WASHINGTON – Conservative and liberal groups are only beginning their battle over the Supreme Court vacancy, with a smattering of television ads and behind-the-scenes research serving as warning shots in what’s sure to be an expensive fight that will color November’s elections.
Activity will only ramp up once President Barack Obama names someone to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia – a nomination Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republicans promise the chamber will never consider. Many expect Obama to announce his pick next week.
With the court’s 4-4 balance between liberal and conservative justices in play, both parties and their allies are reaching out to rally their memberships, solicit contributions and savage the opposition.
The conservative Judicial Crisis Network has run TV spots backing GOP senators in seven states and digital ads targeting Democrats in four others, while its leader wrote an article criticizing one potential nominee for a case she handled as a public defender a decade ago. On its website, the legislative arm of the National Rifle Association links readers to an article titled “Justice Barack Obama?” suggesting that scenario should Democrat Hillary Clinton become president.
The Senate Majority PAC, backing Democrats, has launched a New Hampshire TV ad accusing GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte, in a competitive re-election race, of “ignoring the Constitution, not doing her job.” And Citizens United, dedicated to overturning the Supreme Court decision that unleashed unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions, has aired commercials pressing Ayotte and Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to consider a nominee. A group of 21 Democratic attorneys general penned a letter warning Senate leaders not to “undermine the rule of law.” MoveOn.org and other progressive groups plan rallies outside senators’ home-state offices on a March 21 “National Day of Action.”
“A Supreme Court nomination is the No. 1 top priority for almost any conservative group,” said Carrie Severino, the Crisis Network’s policy director, a sentiment shared by liberals, too. “Almost every issue ultimately finds its way to the Supreme Court.”
Democrats and liberals have focused on Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and other Republican senators seeking re-election this fall in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Backed by nearly all GOP senators, Grassley has said his panel won’t hold a hearing on Obama’s choice.
Grassley stood his ground Thursday in remarks prepared for a meeting of his committee, accusing Democrats of “infecting the process” with politics and adding, “Everybody knows any nominee submitted in the middle of this presidential campaign isn’t getting confirmed.”
Democrats cite recent polls showing majorities of Americans favor hearings, which they say means GOP senators in tight races must change their positions or face defeat this fall. Over half in a February Pew Research Center poll backed hearings and a vote, while an NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey early this month found that more disapprove than approve of Republicans ignoring an Obama nominee by about 2-1.
“Our pollsters say Americans ignore most issues, but they happen to get this one,” said No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois.
Republicans view the politics differently. They see a wash among voters, with the issue strongly energizing both parties’ loyalists but having little impact on those in the middle.
“You can go to every diner in every town in America and you’re not going to find anybody that’s particularly animated about this, unless they’re a base Republican or base Democrat,” said Josh Holmes, a GOP consultant and McConnell adviser.
Around 30 representatives of conservative organizations met March 2 with McConnell and Grassley in McConnell’s Capitol office, with GOP leaders urging the groups to activate their members, participants say. The participating groups included the anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee, the NRA and Heritage Action.
Katie Beirne Fallon, Obama’s former legislative affairs chief now helping coordinate liberal organizations’ tactics, met privately with Democratic senators on March 3 to lay out the groups’ plans, said one Democrat.
One virtually certain tactic: Capture the visual of the eventual nominee, trailed by TV cameras, knocking on office doors of GOP senators who have said they won’t meet with the person.
On the conservative side, One Nation – which runs ads and conducts polling and is headed by Steven Law, president of the Republican super PAC American Crossroads – will be “extremely active,” said spokesman Ian Prior.
Conservatives have also started hunting damaging information on potential nominees.
The Judicial Crisis Network’s Severino wrote in the National Review about one of them, federal appeals court Judge Jane Kelly. Severino cited a 2005 newspaper article that said Kelly, then a public defender representing a previously convicted child abuser, argued in court that he was not a threat to society.
Kyle Barry, the liberal Alliance for Justice’s director of justice programs, called Severino’s piece “a smear campaign” for attacking Kelly for doing her job as public defender.
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