Conservatives bankrolled and dominated Kavanaugh confirmation media campaign

Conservatives bankrolled and dominated Kavanaugh confirmation media campaign
© Getty Images/The Hill photo illustration

The dust may have settled on Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughRoberts court tempers conservative expectations OVERNIGHT ENERGY: WH pushed for 'correction' to Weather Service tweet contradicting Trump in 'Sharpiegate' incident, watchdog says | Supreme Court rules that large swath of Oklahoma belongs to Native American tribe Five takeaways from Supreme Court's rulings on Trump tax returns 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 John TrumpDeSantis on Florida schools reopening: 'If you can do Walmart,' then 'we absolutely can do schools' NYT editorial board calls for the reopening of schools with help from federal government's 'checkbook' Mueller pens WaPo op-ed: Roger Stone 'remains a convicted felon, and rightly so' 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.

Targeted senators

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 ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinKoch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads George Floyd and the upcoming Texas Democratic Senate runoff Energy companies cancel Atlantic Coast Pipeline MORE, 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 DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEx-Sen. Joe Donnelly endorses Biden Lobbying world 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents 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 CollinsMore Republicans should support crisis aid for the Postal Service GOP senators voice confidence over uphill Senate battle Republicans considering an outdoor stadium for Florida convention: report MORE (R-Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSixth GOP senator unlikely to attend Republican convention Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools 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 ClintonMcCain's reset: US-Vietnam relations going strong after 25 years Facebook ad boycott is unlikely to solve the problem — a social media standards board would Kanye West says he had coronavirus 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.