WASHINGTON - Well-funded, secretive political groups are getting into the high-stakes battle over filling a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Known as “dark money” groups because they aren’t required by law to disclose the names of their donors, these influential organizations are pumping millions of dollars into advertising campaigns to influence voter perceptions of what is expected to be one of the most contentious confirmation hearings in modern American history.
Just hours after Ginsburg, the 87-year-old liberal icon, died of cancer last Friday, Demand Justice, a progressive dark money group with ties to the Democratic Party, said it would spend $10 million to challenge President Donald Trump’s push to quickly replace Ginsburg with a conservative jurist.
The group’s conservative counterpart, Judicial Crisis Network, quickly responded by launching a $2.2 million advertising campaign to support Trump’s push, with the goal of eventually matching or exceeding spending by Demand Justice.
Judicial Crisis Network previously pledged to spend $20 million to help confirm Trump’s first two Supreme Court justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a political finance watchdog.
Spokespeople for Judicial Crisis Network and Demand Justice confirmed their new spending plans to VOA.
Trump plans to announce his choice of a conservative female jurist to succeed Ginsburg on Saturday, with Amy Coney Barrett, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th District, and Barbara Lagoa, a federal appeals court judge for the 11th District, among the leading contenders.
Early this week, Trump lined up sufficient Republican support in the Senate to confirm his choice before the November 3 election.
While Demand Justice and other liberal groups have no way of blocking Senate confirmation of Trump’s choice, they can use their ads to make talking points in campaigning against Trump and GOP congressional candidates ahead of the general election.
A major complaint of Democrats and liberal groups is that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky refused to allow former President Barack Obama to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in 2016 more than eight months before the general election, saying it should be left to voters to decide. Yet he is strongly supporting Trump’s effort now to fill Ginsburg’s seat with only 40 days before the election.
“Donald Trump has hijacked our Supreme Court," one Demand Justice ad declares. “The future of the Supreme Court is on the line.”
Judicial Crisis Network responded in an ad, “Tell the Senate, when a strong nominee is named, follow the precedent, confirm the judge.”
While the dark money being spent by Judicial Crisis Network and Demand Justice represents a small fraction of the billions of dollars spent each election cycle, its use has proliferated since a landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision.
Judicial Crisis Network and Demand Justice are not the only ones spending on the Supreme Court nomination.
Across the political spectrum, other groups, from the conservative Article III Project to the liberal Fix Our Senate, have announced ad buying campaigns to influence the confirmation process, said Anna Massoglia, a researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog.
Dark money is a term for political spending by nonprofit organizations and shell corporations that, unlike political action committees and candidates, are not required to disclose their donors.
Proponents of such anonymous spending say disclosure can stifle speech and subject donors to harassment. But critics say it allows special interest groups and wealthy individuals to exert undue influence on elections without revealing their involvement.
Issue One, a bipartisan watchdog organization, warned in a recent report that unregulated shell companies can serve as a convenient conduit for illegal foreign campaign contributions into U.S. elections. In recent years, the Justice Department has charged several individuals with funneling millions of dollars in foreign money into U.S. elections.
The 2010 Supreme Court ruling, known as Citizens United and opposed by Ginsburg and the court’s three other liberal justices, lifted restrictions on political spending by corporations and labor unions, giving rise to dark money groups and so-called super PACs.
In the early years following Citizens United, dark money was a “Republican problem,” said Zach Wamp, a former Republican congressman from Tennessee – meaning Republicans made the greater use of the unidentified political funding.
In the last two election cycles, however, liberal dark money groups have outspent their conservative counterparts as Democrats have resorted to some of the same tactics they once denounced as corrupt.
“It’s about power,” Wamp said in an interview. “It’s about who is in, who is out.”
A fierce critic of dark money, Wamp now co-chairs Issue One’s bipartisan “ReFormers Caucus.”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, dark money groups are on track to top $1 billion in direct spending reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) since Citizens United.
Massoglia, of CRP, noted that over this time period, dark money groups have funneled billions more into political ads, political committees such as super PACs and issue advocacy ads that seek to influence electoral outcomes.
"We really are seeing millions of dollars pouring in every day," Massoglia said.