President Donald Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to fill a Supreme Court vacancy has set up a multimillion-dollar television advertising war — but viewers and voters are unlikely to know who paid for most of the ads before a potential Senate vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and might never know.
The two groups expected to spend the most on the fight are the Judicial Crisis Network, which is linked to the Federalist Society, a group for conservative lawyers, and Demand Justice, a new liberal group led by a former spokesman for President Barack Obama’s Justice Department. Neither plans on disclosing its donors before a vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination.
The opacity comes as public polling indicates voters are worried about the role money plays in politics and would prefer a nominee who wants to limit political spending. And it shows how big donors have their hands in almost every major political fight — from elections to policy battles to judicial confirmations.
A spokesperson for Demand Justice didn’t respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Judicial Crisis Network said: “We respect the privacy rights of our supporters just as our counterparts on the left respect the privacy rights of their supporters.”
Judicial Crisis Network is running ads nationally, plus in North Dakota, West Virginia, Indiana and Alabama. The first three states are home to the three Democratic senators — Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin and Joe Donnelly — who backed the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee. The fourth is home to Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, who represents a state Trump won by 28 percentage points.
The ads, backed by a $1.5 million buy, feature sweeping music and glossy images while a narrator praises Kavanaugh as a strict interpreter of the Constitution.
“Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is the best,” the narrator says. “His life has been defined by hard work and excellence.”
Demand Justice, which said it plans to spend $5 million on ads attacking Kavanaugh, is airing spots in Maine and Alaska — the home states of moderate Republicans Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who both support abortion rights.
“Trump said he’d only pick judges who’d reverse Roe v. Wade and outlaw abortion,” a female narrator says in the 30-second ad. “And Trump made it clear his nominee would vote to overturn the Affordable Care Act, letting insurance companies charge more or refuse coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.”
Two public polls show voters would prefer a judge who limit the role of money in political campaigns. A Daily Beast/Ipsos poll, conducted before Trump announced his selection of Kavanaugh, found 64 percent of adults wanted a nominee who would “limit the amount of money corporations and unions can spend on political campaigns.” And a new survey from the Democratic polling firms Global Strategy Group and GBA Strategies found just 23 percent of voters supported the court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts supporting candidates, while 58 percent disagreed with the ruling.
In both polls, the distaste for big money was bipartisan. Just 26 percent of Republicans agreed with the Citizens United ruling in the poll from GSG and GBA, and 55 percent disagreed.
But Democratic strategists working on the court fight say it’s unlikely that campaign finance and big money will be central to their strategy — while Kavanaugh’s history of favoring lax campaign finance regulations could prove unpopular with the general public, it’s unlikely to convince either Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins or Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski to oppose his nomination.
Demand Justice and Judicial Crisis Network aren’t the only groups airing ads in the Supreme Court fight — the Koch Brothers’ political network plans to spend more than $1 million backing his nomination, and Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America are likely to spend heavily in opposition. And some individual candidates — which have to report their donors every quarter — are likely to air ads focusing on support or opposing his nomination.
Judicial Crisis Network is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donors — a familiar setup for so-called “dark money” groups. Demand Justice’s legal setup, first reported by OpenSecrets, is more complex: the group is sponsored by the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a 501(c)(4) that has agreed to provide a legal home for the group. That means Demand Justice won’t be required to file its own 990 tax returns with the IRS, and donors to the group will disclose giving money to the Sixteen Thirty Fund rather than Demand Justice. That adds an additional layer of secrecy to who is giving to the group.