Before senators ask Judge Brett Kavanaugh a single question in his confirmation hearings this week, the debate over his nomination to the Supreme Court will have already been playing out for weeks in TV ads. An estimated $5.2 million worth of TV ads supporting or opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination have already aired, according to data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG to us at the Brennan Center for Justice, and groups have committed to spending much more before the Senate’s final vote.
Here’s a breakdown of who’s spending that money and how.
The conservative Judicial Crisis Network dominates ― by far.
The Judicial Crisis Network is far and away the largest spender on TV ads supporting Kavanaugh, having run a total of ads worth twice as much as those of all other pro-Kavanaugh groups combined and three times more than the next biggest spender. By our count, JCN has broadcast spots in support of Kavanaugh that cost an estimated $2.6 million so far and has committed to spending at least $10 million by the end of the nomination process.
This isn’t JCN’s first foray into judicial politics. Most recently, the group spent a reported $7 million to block the appointment of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court and another $10 million to seat Justice Neil Gorsuch. It also poured $1 million into an Arkansas state Supreme Court election earlier this year and has been a regular player in similar state court elections over the past six years.
Who fills JCN’s deep coffers? The organization does not disclose its donors, but tax filings indicate that it is funded by the same group that funds the Federalist Society, a high-profile conservative legal organization. That’s where the money trail ends: The name of donors to JCN’s main benefactor are not publicly available.
Most of the TV ad spending supports Kavanaugh.
In large part because of JCN’s enormous spending, groups supporting Kavanaugh’s nomination dwarf groups opposing it by a 3-1 margin on television. The largest spender opposing the nomination, Demand Justice Initiative, has run $716,000 worth of ads, less than one-third of JCN’s total and less than the National Rifle Association’s $838,000. JCN, the NRA and other groups backing Kavanaugh have pledged to spend at least $13 million altogether.
A group controlled by Trump’s closest advisers is deeply involved.
A group closely tied to President Donald Trump, America First Policies, is also a key TV spender, putting out $523,000 worth of ads promoting Kavanaugh so far. AFP is led by former Trump administration and campaign officials ― including former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates until March 2017 ― and can take unlimited contributions without disclosing its donors.
AFP is part of a growing trend of officeholder-controlled nonprofits that the Brennan Center identified in a report earlier this year. These nonprofits, employed by both Democrats and Republicans, serve as conduits for unlimited spending to support politicians and their agendas after they take office. AFP provides a path for donors stymied by campaign contribution limits to send unlimited sums to a group directly benefiting the president.
Kavanaugh ads are focused on vulnerable Democrats.
Nearly half of all TV ad spending ― 44 percent, or $2.3 million ― has gone toward spots targeting just three Democratic senators: Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (Ind.). All three are seen as critical votes on Kavanaugh’s nomination and all are vulnerable in their November re-election bids. JCN has even said it would pull the ads if those senators committed to supporting Kavanaugh.
Many of those ads have a clear political message. One running in West Virginia says, “Tell Joe Manchin you won’t be fooled by his dirty tricks ― and you won’t forget how he votes on Kavanaugh.”
Notably, only 12 percent of all spending has gone toward ads targeting Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), even though they are considered potential swing votes. No ads have targeted the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee who will question Kavanaugh this week.
Ads targeting individual senators are not new, but no recent nomination fight has taken place in such proximity to a national election.
And it’s not just TV ads. It’s social media, too.
Groups opposing and supporting Kavanaugh’s nomination have increased their spending on Facebook ads over recent weeks. According to the Brennan Center’s analysis of Facebook’s political ad data, compiled by New York University researchers, the Demand Justice Initiative and NARAL have spent between $127,000 and $642,000 combined on Facebook ads opposing Kavanaugh.
At the same time, JCN and the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising operation of the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, have spent between $33,000 and $279,000 on Facebook ads supporting Kavanaugh.
Combined, the pro- and anti-Kavanaugh groups have spent less than $1 million on the social media platform. Yet according to Facebook’s data, its users may have seen these ads as many as 34 million times.
Douglas Keith is counsel at the New York University law school’s Brennan Center for Justice.