Interest Groups Log On for Fight Over Kagan

Posted May 21, 2010 at 5:28pm

During past Supreme Court nomination brawls, Gary Marx, executive director of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, would routinely blast e-mails when he had an important message to deliver.

“I don’t do that anymore,” Marx said.

Instead, with the high court confirmation hearings of Elena Kagan looming, Marx said he is now relying on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to spread the word.

With the recent announcement by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that his panel will begin holding confirmation hearings on June 28, groups on the left and right are girding for battle.

But while their talking points are similar to past judicial fights, so far much of the grass-roots lobbying is not taking the traditional route of newspaper and television ads or rallies. Rather, the debate has gone virtual, moving online in the form of Facebook posts, tweets and YouTube videos.

Representatives from judicial advocacy groups say the reason is simple: They can more efficiently reach large groups of supporters, particularly younger people who have not traditionally followed Supreme Court fights. They say that even since last summer’s confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the high court, there has been a noticeable jump in participation on their online sites. And, of course, social networking messages have the added benefit of being free to publish.

“I think the public conversation is taking place on many more outlets, and it is important to be on those outlets,” said Marge Baker, executive vice president of People for the American Way. The progressive group has used the Internet to promote a constitutional amendment that would overturn a recent Supreme Court decision lifting corporate and union spending restrictions in elections.

Meaningful Messages?

Some of the sites encourage public participation. The liberal Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, is running an “Ask Elena Kagan” feature where people post questions they want the Judiciary Committee to pose to the nominee.

For example, one questioner wrote, referring to the Gulf oil spill, “Would Kagan rule for or against BP et al should class action reach SCOTUS?”

Rabbi David Saperstein, the center’s director, said his group received more entries on Kagan in the first week it was online than in the entire time it ran a similar posting about Sotomayor. The group will pick 15 to 20 of the best ones to send to the Judiciary Committee.

That won’t be the only way social networks may extend to the hearings. Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, plans to send live Twitter updates from the confirmation deliberations, a spokesman for the group said. Others expect to be there as well tweeting and texting their members and followers.

But not everyone buys the notion that new media will entirely replace the traditional ways of galvanizing supporters and influencing Congress.

“I think the jury remains out on whether it is effective in organizing and fundraising,” said Curt Levey, executive director for the conservative Committee for Justice. “I talk to experts, and they say it is half hype and half promise.”

Levey questioned whether groups can convey “a meaningful message” in short texts, status updates or tweets.

Nevertheless, Levey acknowledged that he had just hired a part-time consultant to update his social media sites in preparation for the judiciary hearings.

And he said that more middle-aged people are clicking to the sites, making them increasingly valuable.

Others suggest the reason conservative groups have not launched more traditional paid media campaigns is that they have not determined whether it is worth it to wage an expensive confirmation fight.

Ari Rabin-Havt, vice president for research and communications at Media Matters, a liberal group that monitors media bias, said conservative organizations are using social media to rally their base supporters. But he said that if they really wanted to woo independent voters, whose opinions could sway a court confirmation, they would use conventional advertising.

“The undecided voter isn’t someone who signs on to an ideological Facebook or Twitter account,” he said.

A Precision Strike

Some of the conversations on the Facebook pages suggest, though, that they attract a diversity of opinions.

In one response to a post on the Judicial Crisis Network Facebook page, a participant wrote that Kagan “was picked because she’s an Obama clone. A white chubby version.” That elicited a quick retort. “I guess being dean at Harvard law school is something that is easy to be,” the second person wrote. “As if you people could get jobs as janitors at Harvard Law School. You couldn’t even retain a lawyer from Harvard.”

Marx, the group’s executive director, said that he does not police the page and does not eliminate opposing views.

“That’s America,” he said. “Facebook and Twitter are into free speech.”

Leaders of advocacy groups said it is much easier to convey large amounts of information on the websites. For example, some of the sites have already posted Kagan’s Oxford and Princeton theses.

Others say social media sites may be better venues to run targeted advocacy advertising.

Matthew Faraci, vice president for communications at Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion-rights group that is critical of Kagan, said Facebook can easily segregate users into demographic groups.

“On Facebook it is like a precision strike rather than carpet-bombing,” he said.

At his organization, Faraci said, the example of using social media comes from the top with the group’s president, Charmaine Yoest, being a regular on Twitter.

He said the group sends out text messages that drive people to its website, which has links to a variety of media outlets. A recent AUL Facebook page included a link to a Fox News report on Kagan and abortion that featured Yoest as well as a scorecard on how Judiciary Committee members voted on the past five Supreme Court nominees.

Faraci added that the objective of his group remains the same, but when it comes to communicating those goals, he said, “the methods are changing.”