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Koch-aligned group already prepping for next Supreme Court fight

By Katie Glueck Tribune News Service

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – There aren’t any openings on the Supreme Court, but that’s not stopping a major conservative group with ties to the billionaire Koch brothers from mobilizing for the next vacancy anyway.

Americans for Prosperity has hired a vice president of judicial strategy who will spearhead the organization’s push for confirmation of a strict constructionist – someone who interprets the Constitution narrowly, avoiding what conservatives see as judicial activistm – when the next opening arises. It’s part of a broader commitment from the influential Koch network to spend heavily on judicial engagement in 2018, and it’s the organization’s most significant move on the issue this year.

“It should send a strong message that we are dedicated to reforming the judicial space in a big way, by hiring a person solely focused on the Supreme Court, the lower courts and beyond,” said Mark Lucas, who is senior vice president of grass-roots at AFP and former executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, which led the network’s efforts around the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch last year. “It just shows we are investing in a big way.”

An AFP source familiar with the plans said that the network “made a six-figure investment in 2017 on judicial engagement. We’re looking to increase the investment level in 2018 and build upon our success.”

Their comments came in an interview with McClatchy during the first day of a winter gathering of the Koch-backed Seminar Network, held here at a sun-dappled resort overlooking mountains. In a conversation with reporters earlier in the day, officials shared both policy and political plans, including the political network’s intention to spend $20 million to promote the benefits of the new tax reform law as the 2018 midterm cycle picks up.

The focus on judicial organizing is a reflection of just how animating the issue of the courts is for conservative voters –indeed, President Donald Trump’s nomination of Gorsuch has strengthened his credibility with the GOP base and evangelical voters. The Koch network made the decision to expand its judicial activity after seeing how engaged their activists were around the Gorsuch fight.

“That January, that February, set records for our level of engagement,” Lucas said of the energy around the Gorsuch nomination. “We were able to see our grassroots has a very big passion for the Supreme Court, for the judicial branch. We’re going to expand in more ways.”

In 2017, Concerned Veterans for America ran phone banks, direct mail pushes, web ads and tele-town halls with U.S. senators to boost Gorsuch, and also started Defend the Courts, an effort to shepherd through Trump’s judicial nominees at the lower court level.

Going forward, Americans for Prosperity will take the lead on the network’s judicial activism, using similar grassroots-focused tools and utilizing field offices and staff, tapping into the 36 states where AFP has a presence. TV ads have also not been ruled out.

AFP is the Koch network’s main grass-roots organization – already heavily involved in conservative activism around a variety of other policy and political matters – and its growing involvement on the issue now is a sign of the broader Koch network’s interest in expanding its imprint on judicial nomination fights.

“This year we will mobilize our activists as needed, particularly when members of the Senate choose to needlessly obstruct the confirmation process,” said Sarah Field, the new vice president of judicial strategy at AFP. Field previously worked on legal reform issues at the Charles Koch Foundation, and then on state courts issues at the Federalist Society. “When the next vacancy opens on the Supreme Court, we will be ready.”

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