As the battle over Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch enters the home stretch, conservative groups are escalating their efforts to get him across the finish line-- and ratcheting up their warnings to red state Democrats who oppose Donald Trump’s choice for the high court.
Powerful conservative groups are launching final rounds of direct mail, urging activists to bombard Capitol Hill with phone calls, and circulating letters to senators, reminding them that they will heavily weight votes on Gorsuch when making decisions about how to mobilize in the 2018 midterm elections.
"Our activists are going to be paying attention to who votes for and against Gorsuch, and they are going to be more than willing to educate people in those states," said Dan Caldwell, policy director of Concerned Veterans for America--part of the influential Koch network that is heavily involved in pro-Gorsuch efforts. The group is launching another direct mail push on Gorsuch's behalf this week, targeting Democrats from states including Missouri, Montana and Indiana.
It’s the latest flurry of activity from conservative groups, who are divided on so many other issues but are unified in their determination to get Gorsuch confirmed, and are keeping the pressure on until the end.
Organizations ranging from leading social conservative groups to the National Rifle Association to the Judicial Crisis Network have waged intensive and in some cases, expensive campaigns to get Gorsuch through. They are using both digital and television advertising and have hosted grassroots mobilization events, like rallies and phone banks, in key states across the country.
Much of their focus has been on Democratic senators facing re-election in 2018 in states that President Donald Trump won last November, including Missouri and Florida. Republicans on Capitol Hill have pledged to confirm Gorsuch by the end of this week, and they have found energetic allies in the constellation of conservative groups.
"If they're announcing they're a no vote, we're continuing to urge [activists] to call their senators, just keep the heat on," said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the socially conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition. "If they're announcing a yes vote, we're shifting the digital to thank them."
The Republican goal of confirming Gorsuch this week has been complicated by the fact that Democrats now have enough votes for a filibuster, which they want to use to block a nominee that they say has offered evasive answers. Democrats also note that Republicans didn't allow a hearing on President Barack Obama's selection for the same Supreme Court slot, Merrick Garland, and they face significant pressure from the progressive grassroots to oppose Gorsuch.
But a vote on whether to allow a rules change that could cut off the Supreme Court filibuster with 51 votes, rather than 60--known as the "nuclear option"--is expected to come Thursday, which would set Gorsuch up for a confirmation vote before members leave for a congressional recess at the end of the week, if that controversial procedural measure is invoked.
As the clock winds down, organizations like Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition and March for Life Action are alerting senators that they will highlight to their extensive grassroots network how each member handled Gorsuch, come election time.
"This is going to be on every piece of literature and every digital ad we do in key Senate races in 2018, no question about it," Reed said. The Supreme Court was "a big reason why I, in my capacity as a private citizen, supported Donald Trump. It's a big reason we made the effort we made as an organization to educate and mobilize and turn out the Christian vote in 2016."
Indeed, some exit polling data shows that around 20 percent of voters called Supreme Court appointments the most important factor in their presidential decision, and nearly 60 percent of those voters backed Trump.
“Those same people will be very unhappy to see a vote against Gorsuch. Those same people will be the people who could unelect the senators who vote the wrong way on this,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the anti-abortion rights Susan B. Anthony List, which has been deeply involved in pro-Gorsuch efforts and remains so this week. “We will be part of making sure they know exactly how [senators] voted…if a state like Missouri had a chance to vote yay or nay on Gorsuch, it would vote yes.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is a particular focus for SBA List and other conservative groups, as is Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), two lawmakers opposed to Gorsuch from states that went to Trump by around 20 percentage points.
“In Missouri we are going to continue to ratchet up the heat on Sen. McCaskill, make sure that our phone calling efforts do not disappear in the least,” said Gary Marx, a senior adviser to the Judicial Crisis Network, which has spent millions on ads on Gorsuch’s behalf. “We want folks to be able to express their disappointment this whole week leading up to the final vote…same thing in Florida with Sen. Nelson.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), whose state went for Trump by barely more than one percentage point, is also opposed to Gorsuch.
But Democrats, who have a newly energized base that has zero appetite for compromises with Trump, are skeptical of the argument that opposing Gorsuch will really be so damaging for Democrats, even those who hail from red states. There is plenty of time, they say, for these candidates to craft reputations as lawmakers who are independent from their party—and there’s little evidence that a Supreme Court vote one way or the other will dramatically affect that reputation a year and a half from now, they argue.
“Look at the precedent with the Garland debate. You saw there was a real limitation to the power of that issue electorally,” said Matt Canter, a Democratic strategist who is a former top official at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
After all, Republicans won up and down the ticket despite their party’s opposition to giving Garland a hearing, to the outrage of Democrats.
“Republicans were able to use [the Supreme Court] to consolidate their base, Democrats have already proven this is a powerful issue to consolidate their base as well. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be effective with persuadable voters in the middle,” he said.
Further, Democrats note, the Trump administration has plenty of its own problems—and it may be wise not to get too close at a time when Democrats will need their base to turn out.
“Voters don't want rubber stamps for the Trump administration under FBI investigation and grey cloud of scandal, no matter how red their states are,” emailed Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and former top official at the House Democrats’ campaign arm. “Republicans are overplaying their hand if they think voters will penalize Democrats for being unwilling to rig the Senate rules to appoint the choice of someone under FBI investigation to the Supreme Court.”