17:39, July 05 44 0 theguardian.com

2018-07-05 17:39:10
Supreme court vacancy sparks multi-million dollar ad war to swing votes

A quick-fire multimillion dollar TV and digital advertising battle is under way over Donald Trump’s imminent nomination of a new justice to sit on the US supreme court.

Conservative groups, which have typically been more energised and focused on the issue of judicial nominees, are now being matched by a surge of progressive activism and spending aimed at senators whose votes could prove decisive.

Millions of dollars were already being lavished on Thursday on ads heavily targeting five key lawmakers – three Democrats and two Republicans.

For the right, the blueprint is the successful Senate confirmation of the conservative justice Neil Gorsuch, whom Trump picked in 2017 to succeed the late Antonin Scalia. For the left, it is the campaign that helped torpedo the effort to repeal and replace Barack Obama’s healthcare legislation.

Trump is due to announce on Monday his nominee to succeed Anthony Kennedy, the nine-person court’s “swing vote” who announced his retirement last week. But the nomination must be confirmed by the Senate, where Republicans hold a wafer-thin majority. The future of Roe v Wade, the court’s 1973 decision that enshrined a woman’s right to abortion, is widely held to be at stake and has galvanised both sides.

On the right, the Judicial Crisis Network has made a “seven-figure ad buy” on national cable TV and online that, it says, “will target vulnerable Democrat incumbents” in the hope of coaxing their votes for Trump’s nominee. Three red state Democrats – Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia – are facing tough re-election battles in the November midterms.

The ad draws attention to the selection of Gorsuch, widely hailed by conservatives as one of Trump’s most important accomplishments. Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network, said: “Like Justice Gorsuch, all of the men and women on President Trump’s judicial list are the best and brightest in their field.”

The network has previously said it was spending $7m to prevent the confirmation of Obama’s pick, Merrick Garland, and $10m on supporting the choice of Gorsuch. One Nation, the public policy arm of Republican’s Senate Leadership Fund, also announced plans to run targeted commercials.

But this time liberal groups aim to fight fire with fire, drawing on the lessons of the effort that helped stave off the destruction of Obama’s Affordable Care Act last year, despite Republican control of the White House, House and Senate. This is likely to include coordinated phone calls, letters, online petitions, showing up at the senators’ events and protesting at their offices.

Edward Fallone, an associate law professor at the Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said: “Democrats feel they were very successful in a close vote on the Affordable Care Act from using advertising in traditional and digital media, and so they have a template for success and they will use it as much as they can.”

Two Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have previously expressed support for women’s reproductive rights and now find themselves prime targets for pressure and protest.

On Thursday, Demand Justice, launching a reportedly $5m campaign, tweeted a 30-second video that highlighted Trump’s past comment suggesting women should be “punished” for having abortions and asked why Collins had not ruled out the president’s anti-choice picks. It published the senator’s phone number and urged voters to tell her to “keep her word”.

Naral Pro-Choice America, which supports access to abortion, is taking out full-page print ads in four Maine newspapers and mounting “homepage takeovers” of their websites, as well as running digital ads on Twitter and Google.

The stark black and white ads, featuring a photo of the president, state: “Trump has been loud and clear in saying he’d pick Supreme Court Justices to end Roe v. Wade. We believe him. Don’t you, Senator Collins?”

Trump is choosing his nominee from a list of 25 candidates vetted by conservative groups and conducted interviews with potential nominees on Monday and Tuesday. Top contenders for the vacancy are the federal appeals judges Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh and Raymond Kethledge, the Associated Press reported.

Carl Tobias, Williams chair in law at the University of Richmond, Virginia, said: “The dispute over the nominee to replace Justice Kennedy is shaping up to be the most expensive fight in supreme court history, because his vote was the deciding one on many critical issues.”

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