The dust may have settled on Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughGraham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally Senators denounce protest staged outside home of Justice Kavanaugh MORE’s nomination to the nation’s highest court – at least for now – but the tally of money spent on the fight reveals how special interests, particularly on the right, fueled his rise.
At the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, we tracked television ad spending in connection with Kavanaugh’s nomination, with data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG. That data shows that nearly $10.4 million was spent on ads supporting or opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination.
These ad buys highlight how the Supreme Court confirmation process looks increasingly like a political campaign – and the outsized amount of money spent just before the midterms, particularly in states with vulnerable Democrats, could impact the balloting next month.
Pro-Kavanaugh groups dominated the airwaves
Despite Kavanaugh’s characterization of the major spenders in the nomination fight as “outside left-wing opposition groups,” and Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ claim that “[i]nterest groups have…spent an unprecedented amount of dark money opposing this nomination,” our data show that conservative groups supporting Kavanaugh overwhelmingly dominated the TV ad battle.
Pro-Kavanaugh groups ran a total of $7.3 million in ads. Much of that cash came from the Judicial Crisis Network (more on them below), along with $1.2 million from the National Rifle Association and nearly $1.1 million from America First Policies, a group led by President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE’s senior campaign advisors. Groups opposing the nomination spent less than half that amount, with $2.9 million in total spending on TV ads.
Even after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations, pro-Kavanaugh groups outspent anti-Kavanaugh groups $1.3 million to $860,000.
Major spenders: Judicial Crisis Network, NRA, and Demand Justice
The Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), a conservative organization that has worked to influence who sits on state and federal benches for years, dominated the airwaves. With a total of $3.9 million in pro-Kavanaugh television ads, the group spent three times as much as the next biggest spender. In fact, JCN’s ads were worth over a million more than those by all anti-Kavanaugh groups combined.
Like most groups supporting and opposing Kavanaugh, JCN does not report its donors. JCN’s past funders are reported to be linked to the conservative Federalist Society – whose executive vice president, Leonard Leo, has advised the Trump Administration on judicial nominees, including assisting with the Kavanaugh and Gorsuch selection processes—and to a single opaque mega-donor.
The second largest spender, the NRA, spent over $1.2 million on ads supporting the nomination, while the largest opposition group, Demand Justice Initiative, ran $1.1 million in ads, less than a third of JCN’s total ad spending.
Nearly half of all TV ads ― 40 percent, or $4.1 million ― aired in West Virginia, North Dakota, and Indiana, the home states of three Democrats with tough election battles this November: Senators Joe ManchinJoe ManchinCongress needs to gird the country for climate crisis Overnight Energy & Environment — League of Conservation Voters — Climate summit chief says US needs to 'show progress' on environment Poll from liberal group shows more voters in key states back .5T bill MORE, Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampWashington's oldest contact sport: Lobbyists scrum to dilute or kill Democrats' tax bill Progressives prepare to launch counterattack in tax fight Business groups aim to divide Democrats on .5T spending bill MORE, and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyRepublicans may regret restricting reproductive rights Sanders traveling to Iowa, Indiana to pitch Biden's spending package Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda MORE respectively. Heitkamp and Donnelly ultimately voted against Kavanaugh, while Manchin was the lone Democrat who voted to confirm him.
In addition, groups spent $2.8 million, or 27 percent of all TV ad spending, on ads aired in the home states of Senators Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsLooking to the past to secure America's clean energy future Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid McConnell privately urged GOP senators to oppose debt ceiling hike MORE (R-Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff Graham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet Trump, allies launch onslaught as midterms kick into gear MORE (R-AK), two critical Republican votes. Ultimately, Murkowski was the lone Republican to vote against Kavanaugh, while Collins voted to confirm him. Days after Kavanaugh’s confirmation, JCN launched an ad asking viewers to “Thank Susan Collins for being a reasonable voice in Washington.” JCN has already spent $78,640 on this ad, although Collins is not even up for re-election this year.
Tone of ads shifted following sexual assault allegations
After attempted rape and sexual assault allegations emerged against Kavanaugh, the tone and substance of ads shifted. All but one of the 22 new ads that aired after that point centered on those claims. Pro-Kavanaugh ads switched from emphasizing Kavanaugh’s “integrity” and qualifications to attacking the allegations against him – and his accusers.
Multiple new ads supporting Kavanaugh dismissed these allegations as merely a politically motivated “smear” campaign. Mirroring Kavanaugh’s strikingly partisan testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, several ads blamed Democrats: for instance, one ad alleged “liberal Democrats will stop at nothing to smear him.” Another ad claimed, “Democrats don’t care about protecting women – and they never have,” featuring images of Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFive takeaways from Arizona's audit results Virginia governor's race enters new phase as early voting begins Business coalition aims to provide jobs to Afghan refugees MORE and Harvey Weinstein and concluding, “Democrats have just one goal – expanding their power.”
Several pro-Kavanaugh ads dismissed the allegations as “unproven,” “disgusting,” or “unsubstantiated,” and one said explicitly, “It never happened.” One ad even attacked Dr. Ford herself, saying she “can’t recall key details, and no one can substantiate the claims – it’s time to move on.”
Perhaps to limit the appearance that their ads were dismissive of the women making the accusations, JCN, the largest spender post-allegations, only aired ads featuring female narrators after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced, while a majority of their previous ads featured male narrators.
Ads opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination also refocused on the allegations against him. The ACLU, which announced its opposition to Kavanaugh after the Judiciary Committee hearings on Ford’s claims, spent $529,000 on the most expensive anti-Kavanaugh ads released after the allegations. The ads featured videos of Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby and concluded, “We’ve seen this before – denials from powerful men… Integrity matters.”
Laila Robbins is a research and program associate in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, where she works on issues pertaining to judicial legitimacy and independence.