Washington Rushes to Cash In on Supreme Court Cage Match

‘The targeting is a tell,’ according to Patrick Ruffini, a former Republican digital operative who now runs the polling and data firm Echelon Insights.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Within hours of President Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Sen. Kamala Harris’s political team had bought more than 120 Facebook ads denouncing the pick.

The Harris campaign’s barrage made them the most prolific Facebook advertiser on the nomination in the 12 hours after the announcement, according to the site’s ad data. But there seemed to be little rhyme or reason to the demographics targeted by the ads. Many appeared in the Facebook feeds of voters in Harris’s home state of California. But others appeared not to be targeted at all, with Facebook data showing them popping up in more populous states such as New York, Illinois, and Texas. Other targeted ad buys appeared in states such as Georgia and North Carolina, where there is neither a swing-vote for Kavanaugh’s nomination nor a competitive 2018 Senate contest.

The likely reason behind the scattershot approach could be found through a link on the ads which led to an “acquisition” page on Harris’s campaign website asking supporters to sign up for her email list.

For Harris, the strategy appeared to be more personally focused: it underscored the potency of the upcoming Supreme Court nomination fight for progressive candidates and interest groups looking to raise money and build their own email and social media contact lists. After all, a large database of active progressive voters would, needless to say, come in handy if Harris decides to throw her hat in the ring for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, a race she is said to be eyeing.

President Trump himself has employed the same tactics through his reelection campaign, which blasted out emails and text messages to supporters on Tuesday seeking additions to its list of campaign supporters that it can hit up in the future with fundraising asks and messaging appeals.

It’s a tried and true political strategy, but in the wake of Kavanaugh’s nomination, it’s been employed not just by political campaigns. Progressive advocacy groups have also begun using the Supreme Court fight to build their social and email lists at least to the degree that they’re actually seeking to sway Senate support for Kavanaugh.

The group Demand Justice, a new dark money outfit founded by Clinton and Obama alumni, ran a host of Facebook ads after Kennedy’s retirement that didn’t target any particular states. Instead, they appeared in the Facebook feeds of users generally in proportion to the country’s most populous states, with most viewed in California, Florida, New York, Illinois, and Texas.

A source familiar with Demand Justice’s work acknowledged that those early ads were designed to build the new group’s list of grassroots contacts. “You are probably seeing [Demand Justice’s] acquisition ads, which run nationally to get signups and donations since [it’s] a new organization,” the source said on Friday, adding that targeted ads would begin once Trump made his selection.

And indeed they have. In the hours since Trump announced Kavanaugh’s nomination, Demand Justice has bought Facebook ads targeting Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins in their home states of Alaska and Maine. Those are supplementing TV ads in both states as part of a $5 million effort to fight the nomination.

But those same Facebook ads are also running nationally, with some seemingly plastered across feeds regardless of users’ locations, and others targeted in states with little immediate tactical importance—places like Massachusetts and Illinois—but with potent fundraising and grassroots activation potential.

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund apparently eyed the same goals. It bought at least 25 Facebook ads in the hours after Kavanaugh’s official nomination, and while they appear to have targeted female users, none of them were aimed at states with potential Senate swing voters or competitive Senate election contests. Every one of the ads was viewed primarily by users in California, with other populous states close behind.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee has purchased dozens of Facebook ads since Trump’s Supreme Court announcement asking supporters to pressure Murkowski and Collins to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination. But the vast majority of the ads are not targeted to users in Alaska or Maine. Those who’ve seen them are primarily in California, according to Facebook data. When those users click the ads, they too are asked to sign a petition that adds their email addresses to PCCC’s blast list.

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That tactic is a stark contrast those employed by some leading conservative advocates for Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Starting shortly after retiring Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy announced his resignation, the Judicial Crisis Network, a prominent conservative dark money group, announced it would spend eight figures to get Trump’s nominee confirmed. It immediately went up with Facebook ads targeted to states with key Senate swing votes: West Virginia, Indiana, and North Dakota. It also took out Facebook ads in the Washington D.C. area. In the wake of Trump’s announcement, JCN bought a trio of new Facebook ads targeting users in West Virginia, North Dakota, and Alabama, where the group apparently hopes to flip Sen. Doug Jones to the “yes” column.

“The targeting is a tell,” according to Patrick Ruffini, a former Republican digital operative who now runs the polling and data firm Echelon Insights. “Anyone targeting states with key Senators is working seriously on the nomination, and anyone targeting nationally is simply raising their own profile.”

Demand Justice is working to actually affect the outcome of the Senate vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination. But with a 51-vote threshold for confirmation, and Kavanaugh’s more establishment pedigree than the other judges who made Trump’s four-strong shortlist, sinking the nomination will be an uphill climb. Absent any likelihood of victory, Ruffini suggested some prominent progressive groups are doing the next best thing: using the nomination to mobilize supporters for future legislative and electoral contests.

“In the absence of a clear opening to actually defeat the nomination, the appearance of launching a full-throated assault serves the purpose of energizing the Democratic base and helping 2020 hopefuls build their lists and raise money,” Ruffini said. “Democrats need to appear like they're doing everything possible to stop Trump's nominee. Whether or not they can stop him is a different question.”

In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, progressive groups rejected the suggestion that opposing Kavanaugh is at all a tough call. But they emphasized the potency of the issue among their supporters in particular. “Brett Kavanaugh is a disaster,” said Color of Change president Rashad Robinson, “and we will work day in and day out to mobilize our members and our allies to speak out.”

Leah Greenberg, co-executive director of the group Indivisible, seemed to already be looking ahead, anticipating the use of Senate votes for future activism efforts. “This is a critical week to get both Democrats and Republicans on the record,” she said.

Whether Senate Democrats can keep their swing-state troops in line, or peel off a Republican or two, is very much an open question. But even barring victory in the Senate, one thing is certain, as MoveOn.org Washington director Ben Winkler noted: the issue is already serving to fire up the grassroots left.

“Just like the healthcare fight,” Winkler said, “it’s a battle that people are going to pour their hearts and souls into.”