Outside advocacy groups began making hefty down payments overnight in the multimillion-dollar fight over President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, but the cash is unlikely to determine the fate of Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
The fierce fundraising appeals and grass-roots mobilization from both sides, including advertising buys in pivotal states, show the high stakes as senators prepare to weigh the potential successor to retiring Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
Trump revealed his pick Monday night, sparking protests on Capitol Hill by liberal activists but drawing praise from conservative organizations such as the National Rifle Association. Both sides agree on one thing: The future of health care and environmental regulations, same-sex marriage, abortion rights, voting rights, gun control measures and campaign finance laws all may hang in the balance.
“The president’s unveiling is like the starting gun to a very intense campaign,” said Ron Bonjean, a former congressional GOP staffer who worked on last year’s high court confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch. “Both sides will have incredible resources to bring to bear. Having said that, the Republicans have the upper hand because of the president’s megaphone.”
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They also have the benefit of last year’s confirmation battle when Senate Republicans scrapped the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, meaning that Kavanaugh, a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, will need only a simple majority to be confirmed. If all Republicans vote to support him, Democrats and their outside allies are unlikely to block the nominee.
“Republicans from the White House to the Senate Republican leadership to outside groups, this isn’t their first rodeo,” added Bonjean, a partner in the consulting firm Rokk Solutions.
Coming out swinging
Liberals, though, argue they have intense energy on their side with activists ready to show up in protest as many did Monday night.
“There is energy out there,” said Marge Baker, executive vice president for policy and program at People For the American Way, who took part in a rally Monday night at the Supreme Court. That demonstration also included Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and representatives from unions, liberal groups such as the Center for American Progress, the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, and Planned Parenthood.
Groups on both sides are targeting Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, both Republicans, but Baker said she believes more states could be in play including Nevada where Republican Dean Heller faces a tough re-election this fall.
On the other side, the conservative Judicial Crisis Network launched a $1.4 million advertising buy Monday night in such states as Alabama and Indiana who have sitting moderate Democratic senators.
“We want to make sure the American people understand who the nominee is,” said the group’s chief counsel and policy director Carrie Severino, a former clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Severino said her group had a $10 million budget for the Gorsuch confirmation and may well spend even more this time.
“This looks to be potentially more of an active confirmation,” she said. “We’ve seen the left has already come out swinging. … The hysteria is partly because they realize they don’t have the votes.”
Kristine Lucius, executive vice president for policy at the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, said her coalition of groups has seen unprecedented levels of interest from “passionate” activists.
She said it feels reminiscent of last summer’s fight over the future of the 2010 health care law, which congressional Republicans and the president had pledged to repeal and replace but fell short.
“We knew we were the underdogs, fighting for our lives,” Lucius said of that debate. “What you’re going to see is more and more people focusing on their senators.”
Leading the way
With that shift, former Sen. Jon Kyl will spring into action. The Arizona Republican is serving as the lead “sherpa,” or guide, as Kavanaugh makes the rounds in the Senate starting Tuesday.
Kyl’s registered lobbying clients at the firm Covington & Burling this year have included Qualcomm Inc., JW Aluminum, mining company Freeport-McMoRan, the Coalition for American Retirement and the private equity investor Gordon Sondland, who is co-founder of Aspen Capital, according to congressional lobbying disclosures.
Kyl, a former Senate GOP whip, also worked in support of the Gorsuch nomination for the client Judicial Crisis Network, which paid Covington $215,000 last year, according to lobbying disclosures.
Outside groups with worries about the judge’s record also will press their policy issues with senators, urging them to raise those issues during the nominee’s confirmation hearings. Opponents of Kavanaugh’s confirmation include those who favor abortion rights and those who support an overhaul of campaign finance laws.
Kavanaugh on the court could give wealthy donors, corporations and lobbyists even more power in politics, said the political money overhaul group Every Voice.
“It’s really important to let voters know what’s at stake,” said Adam Smith, the group’s communications director.