Progressive activists looking to make judicial nominations a campaign issue say President Donald Trump’s efforts to reshape the federal courts have given the topic new resonance among Democratic voters.
The prospect of capturing the courts has more often mobilized conservative voters, but liberal activists who announced plans on Wednesday to spend $2 million on advertising say this time could be different after Democrats have watched Trump fill 200 seats on the federal judiciary, including two Supreme Court justices.
“Public awareness around the courts, not simply the Supreme Court but lower courts as well, has risen, given the extreme ideological judges and justices confirmed to the courts,” Nan Aron, president of liberal judicial activism group Alliance for Justice, said in an interview. “Probably the best example was Brett Kavanaugh, whose confirmation is still very much present in the minds of Americans.”
A progressive issue group called Supreme Court Voter previewed the first of the ads it plans to release in key states, which shows Kavanaugh and says “We can’t afford any more Brett Kavanaughs, or our Court will be his Court. The future of the Supreme Court is on the line.”
On a call organized by Demand Justice, the liberal advocacy group, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said that “the Supreme Court Voter project is the kind of strategic sustained campaign that’s needed to match the right wing’s focus on the courts.”
Trump has made his efforts to reshape the federal judiciary a cornerstone of his reelection campaign, having already used the issue to rally the conservative base behind him in 2016. Exit polling of Trump voters in 2016 reported by the Washington Post found more than a quarter said the Supreme Court was the most important factor in their decision.
Judicial nominations hasn’t resonated the same way with Democratic voters and the issue rarely came up in the most recent Democratic primaries.
“It’s hard to get the Democratic base motivated on the issue,” Elliot Slotnick, professor emeritus at The Ohio State University who focuses on judicial politics, said. “But it seems if they’re ever going to be motivated, there’s a half dozen reasons why this should be the year.”
Slotnick said there are more reasons the issue could strike a chord with Democratic voters this time, following Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the high court amid accusations by Christine Blasey Ford of sexual misconduct when they were in high school. Senate Republicans had earlier blocked President Barack Obama’s pick to fill Antonin Scalia’s vacancy, Merrick Garland, a seat ultimately filled by Neil Gorsuch following Trump’s election.
But with a history of calls to mobilize Democrats on judges falling flat, Slotnick said it’s not clear that those voters will mobilize in 2020. “Maybe one thing that motivates the Democrats is that it’s motivating the Republicans,” he said.
Tonja Jacobi, a law professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law who focuses on the courts, said Democrats should focus on the idea that courts affect every issue from police violence to health care to voting rights.
Shelby County v. Holder, for example, a Supreme Court decision that struck a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, could mobilize Democratic voters because the case itself impacted the right to vote, she said in noting that it “has that exponential salience” for voters.
The new campaign comes as conservatives have already bolstered efforts to engage voters. In January, conservative legal icon Leonard Leo stepped down from his position as vice president of the Federalist Society to head a new venture CRC Advisors.
One of that group’s first campaigns was an at-minimum $10 million efforttouting Trump’s judicial appointments ahead of the 2020 election cycle.