Politics

GOP Prepares to Strike Obama's Court Pick

Effort will target Democratic presidential and Senate candidates

Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, is going on the offenseive.Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

   

Republicans aren’t waiting for President Barack Obama to name a Supreme Court nominee before laying the groundwork to turn him or her into a piñata.  

GOP groups outside government are hard at work building opposition research on President Barack Obama's prospective Supreme Court candidates, as part of a campaign to be ready to strike whomever gets the nomination.  

On Monday, the Republican National Committee said it had contracted with America Rising, the conservative political action committee known for its acumen conducting opposition research. And Brian Rogers of America Rising Squared, who is spearheading the effort, said it was an extension of what his group had been doing for several weeks working with the Judicial Crisis Network, another outside entity.  

   

   

“This will be the most comprehensive judicial response effort in our party’s history,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. “If the president wants to break with decades of precedent by pushing through a nominee in an election year, we’re going to vet that person and put their real record on display.”  

It’s the latest validation of a statement made to reporters last week by Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. He said that Obama’s selection “will bear some resemblance to a piñata” after scrutiny from on and off Capitol Hill, in what may also be a bid by the GOP to dissuade individuals who would be qualified for the highest court to withdraw themselves from consideration before the president makes his choice.  

"My earlier point is: Knowing that you're not going to be confirmed, and knowing how, unfortunately, how tough the process has become, I can't think of a lot of people who would want to go through that knowing they are not going to be confirmed," Cornyn said Monday in expanding on his comments from a week ago.  

The nomination could be made as early as this week, and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who is like Cornyn a member of the Judiciary Committee, said it should not be surprising that outside spending is taking place to defend the GOP position.  

Senate Republicans have said the November 2016 electorate should weigh in on the future of the Supreme Court and no one will be confirmed (or even get a hearing) this year.  

"I think that they know that their position doesn't stand very well on its own, and so having outside groups and the usual special interest money try to prop them up is politically necessary," Whitehouse said. "If they say we're not going to do it, that'll take some explaining, and I think that's why they want the money."  

"When the Republicans are threatening piñata treatment, it's hard to believe that there aren't some reasonable people out there who would steer away from that," Whitehouse said, adding that during a meeting last week, White House officials made clear to Democratic senators that there was not too much "blowback," and the administration was able to find qualified nominees.  

The RNC effort will involve a full array of tactics, from radio and digital commercials to robocalls to surrogate efforts in key states, according to an RNC official. Rogers, who is leading that effort, is well known on the Senate side of the Capitol because he was the long-time communications director for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.  

The RNC’s campaign will involve targeting Democrats, including presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernard Sanders, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and candidates in a host of contested states where Democrats have a significant chance of picking up victories in 2016.  

A list of targets for the campaign obtained by Roll Call listed incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., along with Democratic challengers in nine states including Arizona, Florida, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, among others.  

A committee task force will be working with America Rising, which as reported by the Associated Press has been contracted for the effort.  

“We have the best team working to ensure anyone put before the court is vetted and held accountable. This is one of our top priorities and this task force will spearhead our efforts from the RNC in coordination with Rising,” RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer said.  

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said Monday the external campaign was another sign that. given the state of politics today, the Supreme Court nomination should be pushed off until 2017.  

"You're always going to have that. I mean I've been through so many of these," said Hatch, a former Judiciary chairman. "You can see why I'd like to see it put off until next year because this is a climate of real irritation and in some ways a climate of danger for people. So, you know I think, it ought to be put off until next year."  

The Judicial Crisis Network isn’t even waiting for Obama to make an appearance to announce his nomination for the Supreme Court seat vacated by the Feb. 13 death of Justice Scalia.  

Late last week, the group announced an advertising campaign with at least $250,000 behind it going after the record of Jane Kelly, a native Iowan who has been serving on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and whose name had circulated as among those being considered for the court vacancy, perhaps in part because she has had support from current Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa.  

“Her disturbing background is more evidence Obama wants a court dominated by liberal extremists,” said Judicial Crisis Network chief counsel and policy director Carrie Severino.  

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., took umbrage to that particular effort, which connected Kelly to the legal defense of a child molester.  

"The Judicial Crisis Network is a dark money, right-wing political organization that operates in total secrecy. But it probably comes from the Koch brothers, since they fund almost everything else," Reid said on the Senate floor. "The accusations leveled against Judge Kelly are despicable. And they deserved to be answered by her home state senator, Sen. Grassley."  

Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, spoke in favor of Kelly's appointment to the federal appeals court where she currently serves, and Grassley is facing new pressure back home about the handling of the Supreme Court matter.  

But GOP members of the committee, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are supporting the chairman  

"They give hypocrisy a bad name," Graham said about the Democrats' criticism. "Being lectured to by [New York Sen.] Chuck Schumer about how to properly dispose of judges is the ultimate joke, because it's he, above all others, that set in motion the undoing of the Senate when it comes to judicial confirmations."  

"They think somehow this is going to help them in these close races. I'll be completely and 100 percent behind Chuck Grassley because I think what he's doing makes sense," Graham said.  

Contact Lesniewski at nielslesneiwski@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @nielslesniewski. Related: SCOTUS Nominee Will Resemble a Piñata, Cornyn Says Roll Call Race Ratings Map: Ratings for Every House and Senate Race in 2016 Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.