Liberals have watched helplessly as President Donald Trump and the Republican Senate reshaped the judicial system over the past two years. Now outside groups are pouring gobs of cash into digital ads in the hopes of harnessing progressive rage and turning the courts into a major 2020 issue.
In a media push likely to ramp up as the election approaches, new advocacy groups and Democratic candidates have put big bucks behind Supreme Court-related messaging on major social media platforms. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has thrown more than $1 million into Facebook alone over the past 90 days, more than every presidential candidate other than Trump and Joe Biden.
The predominant message: Stop the Senate Majority Leader at all costs.
“Mitch McConnell and his spineless Republican majority are using the courts to attack affordable health care, reproductive freedom and civil rights by appointing rigid ideologues to lifetime appointments on the bench,” DSCC Spokesman Stewart Boss told VICE News. “These are issues voters care about and that motivate our grassroots supporters, and GOP senators will be held accountable for their records supporting right-wing judicial nominees in 2020.”
Such calls for action have crescendoed since Republicans confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year despite sexual assault allegations. A string of southern states passed restrictive abortion laws seen by many as thinly veiled attempts to roll back Roe v. Wade this spring. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in late May that he’d push through another Supreme Court nomination before the 2020 election — contrary to his obstruction of Obama nominee Merrick Garland’s confirmation process in the lead up to 2016.
Democratic and liberal groups hope to continue riding the resulting outcry in their support of candidates for the Senate and White House. They’ll be going up against a conservative media machine that has long primed its audience to make the judiciary a top-tier issue.
“You really can’t be taken seriously as a candidate unless you have a plan to restore democracy and protect your agenda from the court,” said Aaron Belkin, executive director of Take Back the Court, a progressive group dedicated to adding more justices to the bench. “You can run on big ideas like Medicare for All or climate change or a wealth tax or debt-free college, but the five Sean Hannity’s on the court are not going to allow Congress to fix the country’s problems.”
Much of the DSCC’s $1 million in Facebook ad spending since March has spotlighted these losses, framing the rightward tilt of the judiciary as a threat to Obamacare, reproductive rights, and other progressive causes.
“PROTECT OBAMA’S LEGACY,” pleaded one ad bought last week. Others feature photos of McConnell flanked by the smiling mugs of Justices Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.
The threat has galvanized a handful of new judicial advocacy groups pressuring lawmakers in both parties from the left. The progressive Demand Justice, led by former Hillary Clinton aide Brian Fallon, advertised heavily last year in states where Senate Democrats voted in favor of confirming Justice Brett Kavanuagh. It similarly unleashed digital ads earlier this year targeting senators who voted to confirm Trump’s judicial nominees.
“Susan Collins cared more about special interests and GOP donors than Maine women and she let herself get played,” one Facebook spot bought in February said. “Now we’re holding her accountable.”
Demand Justice has rolled out an NRA-style grading system for how adversarial Democratic senators have been toward Trump’s judges — evergreen content for outside media coverage and advertising campaigns. Fallon told VICE News that the group expects to pump more than $1 million into Facebook, Google, Twitter, and TV this year, much of it in early primary states.
“The state abortion bans are making real what we said was coming when Kavanaugh was nominated,” Fallon added. “The other messaging track that has met with a lot of success has been to invoke what happened Merrick Garland.”
Most Senate candidates have yet to begin advertising in earnest, but Mark Kelly’s campaign in Arizona has put more than $160,000 into Facebook over the past 90 days to hone in on state-level threats to reproductive rights. And a political action committee supporting Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has likewise begun running Facebook ads warning of court-packing in recent weeks. State Democratic Parties in Colorado, Arizona, and Maine have likewise fired early shots in their own media campaigns.
The Ditch Mitch Fund, a PAC launched in response to Kavanaugh’s confirmation last year, is preparing to step up its own McConnell-targeted ad blitz in Kentucky.
“There’s no reason we should wait to start targeting voters online until next year,” said Executive Director Ryan Aquilina, adding that the Ditch Mitch Fund has raised more than $1 million since it launched. “You’ll see a lot of content from us in the coming months aimed at voters in a very micro-targeted way.”
Several Democratic presidential candidates have also signaled that they’re open to judicial reform. But they’ve yet to put significant money behind those messages in millions of dollars in early digital spending. That advertising has largely prioritized small-dollar donations needed to qualify for primary debates rather than pushing messages around any particular issue.
Just one candidate has put the courts front and center on the campaign trail. Earlier this month, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg rolled out a plan to add six new justices to the Supreme Court. At least three of his competitors for the Democratic nomination have suggested they’re willing to consider such a measure without embracing the idea in full.
That will likely be a recurring fault line as advocacy groups ramp up their messaging efforts through Democratic primary season and beyond. The progressive research group Data For Progress has argued that court expansion in particular will animate voters.
The question is how such messaging will stack up against the opposition. The National Republican Senate Committee and other groups have largely focused their early advertising efforts on keeping Trump in office. But that paid media dovetails with a sizable organic footprint on the right.
It starts with Fox News. A gaggle of the cable outlet’s personalities slammed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) last week after she argued that the rollback of reproductive rights a religious encroachment that’s “contrary to our Constitution.” Meantime, conservative figures like the Evangelical preacher Franklin Graham, pundit Ben Shapiro, and Trump himself routinely dominate social media engagement around topics like abortion or the Supreme Court, according to analytics firms CrowdTangle and NewsWhip.
“On the left, there has really been a lack of engagement,” said Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society and onetime legislative aide to former President Bill Clinton. “The Kavanaugh nomination battle gave people a little bit of a dose of reality of what the court is now and what it’s becoming.
Cover: Visitors stand outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, June 17, 2019. (Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg via Getty Images)