Conservative spending has already swamped the liberal opposition to Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court in the weeks leading up to his confirmation hearings, which are set to begin Monday in the Senate.
By a nearly 20-to-1 margin, conservative groups have vastly outspent their liberal counterparts on television advertising on behalf of Gorsuch, according to Republican estimates of ad purchases since the end of January. Most of the conservative fire has been directed at seven Democratic senators in states where President Trump won last year, trying to push them into beating back an expected blockade of Gorsuch’s nomination from liberal Democrats.
So far, none of the 48 Senate Democrats have said they will back Gorsuch. But the genial judge’s tour of Capitol Hill has yielded few controversies, and if Gorsuch is confirmed, Democrats may look back with regret on their paltry investment in a campaign outside of Washington to beat him.
Across the country, from Trump’s announcement of Gorsuch on Jan. 31 until last week, total ad spending was more than $3.3 million supporting Gorsuch, with just $181,000 from liberal groups opposing his confirmation, according to the GOP estimate.
Democrats and liberal groups did not dispute that they are being badly beaten on the airwaves in the fight over Trump’s first nomination to the Supreme Court. Some estimates from conservatives suggest the spending deficit is even wider. It’s a shocking disparity given the incredibly high stakes for a nomination that could keep the high court tilted to the right for decades to come.
Senate Democrats are well aware that their most politically vulnerable incumbents have faced an onslaught of pro-Gorsuch ads. They say they hope that the energetic anti-Trump movement will turn its grass-roots energy to the Supreme Court battle.
“I think most of the ad money has probably been on the pro-Gorsuch side in a lot of these states, but you’re seeing grass-roots organizations mobilizing in a lot of these states as well. And, you know, if there’s one lesson from the last campaign, it’s that those movements have important impact,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
There is not a lot of time left for anti-Gorsuch forces. His confirmation hearing to fill the seat of former justice Antonin Scalia begins Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and leaders say they hope to bring a vote to the Senate floor by April 7.
Under the banner of the Constitutional Responsibility Project, the liberal coalition launched an ad campaign last week in Arizona and Nevada, targeting a pair of Republican senators up for reelection next year, Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Dean Heller (Nev.).
Some liberal groups, particularly Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, have access to millions of supporters. They delivered a petition to the Judiciary Committee with 1 million signatures last week in opposition to Gorsuch.
But the left — or the “Resistance” in Trump-era vernacular — is divided among a wealth of targets since Trump was inaugurated, including the charge to roll back the Affordable Care Act, impose a travel ban on certain immigrants and slash large chunks from domestic programs in the federal budget.
The emerging health legislation in the House, for instance, contains language eliminating federal funding for Planned Parenthood, forcing that group to keep a key part of its energy focused on that.
More ads are coming, however, as the activists hope to tap the large vein of opposition to Trump and his agenda.
“People understand the stakes are high. This Gorsuch confirmation hearing brings a lot of different threads together,” said Josh Dorner, spokesman for the Constitutional Responsibility Project. “You’re going to see more energy building.”
The lopsided lean to the political campaign is not a new phenomenon in Supreme Court battles. In the past decade or so, conservative donors have been much more willing to open their checkbooks to finance campaigns to win the judicial confirmation wars.
Never was this more obvious than after the February 2016 death of Scalia, leaving the court at a four-four deadlock in terms of ideological balance. This gave then-President Barack Obama an amazing opportunity in his final months in office to appoint a third justice and tilt the court to liberals for years to come.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) instantly announced that he would not allow whomever Obama nominated — ultimately Judge Merrick Garland — to receive confirmation hearings and a vote. Much was made at the time that this could hurt Republican senators up for reelection.
A small group of Democratic campaign operatives proposed an aggressive $30 million campaign that would target five Senate Republicans running for reelection in states that Obama had won twice.
According to a 17-page PowerPoint proposal, which was recently provided to The Washington Post, the plan called for creating the “SCOTUS PAC,” essentially a super PAC that liberal groups and wealthy donors would contribute to and run several mini-campaigns pressuring the key Republicans.
“Research about the nomination process has been dominated by right-wing groups that stood up a response within hours [of Scalia’s death] and had a seven-figure paid media campaign active within days,” the proposal said.
The idea fell flat with West Wing advisers and other liberal strategists.
Instead, a bare-bones campaign was run out of consulting firms close to the White House and congressional leaders. They failed to applying pressure on those five Republicans.
That pattern might be repeating itself with Gorsuch.
“It’s definitely lopsided,” said Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network, the leading member of the conservative coalition supporting Gorsuch, referring to the conservative ad spending.
In Montana and North Dakota, where Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and Heidi Heitkamp, respectively, face reelection next year, more than 99.5 percent of all media money spent on the Supreme Court confirmation fight has gone toward supporting Gorsuch.
Severino said her group, including radio and digital advertising, has already spent $4 million and intends to spend much more if it’s necessary.
On the eve of Gorsuch’s hearings, Senate Democrats finally shifted their focus last week away from Trump’s scandals to the confirmation fight. They held several news conferences touting their favored messaging line of the moment: that the judge’s rulings side with corporate interests over average citizens.
“There will be plenty of focus on it in due course. I think the hearings will be significant, and I think there’ll be considerable debate, and, you know, we’ll see where it goes,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said.
Whitehouse is regarded as the best questioner among Judiciary Committee Democrats, but even he found his time spent on other issues. He appeared Friday night as the lead guest on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.” During an eight-minute interview, the liberal firebrand host did not ask a single question about the pivotal hearings, and Gorsuch’s name was never mentioned.
This makes the Gorsuch hearings even more important, because they might be the one thing that can shift the focus of the liberal movement onto the court and create the pressure needed to keep Democrats from supporting him.
Democrats are still hopeful that they can keep McConnell’s team from getting to 60 votes for Gorsuch.
“As of right now, I think that they’re a long way from getting to that number,” Van Hollen said.