A new lobbying group, led by Hillary Clinton's former press secretary, wants Democrats to fight as hard against President Donald Trump's nominees for the judicial branch as they do to retake the House in 2018 or the presidency in 2020.
And it has picked its first battle: Thomas Farr, Trump's pick for the long-vacant spot on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
Demand Justice, which was formed two weeks ago, began airing digital ads on Tuesday in eight states that have Republican senators, plus television ads in D.C., urging a "no" vote on Farr when his nomination reaches the Senate floor. The group says it expects that to happen as early as next month.
"This is going to be Trump's lasting legacy. It outlives the impact of the tax legislation. These are lifetime appointments," said Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice. "We’re going to be living with the lingering effects of Trumpism for 20, 30 years if we don’t start contesting what he’s doing with the courts."
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The ads target Senate Republicans who sometimes break with the party, including Susan Collins in Maine, Lisa Murkowski in Alaska and Jeff Flake in Arizona. They are airing in states with large black populations, including Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi. And they are running in Colorado.
"Even if you’re inclined to support Trump nominees overall, Farr is a real outlier in how nakedly political and in how deeply he’s been associated with racist organizations and efforts to disenfranchise African-Americans," Fallon said.
Farr is a Raleigh-based attorney who represented North Carolina Republican lawmakers in cases involving racial gerrymanders and a voter ID law. He also worked for the late Sen. Jesse Helms, including during the 1990 campaign when more than 100,000 mostly black voters in the state were sent a postcard with inaccurate information. The ad plays up his connections to Tom Ellis, another former Helms staffer.
Ellis was a director of the Pioneer Fund, "which financed research into theories that blacks are genetically inferior to whites," according to a 1983 Washington Post story about Ellis' nomination fight to be on the Board for International Broadcasting. The ad says that Farr gave a speech in honor of the founder of a hate group (Ellis)," citing the Post story. The liberal Southern Poverty Law Center touts Ellis as Farr's "longtime boss and mentor." Ellis was considered Helms' chief strategist and political alter ego and has recently been involved in the GOP redistricting strategy.
"Under Donald Trump, hate is on the march. Now Trump wants to make Thomas Farr a federal judge," the ad says, showing images from a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Several civil rights groups, the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus have voiced strong opposition to his nomination.
But Republicans have backed Farr, calling the attacks from the left "a smear campaign" and "judicial hostage-taking." Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, said Farr's role in that Helms' postcard episode has been mischaracterized.
"I get that we have difference in our political ideologies. but I think absolutely destroying a good man’s reputation is inappropriate," Tillis told the Senate Judiciary Committee in January.
Trump first nominated Farr in July to fill the seat for the 44-county region from Raleigh to the coast. The seat has been open for more than 12 years. Farr was nominated in 2006 and 2007 by President George W. Bush, but never got a hearing in committee. President Barack Obama nominated two black women for the position, but neither got a vote in committee due to objections from North Carolina's senators.
Farr's nomination passed out of committee on a party-line vote, but since his nomination was not considered by the full Senate in 2017 and Democrats objected to carrying over his nomination into 2018, he had to be renominated. The committee gave its approval again in January, once more on a party-line vote.
Farr was rated as "well qualified" by the American Bar Association in 2017. Among its criteria, the ABA considers a nominee's "freedom from bias and commitment to equal justice under the law."
"He is one of the most brilliant legal minds of our time in North Carolina and he’s a man of high character, dignity and honor," said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party. "Tom Farr is going to be confirmed and he’s going to be a federal judge. There is not one ounce of doubt in my mind because the smear campaign they have tried to do on him has absolutely backfired."
Woodhouse, who said he knows Farr well, said any Republican who voted against Farr's nomination would be "acquiescing to judicial hostage-taking" by the left. Woodhouse said those who know Farr have been more disturbed by the ugly nomination process than Farr himself. Woodhouse said he believes the attacks on Farr are about scaring other good lawyers from defending Republican legislation and initiatives.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made confirming Trump-nominated judges one of his top priorities. The Republican-controlled Senate has confirmed 21 circuit court judges, 17 district court judges and one Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch.
Democrats have tried to stall the process, forcing McConnell to use 30 hours of Senate floor time before moving ahead with the confirmations.
Farr is now fourth on the list of district court judges to be confirmed and could be brought up soon. McConnell's office declined to specify when exactly Farr's nomination would be brought to the floor or if was facing trouble from Republicans, instead blaming Democrats for their "obstruction" in "slow-walking" the nominations.
Demand Justice is launching its media buy now, hoping to mobilize opposition and bring the nomination to the attention of senators who may not be aware of the fight over Farr. Republicans hold a 51-49 edge in the U.S. Senate.
"Our plan is to just try to surface some of the readily confirmable details of his work in North Carolina that would make even some Senate Republicans blanch at the thought of having to vote for him," Fallon said. "It may not sit well for them to vote aye on someone who has these levels of linkages to nakedly racist organizations."
His group is investing "five figures" into the media buy and it plans to keep running the ads until Farr is brought up for a vote. He plans other activities, possibly rallies or events with Farr critics from North Carolina, over the next few weeks.
The larger goal, Fallon said, is to create a liberal group to counter the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, which has spent millions fighting for and against judges at all levels.
"We’ll never be able to match them dollar for dollar," he said. "But we want to give Democrats some signal that there is going to be an entity defending them when they take a stand against these nominees."
The judiciary has been a staple of recent Republican campaigns with candidates railing against activist judges who they argue are remaking American life, particularly on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and gun control.
According to CNN exit polls from the 2016 election, 21 percent of voters in the 2016 election considered Supreme Court nominations to be "the most important factor" in their vote. Fifty-six percent of those voters voted for Trump. Of the 14 percent of voters who said Supreme Court nominations were not a factor in their vote, 55 percent supported Clinton.
Fallon said his organization's polling found 50 percent of likely Democratic midterm voters had a favorable opinion of the John Roberts-led Supreme Court, owing largely to high-profile decisions on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act.
"(Democrats have) been pretty complacent about the courts for the last two decades," Fallon said. "We realize the state of alarm that exists right now."