Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to replace outgoing Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy on the nation’s highest court has been framed by pro-choice and progressive groups as a dire threat to abortion access nationwide.
For anti-abortion groups, however, Kavanaugh’s nomination is a once-in-a-generation chance to reshape a constitutional debate that has raged for nearly half a century—and they don’t plan on wasting that opportunity.
In conversations with The Daily Beast, representatives of leading groups in the anti-abortion sphere detailed a multi-pronged campaign—encompassing a legion of grassroots activists, targeted advertising, public-relations blitzes, swing-state field operations, and sharp-elbowed lobbying of wavering senators—all choreographed by a vast coalition of activists and non-profits with the same long-term goal: the ending of abortion in America.
“We’re organizing over 50 other national and state pro-life groups for the purposes of mobilizing their grassroots to contact senators in support of the nominee,” Mallory Quigley, vice president of communications for the Susan B. Anthony List, told The Daily Beast. “As soon as we got word that it was going to be Brett Kavanaugh… within less than 24 hours, we were on the ground.”
Those efforts include canvassers in Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Florida and West Virginia, all targeting voters who believe strongly in overturning Roe v. Wade—and, by proxy, targeting the same senators seen by progressives as critical to stopping Kavanaugh’s accession to the Supreme Court.
“We’ve got more than 500 canvassers on the ground in these battlegrounds,” Quigley said, with more likely to come as confirmation hearings approach. “We’ll be traveling around to different states, holding events outside Senate offices to keep up the pressure, and talking to voters at their doorstep about the importance of this nomination.”
Other groups are tasking members of widespread networks, ranging from heads of local anti-abortion organizations to ad hoc activists who protest outside abortion providers on weekends, to organize in favor of Kavanaugh from the ground up.
“We have a list of about a thousand leaders, and several hundred of them are very active, in towns large and small in all fifty states,” Eric Scheidler, the executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, told The Daily Beast. “This is as grassroots as it gets—ranging from somebody who’s got some posters in their garage that they’re taking out with their friends at church, to incorporated groups.”
Scheidler’s directive to those activists: mobilize everyone in their local network to make their support of Kavanaugh’s confirmation crystal-clear to their elected representatives in the U.S. Senate. That mobilization, Scheidler envisions, will feature a three-pointed attack, with traditional letter-writing and phone-banking campaigns, a visible presence at town halls and other public events, and, eventually, dedicated rallies across the country.
“These kinds of things bring attention to the local support for Brett Kavanaugh, and highlight what constituents expect of their senators: to give this man a fair hearing and to vote for him based on his actual judicial record and credentials, rather than any kind of ideology,” Schiedler said.
While the focus is currently on senators from Alabama, Alaska, Indiana, Maine, North Dakota, and West Virginia who will be instrumental in either stopping or cementing Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Scheidler is encouraging anti-abortion activists to lobby even red-state senators who have already come out in support of Kavanaugh.
“We think that’s good for the movement, it’s good for democracy,” Schiedler said.
That Kavanaugh’s confirmation proceedings will coincide with the runup to midterm elections is seen as especially fortuitous. Piggybacking on resources already put in place in anticipation of keeping the Senate—and its ability to confirm conservative judicial nominees from the Supreme Court on down—anti-abortion groups were uniquely poised to mobilize for the Kavanaugh fight as well.
“We were already looking at the 2018 midterms as the most important election in ages,” Quigley said. “Wanting to strengthen that majority to be a strong pro-life one has always been our goal.”
Part of making that goal a reality, however, is the ability to pull off a dance with two partners: successfully energizing the anti-abortion base that has been the lifeblood of the movement, without coming on so strong as to alienate crucial Republican senators like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who have publicly supported access to abortion in the past.
Otherwise, Steven Aden, chief legal officer and general counsel for Americans United for Life told The Daily Beast, the confirmation fight turns into a proxy war over abortion—one that has been waged for decades without resolution.
The key to that approach, Aden said, is “to be the reasonable voice in the room.”
“On one side, pro-choice advocates are opposing judicial nominees whose judicial conservatism is a threat to Roe—and maybe it is!” Aden said, while on the other side stand “good-hearted people who think that a single justice can deep-six Roe v. Wade.”
“The process belongs to the American people,” Aden said, of his message to the more fervent members of the anti-abortion coalition. “We’re very committed to finding a Supreme Court nominee who cares more about what the text of the constitution was intended to mean than imposing his own value judgments on the document.”
For the most part, the more aggressive wing of the movement appears to have gotten the hint. For example, Schiedler’s group, the Pro-Life Action League, is best known for its “Face the Truth” campaign, which displayed oversized, highly graphic images of fetuses and abortion tissue in public spaces and outside abortion providers. In the fight to confirm Kavanaugh, however, that particular brand of in-your-face anti-abortion rhetoric may do more harm than good.
“I don’t really see how that does much for us in this particular battle right now,” Scheidler said, pitching the tactical withdrawal of banners depicting abortion tissue as a way to reframe the debate around larger, more abstract constitutional issues.
“It’s not just the abortion issue directly that we’re concerned with,” Scheidler said, naming First Amendment protections for anti-abortion advocates and so-called “pregnancy crisis centers” that advise pregnant women in crisis not to have an abortion as a few examples. “We’re concerned about a lot more than just Roe v. Wade.”
“We’re through the looking glass in the way that it comes through judicial nominees at this point—there’s a lot of code language,” Scheidler said. “A wise jurist keeps their specific opinions on any controversial issue pretty private, and that leaves it to us to tease out.”
The number-one public relations priority for anti-abortion groups supporting Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Aden said, is “tamping down the hysterical rhetoric.”
“A lot of pro-abortion advocacy groups have leveled unjustified and even vicious accusations against Kavanaugh,” Aden said, pointing to a NARAL Pro-Choice America tweet that dismissed Kavanaugh as a “frat boy,” apparently due to his name, “as if to evoke images of John Belushi wanting to take away women’s rights.”
(Kavanaugh was a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon as a Yale undergrad, and does have a fairly fratty given name.)
President Donald Trump, for his part, gave some cover to anti-abortion groups worried that Kavanaugh’s confirmation could become a stand-in for the political battle over abortion. Despite having vowed during the presidential campaign to nominate justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, Trump told reporters upon announcing Kavanaugh that “I do not ask about a nominee’s personal opinions” on any matter, abortion included. “What matters is not a judge’s political views but whether they can set aside those views to do what the law and the constitution require.”
That decision, Quigley said, “makes perfect sense.”
“No judge would tell him, or anyone for that matter, how they would rule on a decision before it’s before them,” Quigley said. “A nominee will never commit to deciding either way on a case before it’s reached them.”
For most activists, that’s good enough—for now.
“The president’s own views are known, but whether and to what extent a particular nominee agrees with them is kind of a black box,” Aden said. “Once you get good people on the court, you wait and hope for the best.”