Anti-abortion groups warn red-state Dems not to fight Trump’s court pick

Ralph Reed, Chairman, Faith & Freedom Coalition, speaks during Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority event in Washington, June 21, 2014.
Ralph Reed, Chairman, Faith & Freedom Coalition, speaks during Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority event in Washington, June 21, 2014. AP

Donald Trump’s pledge to nominate a conservative Supreme Court justice helped him win the evangelical vote. And now that he’s made good on that promise, the socially conservative leaders who rallied to him in November are plotting an expensive, intensive effort to get his pick confirmed.

A constellation of conservative groups, including many that oppose abortion rights, are planning a multimillion-dollar initiative featuring rallies and phone banks, direct mail campaigns and advertising to urge a yes vote for Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch, part of a broader pressure campaign on red-state Democratic senators facing challenging 2018 re-election bids.

“There’s a whole host of Democrats up for election in 2018 in whose states Trump pretty much trounced (Hillary) Clinton, who need to be very concerned, given how high a priority this was,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of the anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony List, which rolled out the “pro-life court coalition” Wednesday afternoon comprising more than two dozen activist organizations across the country.

Democrats in 2018 must defend 10 Senate seats in states Trump carried. Throughout the 2016 presidential contest, voters in those states cited the Supreme Court vacancy as a top issue driving their Election Day decision.

That’s what evangelical and other anti-abortion-rights leaders aim to remind Democratic senators from those Trump states — including Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla. — in the run-up to Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings.

“We are going to work tirelessly for the confirmation of the nominee, and we will spare no resource or expense in filling this vacancy on the court,” said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the influential Faith and Freedom Coalition.

His organization is sending out nearly 2 million “action alert” postcards to activists in 12 states — mostly those with competitive Senate races next cycle — urging them to contact their senators and push for a yes vote, and will follow up with phone banking, emails and texts on Thursday, Reed said. He estimated that his organization’s spending alone would be $1 million to $2 million.

“I haven’t even asked to see the invoice,” he said. “I just said, ‘Go.’ 

Reed’s and Dannenfelser’s organizations are part of a long list of conservative groups mobilizing on Gorsuch’s behalf. The conservative Judicial Crisis Network is taking a lead role, already pledging to spend at least $10 million in television ads and other efforts to push Democrats from red states to get on board with Gorsuch.

The efforts of socially conservative and evangelical leaders and activists who are focused narrowly on abortion are particularly significant because many supported Trump only because of his Supreme Court promises. A big part of the reason Trump won 81 percent of evangelical voters — outperforming even President George W. Bush, an openly born-again Christian, in his 2004 campaign — was his promise to nominate only a Supreme Court justice who opposes abortion rights, say people involved in the movement.

That pledge played a key role in turning Dannenfelser — once a sharp Trump critic — into the chair of the president’s anti-abortion coalition during the campaign. Now her group is partnering with the Judicial Crisis Network and also spearheading the anti-abortion-rights-focused coalition, to pressure vulnerable Democrats to back Trump’s selection.

“In nominating [Gorsuch], President Trump kept his promise to nominate only pro-life Supreme Court justices,” she said in a call with reporters Tuesday night. She went on to add, “The pro-life movement is completely united behind this nomination.”

The Susan B. Anthony List and the coalition the group is organizing will be taking the case to those Democratic senators in their home states, said Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman.

“We are going to be rallying the pro-life grassroots, urging them to call their senators, urging them to go visit them in person. We’ll be doing rallies outside of their offices in the states,” Quigley said, noting that the group, which invested in campaign-like infrastructure during the 2016 race, still has a presence in states like Ohio and Missouri and will be reactivating its networks in those Trump-backing states where Democratic senators like Sherrod Brown of Ohio face re-election.

But for all of the cheering from conservatives, the Columbia-, Harvard- and Oxford-educated federal appeals court judge from Denver simply doesn’t have much of a public position on the issue.

Anti-abortion-rights activists, however, wave that off, pointing to remarks Gorsuch has made about the inherent dignity of all human life — something they perceive as a view that applies to the unborn — as well as his backing of the effort by the governor of Utah to defund Planned Parenthood. He also sided with conservatives concerned about infringements on religious liberty in the Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor court cases, both of which protested elements of the contraception coverage mandate under the Affordable Care Act, saying it infringed on their religious beliefs.

Liberal groups are already seeking to paint Gorsuch as an extremist, with NARAL, the pro-abortion-rights group, claiming on Twitter, “Trump #SCOTUS pick Neil Gorsuch poses an existential threat to legal abortion.” People for the American Way is preparing its own ad onslaught, as left-leaning advocacy groups also focus on red-state Democrats — aiming to keep them from breaking ranks and backing the Republican president’s nominee. Meanwhile, many Democrats on Capitol Hill are still fuming over Republicans blocking former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick, Merrick Garland, last year.

But social conservatives are hopeful that Gorsuch will be confirmed, even if that requires the “nuclear option” — which would strip Democrats of their ability to filibuster.

Dr. Richard Land, the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary who served as a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board during the campaign, was supportive of that option if need be. He will be making the case for Gorsuch on his radio show — which is syndicated on about 800 stations, he said — and urging listeners to remind their lawmakers that Trump’s Supreme Court promise is a major reason he won.

“This is one of the reasons people voted for Mr. Trump,” he said. “He’s keeping his promise. This is the swing vote on the court. We need to encourage the Senate to do whatever is necessary to make sure the president’s nominee is confirmed. That means the nuclear option, if necessary.”

Trump himself appears to agree.

“If we end up with that gridlock I would say if you can, Mitch (McConnell), go nuclear,” he said Wednesday.

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck