Conservative and liberal groups are gearing up for a battle royal over Attorney General nominee Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsICE chief faces rowdy crowd at Calif. forum Letters: Why is FDA favoring real cigarettes over fake ones? Overnight Cybersecurity: First GOP lawmaker calls for Nunes to recuse himself | DHS misses cyber strategy deadline | Dems push for fix to cellphone security flaw MORE that some activists say will be so explosive, it could even overshadow a fight over Donald TrumpDonald TrumpManafort-linked accounts on Cyprus probed: report Republican failure Trump's environmental order jeopardizes our national security MORE’s pick for the Supreme Court.
Nearly 150 outside groups on the left mobilizing to stop Sessions have delivered a stern, no-compromise message to incoming Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles SchumerMcConnell: ObamaCare 'status quo' will stay in place moving forward NRA launches M Supreme Court ad Senate about to enter 'nuclear option' death spiral MORE (D-N.Y.).
The groups plan to make Sessions’s past comments about race the defining element in his confirmation battle.
“We’ve already been engaged with Schumer’s office with a real demand that he should stand up and fight and we will fight anyone who seeks to be an enabler for a racist overseeing our Justice Department,” said Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, which describes itself as the nation’s largest online racial justice organization.
Sessions was blocked by a Republican-controlled Senate from a judicial appointment in 1986 over racial comments he allegedly made as a U.S. attorney for Alabama.
Sessions was accused 30 years ago of describing the NAACP as “un-American” and having “anti-traditional American values” and joking that he thought the KKK was "OK until I learned they smoked pot.”
The late former assistant U.S. attorney, Thomas Figures, who was black, claimed that Sessions, his supervisor at the time, called him “boy.”
E.T. Rolison Jr., who served as assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama and obtained the conviction of a local Klan leader, testified in an affidavit signed this month that he never heard Sessions call Figures “boy.”
Figures in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 said he remembered Rolison and another assistant U.S. attorney, Ginny Granade, witnessed to the event.
Granade signed an affidavit in March of 1986 stating she never heard Sessions call him that.
Marge Baker, executive vice president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group that has long been involved in Supreme Court battles, estimated that about 150 outside groups “are in some way involved” in the battle against Sessions. Fifty to 60 organizations are “at the table” on a regular basis to plot strategy, she said.
Conservative groups are just as determined to win Sessions’s confirmation.
Led by the Judicial Crisis Network, groups on the right are mobilizing a counteroffensive similar to what has been seen during past fights over Supreme Court vacancies.
The Judicial Crisis Network last week launched a six-figure digital ad buy targeting the Washington, D.C. market praising Sessions’s record, featuring several clips of Trump touting him as “so highly respected” and an “unbelievable guy.”
Carrie Severino, the chief counsel and policy director of the group, says it’s prepared to pour in more resources depending on what liberal groups do.
“We are certainly are ready to do more if it seems necessary. We want to see if Democrats take it to the next level,” she said.
Sessions, who is in his fourth term in the Senate, was one of Trump’s earlier supporters.
He’s best known nationally as a hard-line foe of immigration reform, and he’s seen positions that were once on the fringe of his own party carry Trump to the White House.
Liberals view him as hostile to their positions on issues ranging from hate crimes and violence against women to voting rights and immigration.
Sessions only needs 51 votes to be confirmed, and GOP senators will be under enormous pressure to support one of their own. Republicans hold 52 seats in the chamber.
Severino said she thinks liberal groups are looking for a scalp to make up in some small way for Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton defends April Ryan, Rep. Maxine Waters in speech Lobbying world Trump puts foreign investors first by supporting the Republican tax plan MORE’s dispiriting defeat last month.
“My impression is he was the first one announced to the cabinet right out of the gates. You could expect this was going to happen because people were going so crazy out of the election,” she said.
Conservative allies on Friday launched the website ConfirmSessions.com to defend his record as senator and Alabama’s attorney general. It features endorsements from a range of Republicans on the Judiciary Committee as well as Quinton Ross, the Democratic minority leader of the Alabama state senate.
Severino says she has briefed “dozens of groups” on the right and cited the Heritage Foundation, Tea Party Patriots and the Susan B. Anthony’s List as groups that are involved.
The issue could be perilous for Schumer, who wants to give Democratic colleagues running for reelection in states won by Trump the room to back the president-elect nominees.
That could put the new Democratic leader in between groups on the left pressing hard for him to build a Democratic wall against Sessions, and centrist Democrats who don’t want to cross voters back home.
Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenGovernment Accountability Office will review Mar-a-Lago security procedures Dems debate working with GOP on consumer bureau revamp Overnight Finance: Trump stock slump | GOP looks to tax bill for lifeline | Trump repeals 'blacklisting rule' | Dem wants ethics probe into Treasury secretary MORE (D-Mass.), who is more in tune with the liberal wing of the party than many of her Democratic colleagues in Congress, was one of the first members of the Senate to pounce on Sessions’s nomination as unacceptable.
The fight so far is playing out over procedural lines, with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyRNC head: Dems acting ‘petty’ to Gorsuch Dems delay Senate panel vote on Supreme Court nominee Grassley wants details on firm tied to controversial Trump dossier MORE (R-Iowa) and Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinOvernight Regulation: Trump repeals 'blacklisting' rule Dems delay Senate panel vote on Supreme Court nominee Dems get it wrong: 'Originalism' is mainstream, even for liberal judges MORE (Calif.), the incoming senior Democrat on the panel, playing the starring roles.
Grassley has scheduled two days of hearings on Sessions for Jan. 10 and Jan. 11. He and other Republicans don’t want the nomination to get bogged down and argue that Grassley is following the precedent Democrats set for President Obama’s first nominee to serve as attorney general, Eric HolderEric H. HolderUber donates M to supporting minorities in tech Overnight Tech: Senate moving to kill FCC's internet privacy rules | Bill Gates pushes for foreign aid | Verizon, AT&T pull Google ads | Q&A with IBM's VP for cyber threat intel Uber leadership sticking by CEO MORE, when they controlled the Senate in 2009.
Democrats say they want more time to review Sessions’s record, pointing out they have 150,000 pages of material to review from his long legal and Senate career. They note that the late Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), President George W. Bush’s nominee to serve as attorney general, received four days of hearings in 2001.
Outside of Congress, much of the organizing on the left is being conducted through the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which views the Sessions nomination as one of the defining battles of Trump’s first months in office.
“We are getting many, many people on some of these calls,” said Scott Simpson, the director of media and campaigns at the Leadership Conference. “People are bringing their best researchers, their best legal minds, their best field people and communications people on this.
“This is the first big battle to keep the country from moving backward,” he added. “We have this surge in hate crimes and it’s going to be up to this attorney general to enforce the laws and Sessions voted against the hate crimes law.”
Different liberal groups are putting together various advertising and voter mobilization plans.
Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, said “we will have resources for our advertising” that will target “elected leaders around the country as well as corporate, business and media leaders” who are lining up as “enablers.”
MoveOn.org, another liberal advocacy group, is developing a video that will feature civil rights leaders commentating on Sessions’s record that the group plans to release next month, said Ben Wikler, the group’s Washington director.
- Updated at 9:34 a.m.