Red-state Dems in Supreme Court pressure cooker

Vulnerable red-state Democrats are facing a mountain of pressure as confirmation hearings for Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump's Supreme Court nominee, start on Monday.

Both sides are homing in on a group of roughly 10 Democrats who are up for reelection in 2018 in states carried by Trump and who could make or break his nomination.

Democratic leadership signaled within hours of Trump naming Gorusch to fill the seat left vacant by Justice Antonin Scalia that they would fight his nomination and require him to get 60 votes to clear the upper chamber. That means Republicans will need to break off at least eight Democrats.

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The pressure from outside groups is putting the Democrats up for reelection between a rock and a hard place: Any move to support Gorsuch will inflame the party's progressive base, but opposing him will be fodder for Republicans and outside group ahead of 2018.

Democrats have been meeting with Gorsuch but are staying on the fence about whether they will support him.

Democratic Sens. Bob CaseyBob CaseyPath to 60 narrows for Trump pick Senators call for pay equity for US women's hockey team Under pressure, Dems hold back Gorsuch support MORE (Pa.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinGrassley: Gorsuch will fall short of 60 votes Overnight Regulation: Senate panel approves Trump's Labor pick Two Dems announce they'll vote for Gorsuch MORE (W.Va.) — who are both up for reelection in 2018 — were confronted by liberal constituents during in-state town halls over the past week but insisted they wouldn’t make a decision until Gorsuch testifies.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles SchumerPence breaks tie, allowing Senate to revoke Obama order on abortion provider funding With Freedom Caucus dig, Trump masters the media ... again Pence casts tiebreaking Senate procedural vote on funding for abortion providers MORE (D-N.Y.) predicted that most of his 48-member conference will stay undecided through next week, telling Fox News’s Bret Baier, “I think people are waiting for the hearing.”

But outside groups are already flooding the zone, using a mix of phone calls, mail, web and TV ads, as well as editorials with in-state newspapers, to try to sway key senators.

With Republican leadership wanting to confirm Gorsuch before senators leave for two weeks on April 7, tensions could boil over as Trump’s nominee heads for a final showdown on the Senate floor.

A resurgent liberal wing of the party is sending early warning shots over Gorusch, saying that they view any vote for him as a vote against party values — and for Trump.

“We’re counting on Democrats to hold a really, really strong line. ... We’re going to be watching really closely,” said Heidi Hess, Credo Action’s senior campaign manager.

She added that the group would be relaunching calls targeting a key group of senators on Monday, the first day of Gorsuch’s hearing.

In addition to red and purple state Democrats, Hess said they were also pushing Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinLive coverage: Senate intel holds first public Russia hearing Dem leaders give centrists space on Gorsuch Overnight Regulation: Trump repeals 'blacklisting' rule MORE (D-Calif.) — the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee — to help “set the tone.”

“The progressive base is counting on you, and we will have your backs” if vulnerable Democrats vote against Trump’s nominee, Hess said. But she also warned senators that activists will “hold them accountable” if they vote for Gorsuch.

“I think we see this as enabling Trump to help achieve his agenda,” she said. “The court is the longest lasting way that Trump could institutionalize his hateful agenda.”

Credo Action has paired up with more than a dozen other Democratic outside groups to launch the “People’s Defense” urging Democratic lawmakers to take a tougher stand against Gorsuch.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) has done polling in 2018 states arguing that most voters would oppose Gorsuch if he’s painted as pro-corporation and anti-worker.

“The basic message was that red-state Senate Democrats will be standing on very strong ground if they vote against Gorsuch and do so on economic populist grounds,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the PCCC.

Green added that the PCCC has focused its lobbying on Senate leadership and red-state Democrats, stressing that if vulnerable lawmakers come out early against Gorsuch it could help set the tone for the rest of the 48-member conference.

“If a majority of the red-state Democratic senators do the right thing that gives mental license to their entire rest of the Democratic caucus to follow their lead,” he said.

He warned that if "if people like Heidi HeitkampHeidi HeitkampGrassley: Gorsuch will fall short of 60 votes Two Dems announce they'll vote for Gorsuch Manchin first Dem to announce support for Gorsuch MORE and Joe Manchin vote with Trump for Gorsuch, that hurts the reelections of Tammy BaldwinTammy BaldwinPath to 60 narrows for Trump pick Overnight Finance: Senators spar over Wall Street at SEC pick's hearing | New CBO score for ObamaCare bill | Agency signs off on Trump DC hotel lease The Hill’s Whip List: 2 Dems for, 34 against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee MORE, Sherrod BrownSherrod BrownOvernight Finance: Dems seek probe of acting SEC chief | Defense hawks say they won't back short-term funding | Senate seen as start point for Trump infrastructure plan | Dems want more money for IRS Senate Dems call for investigation of acting SEC chairman Dems wait for GOP olive branch after ObamaCare debacle MORE, Bill NelsonBill NelsonOvernight Regulation: Senate panel approves Trump's Labor pick Senate committee advances Trump's Labor pick Senators move to bolster cyber resources for small businesses MORE and others up for reelection in 2018."

But Democrats and aligned outside groups are being badly outspent on TV advertising ahead of the hearings. GOP and conservative groups have spent more than $3.3 million, according to CNN, compared to $180,000 from Democrats.

And conservative groups have launched rounds of TV and web ads targeting vulnerable Democrats in their home states.

The Judicial Crisis Network has pledged a total of $10 million to support Gorsuch’s nomination and to target Democratic senators. It’s already spent $4.4 million on ads for Gorsuch, including a $2 million ad buy targeting vulnerable Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillGrassley: Gorsuch will fall short of 60 votes Two Dems announce they'll vote for Gorsuch Manchin first Dem to announce support for Gorsuch MORE (Mo.), Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellyGrassley: Gorsuch will fall short of 60 votes Two Dems announce they'll vote for Gorsuch Manchin first Dem to announce support for Gorsuch MORE (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Jon TesterJon TesterGrassley: Gorsuch will fall short of 60 votes Dem leaders give centrists space on Gorsuch Senate Dems to Trump: Work with us on ObamaCare MORE (Mont.).

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is using the issue as ammunition against red-state Democrats they hope to unseat, including funding radio ads and billboards against McCaskill, Donnelly, Casey and Sen. Debbie StabenowDebbie StabenowMembers help package meals at Kraft Heinz charity event in DC Senate braces for fallout over Supreme Court fight The Hill’s Whip List: 2 Dems for, 34 against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee MORE (D-Mich.).

Republicans aren’t expected to ease their political fire heading into the hearing. Two GOP-aligned groups — the National Rifle Association Freedom Action Foundation and the Great American Alliance — both announced late seven-figure ad buys.

Concerned Veterans for America, a group aligned with GOP mega-donors David and Charles Koch, is targeting Heitkamp, Manchin, McCaskill, Donnelly and Tester, as well as Sen. Michael BennetMichael BennetGrassley: Gorsuch will fall short of 60 votes Two Dems announce they'll vote for Gorsuch Pot state Dems want federal regulation of marijuana MORE (D-Colo.) with web ads.

Though Bennet won reelection in 2016, Republicans are targeting him because of Gorsuch’s ties to the state and Colorado’s purple political leanings.

The conservative group America Rising Squared blasted out a video this week of Bennet leaving a town hall in Colorado, saying the Democrat “runs away” when a reporter asked about Gorsuch.

Bennet is expected to introduce Gorsuch at his hearing, as home state senators traditionally do. A spokeswoman said Friday that he remains undecided on the nomination. 

A February poll showed a plurality of Americans say Gorsuch should be confirmed.

Republicans argue that Democrats can either support their constituents and vote for Gorsuch or fold to pressure from progressives and prove they’re too liberal for their states.

“With the hearings starting next week, Senate Democrats should end their political games and support an up-or-down vote in the full Senate,” said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, in a note to reporters.

Liberal groups are also expanding their reach to target Republicans up in 2018. 

The liberal Constitutional Responsibility Project launched a TV ad in Arizona, Nevada and Washington, D.C., urging voters to tell GOP Sens. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeOvernight Finance: Budget deficits, debt to reach record highs in 30 years | Meet President Trump’s Ms. Fix-It Flake teases report with plea to protect alpacas from 'tax code abuse' McCain having 'conversations' with Dems on Gorsuch nomination MORE (Ariz.) and Dean HellerDean HellerWith GOP’s healthcare bill on ice, Dems go on offense Red-state Dems in Supreme Court pressure cooker This week: House GOP faces make-or-break moment on ObamaCare MORE (Nev.) to oppose Gorsuch if he won’t answer questions about his position on birth control.

And if the airwave war wasn't enough, red-state Democrats are facing direct pressure from their colleagues.

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenAir Force secretary nominee backs stealth of F-35 jets Senate votes to eliminate Obama-era retirement rule Overnight Finance: Dems seek probe of acting SEC chief | Defense hawks say they won't back short-term funding | Senate seen as start point for Trump infrastructure plan | Dems want more money for IRS MORE (D-Mass.) rallied outside of the Supreme Court with a coalition of liberal outside groups urging opposition to Gorsuch. And Schumer held an event with individuals he argued had been negatively affected by Trump’s nominee.

Progressive groups say they expect Democrats to stay united.

“The Supreme Court battle will be the biggest moment of truth so far for whether the Senate Democratic caucus as a whole will fight with backbone or be perceived as caving to Trump,” Green said.

“They’re all sinking or falling together.”