Fight Over Court Vacancy Draws Battle Lines for Interest Groups

Curt Levey, an executive with the conservative FreedomWorks, says his group often must nudge its members to take action — but not this time in the fight over a Supreme Court vacancy in President Barack Obama's final year in office.

Instead, supporters of the tea-party-aligned FreedomWorks immediately reached out and sent in donations almost as soon as Justice Antonin Scalia's death became known. On the other side of the political spectrum, Ben Wikler of liberal, said his group’s energy, too, “is through the roof.”

Both campaigns are part of a major push from interest groups on the left and right to mobilize their resources and grass-roots activists around the Supreme Court vacancy. Just days after the court’s conservative stalwart died, these groups are plotting strategy, raising cash that will help shape their budgets and setting up events aimed at swaying the November elections.

Conservative organizations such as FreedomWorks and Heritage Action for America back Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to consider an Obama nominee, while MoveOn and its allies are pressing Obama to pick a more liberal-minded jurist to replace Scalia.

“Right now, this is the No. 1 priority for FreedomWorks,” said Levey, executive director of the group's foundation. “The only thing that protects limited government, and liberty in general, in this country is the courts when politicians either, like Obama, don’t believe in limited government or Republicans in Congress aren’t willing to stand up for it.”

Levey said FreedomWorks still is identifying pivotal Republicans to target, turning the organization’s headquarters into a hive of activity Tuesday. “We’re running between each other’s offices,” he said. “The first step is to agree internally on a list of senators that we need to go after. Then we’ll use what FreedomWorks is best known for: its army of activists.”

The effort’s budget is still taking shape, and depending on how long the fight is, Levey said, it may include radio and TV spots.

“This is as high-stakes as it gets,” said Carrie Severino, chief counsel for the conservative Judicial Crisis Network and a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Election Impact 

Severino’s group already was operating, a website detailing presidential candidates’ positions on judicial nominations. It does not endorse specific candidates. “This vacancy has really helped bring the issue into focus,” Severino said.

Marge Baker, executive vice president of the progressive People for the American Way, said it’s been easy to mobilize her members because they are “as outraged as we are” that Republicans have vowed to block any Obama pick.

“It’s unbelievable,” Baker said. “We’re working with our members to make sure their senators hear from them about how outrageous this is.”

The group is also eyeing a potential ad campaign and is gearing up for events aimed at senators who have pledged to stick with McConnell, such as Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio — both of whom are in tough re-election battles.

The November elections amount to “judgment day for the court,” Baker said.

Ditto for another progressive group, Democracy for America. Spokesman Neil Sroka said the group has so far collected more than 105,000 signatures for an online petition urging Obama to nominate a liberal justice. 

“We are making sure there is political space for President Obama to make a nomination,” Sroka said. “And then we’re making sure whoever gets that nomination is someone who is in line with America’s progressive values on abortion rights and Citizens United.” Citizens United is the 2010 Supreme Court case that helped usher in super PACs.

Supreme Court politics, already a messaging point for both sides in the election, is quickly surpassing other campaign issues. If Republicans successfully thwart an Obama nominee, Sroka said, it will make his group’s pitch to voters easier.

“We’re going to be using it to inspire our members to get out and get active,” he said.

Interest groups aren't the only stakeholders raising money off the court fight. Party committees, including the Senate Democratic campaign arm, solicited donations with an eye toward the elections.

Possible Upside

Unlike other campaign issues that spark intraparty squabbles, the court vacancy draws a sharp contrast between the GOP and Democrats. Though the conservative Heritage Action for America has found itself frequently at odds over policy and tactics with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, for example, the group is siding with McConnell.

“This is a dynamic where conservatives, Republicans — leadership and rank and file, and the [GOP] presidential candidates — are in widespread agreement that there should not be a nominee confirmed in the midst of this election cycle,” said Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler.

Some political insiders said both sides may benefit in the Supreme Court fight.

“This issue may help Democrats bridge the enthusiasm gap by making the election more about social issues, and it may help Republicans by bringing a greater policy seriousness to the three-ring circus,” said GOP lobbyist Bruce Mehlman.