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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyOvernight Health Care: Trump says US 'terminating' relationship with WHO | Cuomo: NYC on track to start reopening week of June 8 | COVID-19 workplace complaints surge 10 things to know today about coronavirus The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Twitter says Trump violates rules with 'shooting' threat MORE (Pa.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinDemocratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight Stakes high for Collins in coronavirus relief standoff The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Surgeon General stresses need to invest much more in public health infrastructure, during and after COVID-19; Fauci hopeful vaccine could be deployed in December 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 (Chuck) Ellis SchumerFederal judges should be allowed to be Federalist Society members Warren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in VA hospitals mostly drop hydroxychloroquine as coronavirus treatment 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 Emiel FeinsteinGraham announces hearing on police use of force after George Floyd killing Frustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Major space launch today; Trump feuds with Twitter 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 HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn Heitkamp70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama Pro-trade group launches media buy as Trump and Democrats near deal on new NAFTA MORE and Joe Manchin vote with Trump for Gorsuch, that hurts the reelections of Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinWarren calls for investigation into OSHA inspections during pandemic Mail ballot surge places Postal Service under spotlight Justice Department investigating meat price increases: report MORE, Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownHillicon Valley: Twitter flags Trump tweet for 'glorifying violence' | Cruz calls for criminal investigation into Twitter over alleged sanctions violations | Senators urge FTC to investigate TikTok child privacy issues Democratic senators urge regulators to investigate Instacart over 'tip baiting' Senate Dems press DOJ over coronavirus safety precautions in juvenile detention centers MORE, Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonLobbying world The most expensive congressional races of the last decade Lobbying world 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 Conner McCaskillMissouri county issues travel advisory for Lake of the Ozarks after Memorial Day parties Senate faces protracted floor fight over judges amid pandemic safety concerns Amash on eyeing presidential bid: 'Millions of Americans' want someone other than Trump, Biden MORE (Mo.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEx-Sen. Joe Donnelly endorses Biden Lobbying world 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents MORE (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThe 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Memorial Day during COVID-19: How to aid our country's veterans Senate votes to reauthorize intel programs with added legal protections 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 StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowSenate Democrats pump brakes on new stimulus checks Democrats warn of 'captured' GOP court ahead of November election Senate Democrat introduces bill to protect food supply 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 Farrand BennetWarren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in Senate Democrat introduces bill to protect food supply Congress headed toward unemployment showdown 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 FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane Flake'Never Trump' Republicans: Fringe, or force to be reckoned with? The Memo: Can the Never Trumpers succeed? Former GOP Sen. Jeff Flake says he will not vote for Trump MORE (Ariz.) and Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerOn The Trail: Democrats plan to hammer Trump on Social Security, Medicare Lobbying World Democrats spend big to put Senate in play 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 WarrenThe Memo: Trump ratchets up Twitter turmoil Hillicon Valley: Twitter flags Trump tweet for 'glorifying violence' | Cruz calls for criminal investigation into Twitter over alleged sanctions violations | Senators urge FTC to investigate TikTok child privacy issues Warren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in 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.”