Kavanaugh confirmation battle further mystifies ‘dark money’ spending

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Brett Kavanaugh

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A lot is at stake in the ongoing battle for the next seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

President Donald Trump’s fulfillment of campaign promises.

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s reputation and career aspirations.

Justice surrounding allegations of misconduct.

Oh, and millions of dollars spent to fuel campaigns around those divisive issues.

At the helm of the money race is the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), a non-disclosing 501(c)(4) nonprofit that has funneled millions of dollars in support of Kavanaugh’s confirmation as the next Supreme Court justice.

Anonymous donors pumping big money into Supreme Court nominations is nothing new, and this is not JCN’s first rodeo.

JCN first came on the scene in 2005 to promote President George W. Bush’s nominations to the high court as Judicial Confirmation Network before rebranding the “C” its name to stand for “crisis” and attacking President Barack Obama’s nominees.

Tax returns obtained by the Center for Responsive Politics in 2017 revealed that JCN has continued to be primarily funded by the Wellspring Committee, another nondisclosing politically active nonprofit, which is linked to Ann and Neil Corkery’s network of conservative “dark money” groups organized to influence public policy.

Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society’s executive vice president who has played a key role in Trump’s Supreme Court nominations, orchestrated finances related to the network and is also linked to BH Group, a mysterious LLC that donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.

Becoming a key ‘dark money’ conduit for conservatives to funnel millions of dollars into Supreme Court battles while keeping their identities secret, JCN has established itself the preeminent advocate of conservative contenders for the U.S. Supreme Court as well as in key state supreme court races and attorneys general elections.

Long before Kavanaugh was a blip on the radar of most Americans, Judicial Crisis Network had already begun spending to secure the path to the next Supreme Court seat, announcing a multi-million dollar ad buy on the day Kennedy announced his retirement.

Following its tried and true playbook to help marshal support for conservative nominees to the federal bench, JCN launched its first ad backing Kavanaugh by name within minutes of the announcement of his nomination — before President Trump even finished speaking.

In earlier Supreme Court battles, JCN reportedly spent $7 million to block the confirmation of Merrick Garland and $10 million to support the confirmation of Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. Matching their promised spending on Gorsuch, JCN pledged to spend another $10 million on Kavanaugh.

In addition to advertising, JCN has also spent big money on lobbyists including Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)who terminated his lobbying agreement working to help marshall in Gorsuch’s nomination for JCN in 2017 before becoming the official White House “sherpa” guiding Kavanaugh through that same process in July before he was appointed to fill the Senate seat left open by John McCain’s death.

Supreme second thoughts

Over the past few weeks, however, JCN seems to have been forced to readapt their strategies amid an onslaught of controversies surrounding Kavanaugh’s nomination.

On September 17, JCN announced it was spending $1.5 million on a 30-second ad featuring Kavanaugh’s long-time friend, Louisa Garry, who was reported to have “initially signed a statement of support for Kavanaugh provided by his attorneys.”

After new allegations came to light in a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow on September 23, Garry withdrew her name from the letter of support and said she does not “wish to dispute” the claims by Deborah Ramirez, who alleges Kavanaugh exposed himself and thrust his genitals in her face during a college party in a dorm room when they were both students at Yale University.

Ramirez was the second woman to come forward with allegations against Kavanaugh after California psychology professor Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who is testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee with claims that Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge pulled her into a room and tried to assault her at a house party.

The day after Garry said he no longer wishes to dispute the claims, all of JCN’s Facebook ads in the Facebook Ad Archive including the ad featuring Garry were deactivated.

Although the Federal Communication Commission’s political ad data may provide a more complete picture of JCN’s spending, filling in the blanks months before even scarce details of their finances are revealed in annual tax returns, there is still some lag between when TV political ads are purchased and when their FCC political ad disclosures become available — making it difficult to track whether JCN has made any efforts to stop running the ad on TV at this time.

In an MSBC interview on September 26, JCN’s chief counsel and policy director, Carrie Severino, would not definitively state that Judge Brett Kavanaugh should still be confirmed to the Supreme Court. She went on to tell MSNBC’s Craig Melvin, “I think we have to look into this further” raising questions about whether JCN would continue to support Kavanaugh.

Many interpreted this to mean that Severino supported further examination of the allegations of misconduct against Kavanaugh. However, Severino later clarified that they “still fully support Judge Kavanaugh and look forward to his confirmation.”

Within hours of this, JCN had reactivated a Facebook ad defending Kavanaugh against the allegations that first started running September 22 but was deactivated on September 24 then reactivated Wednesday afternoon in the aftermath of Severino’s interview. JCN has spent at least $5,000 and up to $10,000 on this ad, with an audience of more than 200,000 and up to half a million users.

A second ad, also defending Kavanaugh against the allegations, began running hours later. Costing less than $1,000 to date, JCN’s new ad gained more than 10,000 and up to 50,000 impressions from Facebook users overnight.

The two ads that are currently active have reached an audience composed of twice as many men than woman for all age ranges from under 54. Users age 55 and above who viewed the ad are more evenly distributed between genders, reaching slightly more women than men as of September 25.

Noticeably absent from the ads that have been reactivated is a 30-second spot featuring Louisa Garry, a friend of Kavanaugh’s for three decades. “I believe that we need to have bright, curious, open-minded, thoughtful, empathetic people who are judges, and I trust that Brett is that person,” she says in the ad.

The Twitter Ads Transparency Center provides significantly less information than Facebook and Google but their page listing JCN’s ads during the past two weeks show at least one tweet including a video highlighting Kavanaugh’s “unblemished reputation” has been promoted following the interview.

In the first week after Kavanaugh’s nomination was announced, JCN spent more than $24,200 and up to $88,293 on Facebook ads that reached more than 2.5 million and up to 5.7 million viewers.

As of September 17, JCN reported spending at least $6 million on ads supporting Kavanaugh.

Many questions remain about JCN — the identity of the group’s donors chief among them — but Servino leading an “I Stand With Brett” rally on Capitol Hill to coincide with Ford’s testimony along with the CEO of Concerned Women for America and the president of the Susan B. Anthony List has sent a clear message that JCN is fully supporting Kavanaugh for the time being.

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