber of the con­ser­va­tive coali­tion sup­port­ing Gor­such, re­fer­ring to the con­ser­va­tive ad spend­ing.

In Mon­tana and North Dakota, where Demo­cratic Sens. Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp, re­spec­tively, face re­elec­tion next year, more than 99.5 per­cent of all me­dia money spent on the Supreme Court con­fir­ma­tion fight has gone to­ward sup­port­ing Gor­such.

Sev­erino said her group, in­clud­ing ra­dio and dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing, has already spent $4 mil­lion and in­tends to spend much more if it’s nec­es­sary.

On the eve of Gor­such’s hear­ings, Se­nate Democrats fi­nally shifted their fo­cus last week away from Trump’s scan­dals to the con­fir­ma­tion fight. They held sev­eral news con­fer­ences tout­ing their fa­vored mes­sag­ing line of the mo­ment: that the judge’s rul­ings side with cor­po­rate in­ter­ests over av­er­age cit­i­zens.

“There will be plenty of fo­cus on it in due course. I think the hear­ings will be significant, and I think there’ll be con­sid­er­able de­bate, and, you know, we’ll see where it goes,” Sen. Shel­don White­house (D-R.I.) said.

White­house is re­garded as the best ques­tioner among Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Democrats, but even he found his time spent on other is­sues. He ap­peared Fri­day night as the lead guest on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Ma­her.” Dur­ing an eight-minute in­ter­view, the lib­eral fire­brand host did not ask a sin­gle ques­tion about the piv­otal hear­ings, and Gor­such’s name was never men­tioned.

This makes the Gor­such hear­ings even more im­por­tant, be­cause they might be the one thing that can shift the fo­cus of the lib­eral move­ment onto the court and cre­ate the pres­sure needed to keep Democrats from sup­port­ing him.

Democrats are still hope­ful that they can keep McCon­nell’s team from get­ting to 60 votes for Gor­such.

“As of right now, I think that they’re a long way from get­ting to that num­ber,” Van Hollen said.

“There will be plenty of fo­cus on it in due course. I think the hear­ings will be significant.” Sen. Shel­don White­house (D-R.I.) on Democrats’ at­ten­tion on Gor­such


Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), left, and Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) at the U.S. Capi­tol. “I think most of the ad money has prob­a­bly been on the pro-Gor­such side,” Van Hollen said about ads for Neil Gor­such’s Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion.

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