Law & the Courts

Inside the Koch Network’s Push for Gorsuch

Neil Gorsuch on Capitol Hill, February 1, 2017. (Reuters photo: Joshua Roberts)
The billionaire brothers are pulling out all the stops in support of President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

Pity the interns who answer the phones in Colorado senator Michael Bennet’s office. Concerned Veterans for America estimates that as of March 2, it had connected with 80,000 Colorado supporters, urging them to phone Bennet’s office in an effort to convince him that he should support Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

CVA is leading the Koch brothers’ network of libertarian-leaning advocacy groups in its effort to maximize pressure on senators to confirm Gorsuch. Group officials estimate that they’ve generated more than 250,000 calls to supporters in eleven states, urging them to reach out to their senators. Constituents of Bennet, who represents Gorsuch’s home state, have received the most calls by far, but 35,000 calls have flooded into Ohio, urging calls to Democrat Sherrod Brown’s office; 28,000 have been placed to Missouri for Claire McCaskill; 24,000 to Indiana for Joe Donnelly; and 23,000 each to Florida for Bill Nelson and Montana for Jon Tester. All of those senators except for Bennet are up for reelection next year and represent states Trump carried in 2016.

Dan Caldwell, policy director for Concerned Veterans for America, contends that calls received in such high volume are impossible for an incumbent to shrug off.

“When you are getting an overwhelming number of calls from your constituents — real people who live in your state, calling in record numbers — everybody from the intern or staff assistant answering the phones to the chief of staff and the member are going to notice that,” Caldwell says. “They have special software that tracks it and spits out a report and shows how many people are calling. When you have the numbers we’re putting up, it shows that this isn’t just conservatives in Washington or the Federalist Society. This is real grassroots support for the type of judge that Judge Gorsuch is. If you’re up for reelection in 2018, you can’t ignore that and expect to be reelected.”

CVA has also organized several “tele-town halls” with Gorsuch-backing GOP senators, gathering 10,000 to 20,000 supporters on the phone to hear from Joni Ernst of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah touting Gorsuch’s qualifications. Ted Cruz is scheduled to do a tele-town-hall for the group on March 6, and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse is scheduled to do one the next day. At the conclusion of each call, CVA asks listeners to press 1 to be connected to their local senators.

The Gorsuch vote appears likely to be one of the most uncomfortable decisions for red-state Democrats facing reelection in 2018. At one point, nine Senate Democrats made comments indicating that Gorsuch deserved an up-or-down vote, suggesting that any attempted Democratic filibuster would fail. But within a day or two, a handful of those senators backtracked and insisted that their reference to an up-or-down vote referred only to a vote on cutting off debate and bringing Gorsuch’s nomination to the floor. In other words, they believe there should be an up-or-down vote on whether Gorsuch deserves an up-or-down vote, and they may very well vote no. That complicated stance may not be easy to explain to constituents.

Nelson, the Florida senator, is in a particularly uncomfortable spot. He was among the Democrats who helped confirm Gorsuch for a court-of-appeals seat by unanimous consent in 2006, meaning no senator had any objections to the nomination. He has recently told Florida papers that the circumstances of that vote and this one are different. “You’ve got lots of court of appeals judges; you only have nine Supreme Court justices. In this divided court, one justice can completely change the outcome.”

The all-out effort to put Gorsuch over the top represents something of an olive branch extended by the Koch network to the Trump administration.

“Laughable,” scoffs Luke Hilgemann, CEO of Americans for Prosperity, another Koch-backed group. “This isn’t about policy substance or any disagreement about the way that he’s ruled in the past. Clearly this is a political play. Democratic leaders are pretty nervous about seeing their members come out and say he deserves an up-or-down vote, and they’re doing everything they can to get their members back in line.”

Some might wonder why a veterans’ group is leading the charge on Gorsuch, but Caldwell — who served in the U.S. Marines and deployed to Iraq, conducting operations in Al Anbar and Ninawa provinces —points out that veterans’ groups have historically taken on issues beyond the Department of Veterans Affairs and national-security policy. He argues that the fight over the Court’s role fits in well with CVA’s sense of mission.

“If you have a Supreme Court that does not respect the Constitution and the foundational freedoms of our country, then we feel that what we fought and sacrificed for is undermined,” he says.

The all-out effort to put Gorsuch over the top represents something of an olive branch extended by the Koch network to the Trump administration. In July 2016, Charles Koch characterized the race between Trump and Hillary Clinton as a choice between “cancer or heart attack.” The Kochs sat out the presidential election after deciding that Trump’s populism was fundamentally at odds with their own libertarian philosophy. In January, Brian Hooks, co-chair of the Koch Seminar Network, generated the biggest news of the network’s winter meeting by criticizing Trump’s sweeping, controversial executive order on immigration, calling it “the wrong approach” and predicting that it would “likely be counterproductive.”

So the fact that the Kochs are backing Gorsuch with the full might of their resources doesn’t signal their unqualified backing of the Trump administration. But it is an indication of the kind of support the president can expect to receive when he pursues a conservative goal.

“When President Trump takes a principled stand and follows through on a campaign promise to conservatives and freedom-oriented activists, this shows that he will have a grassroots army behind him,” Caldwell says. “It will make these fights a lot easier.”

Network officials point out that in an administration where not everything has run smoothly during the opening months, the effort to secure Gorsuch’s confirmation has been a well-oiled machine, at least so far.

“We’ve heard nothing but good things about the administration’s strategy behind the scenes on Capitol Hill,” says Hilgemann. “What we’ve seen is a willingness to partner with us and work with us.”

Of course it’s unlikely that all of these red-state Democrats will vote for Gorsuch, and the network fully expects to make any no votes a campaign issue next year.

“It’s called 2018,” Hilgemann says. “It’s really setting the stage for voters holding their senators accountable for the votes they’ve taken heading into that election.”

In the meantime, the phones in those red-state Democrats’ offices will keep ringing.

“I don’t think we’re a favorite of interns or staff assistants,” Caldwell says with a chuckle. “When they start complaining, then we know we’ve done almost enough and it’s time to do just a little more.”

— Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent.

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