Judge Neil Gorsuch's team, anticipating roadblocks as he prepares for Senate confirmation hearings this week, is executing a carefully crafted plan to gain Democratic support for his Supreme Court nomination.
Perhaps the most robust high court confirmation effort in recent memory will be put to the test this week when the Senate Judiciary Committee begins to decide whether to elevate Gorsuch from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to the highest court in the land.
The judge's team includes the White House Counsel's Office, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's office, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican National Committee and conservative groups such as the Judicial Crisis Network and America Rising. Former Gorsuch clerks have also proved valuable to the cause. The team holds daily strategy calls coordinating efforts and messaging.
Kelly Ayotte, a former New Hampshire senator, has shepherded Gorsuch to meetings with 72 senators and says she expects more one-on-one meetings after the hearings. Several Democratic senators from Republican states, including Indiana's Joe Donnelly, Missouri's Claire McCaskill and North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, appear "open-minded" in private meetings with President Trump's Supreme Court pick, she says.
"The judge is very personable, smart, and he's spent a lot of time answering questions that the senators have, and they've been lengthy meetings," Ayotte told the Washington Examiner. "He's decided [or been part of] 2,700 cases, so he's been talking to them about questions they have about his cases or any other questions that they pose to him."
Gorsuch will next have an opportunity to influence fence-sitting senators at the hearings. He has spent time reviewing case law and has practiced in mock hearings at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House. There he faces "murder boards" of tough questioning. Gorsuch's team examined previous hearings to try to guess what questions Judiciary Committee members might ask.
"The biggest challenge you have is don't let him get too far away from who he is," said Rob Collins, a strategic adviser to the White House on the confirmation battle. "Everyone, politicians, human beings, they're at their best when they're authentic. And if he, just based on his incredible track record and acumen for the law, if he presents his case just as he believes it, as he sees it, he'll do great. He's one of the most genuine, authentic people I've ever met. He's impressive. I think when the American people see the hours upon hours of testimony he's going to deliver, they'll realize he's an impressive, smart, earnest guy."
Collins, a former National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director, was added to the judge's team in recent final weeks to help prepare Gorsuch to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee. To do this, Collins took a leave of absence as a Republican lobbyist from his firm, S-3 Group.
The team expects Democrats to press the judge on matters relating to Trump and on pending litigation winding its way through the courts. Ayotte said Gorsuch would avoid commenting on specific issues that could yet come to court.
"I think he'll respond very clearly in accordance with maintaining the independence of the judiciary and in accordance with judicial ethics," Ayotte said. "I think he's able to articulate that very well, having been a judge for ten years."
Gorsuch's allies most effective at neutralizing Democrats' attacks and winning over undecided senators may be the judge's former clerks. After hearing from former Gorsuch clerk Leah Bressack at a recent town hall meeting on the Supreme Court battle, Maine Sen. Angus King called Bressack's testimony "important" and praised Gorsuch as "exceedingly independent." King is an independent senator who caucuses with the Democrats and has yet to make a decision on how he will vote on the nomination. He is not a member of the Judiciary Committee but says he plans to attend the hearings to make up his own mind.
Another former Gorsuch clerk, Jane Nitze, cut an ad for the Judicial Crisis Network that captured attention. She is a former Justice Department official who also clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The 30-second ad shows her saying she's "100 percent comfortable" with Gorsuch and adding, "I don't think folks on the left should be concerned about Judge Gorsuch becoming a Supreme Court justice."
The Judicial Crisis Network is running the ad in Colorado, Washington, D.C., and three states, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota, where Democratic senators face re-election campaigns in 2018. The ad is one of several from the Judicial Crisis Network being shown across the country. The JCN is spending $10 million to help confirm Gorsuch. It has formed a coalition with several other conservative organizations, including Tea Party Patriots and America Rising Squared, to mobilize grassroots supporters for Gorsuch and pressure Democrats to back him.
JCN still has some of its $10 million and plans to use it, says chief counsel and policy director Carrie Severino. But Severino says she doesn't know if there is anything Gorsuch could say or do at the hearings that would change Democrats' minds.
"I go back and forth over whether to think there's even anything that he could say at this point that's going to be convincing," Severino said. "Are they going to listen to the radical left pressure groups that they're getting a lot of pressure from, or are they going to listen to the majority and, in many cases, the vast majority of the people in their state who elected Donald Trump, who wanted him to be the one to choose this next Supreme Court justice."
The GOP is similarly operating at the state level to ramp up support for Gorsuch. Republican National Committee spokesman Rick Gorka said Republicans have raised $250,000 through email on Gorsuch and that the national party is working with state parties to pressure Democrats. Alongside Donnelly, McCaskill and Heitkamp, the GOP is also targeting Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Jon Tester of Montana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, all of whom are up for election in 2018. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who just won re-election in November and comes from Gorsuch's home state, is also a top target for the RNC.
Democrats do not oppose Gorsuch's nomination with anything like the unity that Republicans showed after former President Barack Obama chose Judge Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Senate Democrats are, however, readying attacks to depict Gorsuch as an enemy of the working man who is beholden to corporate interests.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stood in front of cameras last week with "people harmed by Judge Gorsuch decisions" and claimed Gorsuch had a record of siding against the little guy. Schumer's attacks preview Democratic talking points that may focus less on social issues and more on economic and practical outcomes of individual cases that Gorsuch could handle on the Supreme Court.
"Judge Gorsuch's record demonstrates he prefers CEOs over truck drivers, executives over employers, and corporations over consumers," Schumer said last week. "When Judge Gorsuch goes before the Judiciary Committee ... he'll have to answer for his decisions, not his empathetic words, but the decisions he wrote that favored the powerful over the powerless."
While some Democratic senators have avoided speaking ill of Gorsuch, left-wingers are fired-up and urge their party's leader to hold Gorsuch's feet to the fire. The People's Defense, a coalition of progressive activists including organizations such as MoveOn.org; NARAL Pro-Choice America, the abortion rights advocate; and Service Employees International Union, is mobilizing against the judge. People for The American Way, also part of the People's Defense, released a memo last week saying a "shadow of illegitimacy" would fall on the high court if Gorsuch were confirmed.
People for the American Way senior fellow Arn Pearson says he thinks Democrats are "entitled" to filibuster Gorsuch's nomination and should slow any attempt to confirm him. Pearson is primarily interested in how Gorsuch will answer questions about issues of corporate influence and campaign finance.
"You have a White House that's in turmoil these days and a crisis of confidence [of] the public in the White House and it's being reflected back on Gorsuch despite whatever people may think of his judicial qualifications," Pearson said. "The lack of public confidence in the president is creating a lack of confidence in his pick for the Supreme Court and that if the Republicans just ignore that and ram a nomination through, I think what they're going to do is the same crisis of legitimacy we have in the White House will reflect on to the court and just further polarize the court."
Whether Senate Democrats share the fighting spirit of the People's Defense remains to be seen, but Gorsuch's conservative allies are raring to go. Ron Bonjean, who is helping with the White House communications strategy, praises the work of the judge's team.
"With more than 70 visits to individual senators and thousands of pages of documents provided on Judge Gorsuch's record, the Senate should be well-informed and prepared for the Judiciary Committee hearings," Bonjean said. "That's why it would make sense once they are complete to have an up-or-down vote in the coming weeks on the confirmation of his nomination."
A former staffer in President George W. Bush's White House who was involved in successful efforts to confirm Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito says politicization and character attacks on high court nominees are "unfortunate."
"I think he's got a sterling record on the bench," the former White House official said of Gorsuch. "It's been a little over a month now since his nomination, and people have been scrounging through his record to try and find something traumatic, and truth be told it hasn't worked. You can see the attacks from some liberal groups on him, and they're just not sticking because there's nothing there."
In preparing Roberts and Alito during the final days before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings begin, the former White House official said there was typically one final mock hearing that lasted a full day and then the nominee was left alone to relax and prepare.
It's unclear if Trump will choose to follow the Bush administration's example, but the president has already taken a hands-on approach via Twitter when controversy has swirled around his nominee. Gorsuch's hearings provide an embattled administration with an opportunity to score political points as critics are focused on alleged campaign ties to Russian political players and on a rocky rollout of Republicans' healthcare plan.
Gorsuch visited the White House 10 days before the hearings and met quietly with Vice President Mike Pence and Pence's counsel. Whether Gorsuch makes it back to the White House for a swearing-in ceremony will depend in large part on his performance under the spotlight this week.