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Battle for the Supreme Court begins as Heitkamp faces protests, ads, pressure

Heidi Heitkamp

WASHINGTON—Antiabortion activists plan to descend upon the home-state offices of three key Democratic senators, including North Dakota U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's office in Bismarck, on Tuesday. Liberals hope to take over Twitter with the #SaveSCOTUS hashtag while holding dozens of events across the country. And groups on both sides have prepared multimillion-dollar digital and television ad campaigns set to start Monday night.

Even before President Donald Trump's announcement that Brett Kavanaugh will be his Supreme Court nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, the battle plans were in place and the arguments had been framed. What happens next is a no-holds-barred fight for public opinion and Senate votes, which history suggests the president is heavily favored to win.

The Judicial Crisis Network, the main conservative television and advertising effort, announced plans Monday to spend an additional $1.4 million, on top of the $1 million already committed to support the nominee. The group's spending, which is focused on Democratic senators, will probably climb over the coming months to match the $10 million spent to support Justice Neil Gorsuch's nomination last year.

"This is a marathon, not a sprint," said Carrie Severino, the group's chief counsel and policy director.

Demand Justice, the liberal advertising counterpart, has committed to $5 million in digital and television ads, focused on two potential Republican swing votes, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Activists for the group prepared multiple versions of protest signs for a rally Monday night on the steps of the high court, not knowing whom Trump would ultimately pick.

Although the kickoff of the battle for the court occurred with Trump's nomination, the lines of argument worked for all the court finalists.

Liberals plan to paint Kavanaugh as an extremist who cannot be trusted, because of the process through which he was chosen, which included being part of a preapproved list drawn up for Trump during the campaign. As a result, they will argue, the nominee is certain to pursue Trump's policy goals of undermining the Affordable Care Act and overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that barred states from outlawing abortion.

Conservatives will argue that the nominee is a mainstream jurist, and that any opposition is a form of liberal extremism that voters should consider when they go to the polls. The initial list of states targeted by the Judicial Crisis Network includes ones Trump won in 2016 and where three Democrats are in tough reelection fights - Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heitkamp.

The group also plans to advertise in Alabama, in hopes of either winning the vote of Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat, or inflicting political damage on him in his reelection campaign in 2020.

"It's a red state with a Democratic senator. He hasn't committed to how he is going to vote on the nominee," Severino said about Jones, who has supported abortion rights. "This is a nominee who is going to be incredibly popular."

Republicans have 51 votes in the Senate and need 50 votes to confirm Trump's nominee, assuming Vice President Mike Pence votes with them to break a tie. If Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., does not return to vote after months of absence fighting cancer and Democrats hold together in opposition, a single Republican defection could sink the nominee.

The paid airwaves are just one battlefield for the coming fight. Grass-roots groups are deploying in an effort to drum up local media coverage to pressure key senators. The Susan B. Anthony List, which opposes abortion, plans news conferences Tuesday morning at the senate offices of Donnelly in South Bend, Indiana, Heitkamp in Bismarck, and Manchin in Charleston, West Virginia.

Both Donnelly and Manchin have said they oppose abortion except in cases of rape or incest, or if the life of the woman is at risk. Heitkamp opposes public funding of abortion but has argued that reproductive decisions should be made by women, their families and their doctors.

"We are going and mobilizing where we have leverage," said Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the group. "Where we have leverage is with senators who call themselves pro-life."

A coalition of liberal groups has organized at least 39 events on Tuesday around the country under the #SaveSCOTUS banner, a reference to liberal fears that the next justice will shift the court to the right.

"We are urging people to do events in-district at Senate offices," said Elizabeth Beavers, the associate policy director of Indivisible, which is helping to organize the activities, which include a silent protest in Bangor, Maine and a letter-writing effort in Reno, Nevada. "We are asking people to get public commitments from senators to oppose the nominee."

The liberal coalition started holding events on Monday, before the announcement was made, with a focus on the twin issues of keeping abortion legal and maintaining insurance protections for people with preexisting conditions, which are the subject of a federal court case that could eventually reach the Supreme Court.

"Trump must not nominate a candidate that will threaten people with preexisting conditions, and our senator must not vote to take away the protections we need to stay alive," said Laura Packard, a political consultant with stage 4 cancer, during a news conference in Las Vegas on Monday.

While conservatives have so far decided to focus on Democratic senators, liberals have crafted a divided strategy for pressuring both Democrats and Republicans. At a news conference Monday outside the statehouse in Augusta, Maine, liberal activists toggled between strong words of warning for Collins and gratitude for her past support of women's health care.

"One thing we have in common with Senator Collins is her commitment and our commitment to our patients," said Nicole Clegg, the vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. "We are turning to Senator Collins to say we need you in lockstep with our patients."

Collins has said she will not support a nominee who has "demonstrated hostility" to the court's decision in Roe, and she has said she generally wants a clear commitment from the nominee to respect court precedent.

But Democrats in the Senate and liberals in the outside groups have called for a higher standard, saying such commitments can no longer be trusted given Trump's judicial selection process.

"When they say they will obey settled law you can't believe it," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday. "The principle of 'I'll follow settled law' no longer works."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dismissed Democratic and liberal concerns over the president's nominee as hyperbole that will not persuade the American people.

"This far-left rhetoric comes out every single time, but the apocalypse never comes," he said Monday on the floor of the Senate. "Americans can see beyond this far-left mongering."

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