With one eye on his confirmation prospects and another on Southern electoral strategy, allies of Judge Charles Pickering are making a final push to secure him a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Committee for Justice, a group with close ties to the White House, is launching a new round of ads in four Southern states attacking Senate Democrats for blocking the Pickering nomination, set to coincide with the expected floor vote next week.
And Pickering’s friends in Mississippi are using the nomination as a wedge issue in the state’s gubernatorial campaign, predicting that a Democratic filibuster in Washington would lead to a backlash that tosses Mississippi Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove out of the state Capitol in Jackson.
“There will be an angry reaction in Mississippi, even among Democrats,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a friend of the judge’s for four decades who is also close to the GOP gubernatorial nominee, Haley Barbour.
All this occurs as Senate Democrats appeared to be hunkering down for what would be the fourth filibuster of a circuit court nominee this year, with several more Democrats publicly expressing their opposition to the nomination.
One senior Senate Democrat left no room for doubt that Pickering would fail to gain the 60 votes needed to end a filibuster. “The votes are not there to approve Pickering,” the Senator said.
While Republicans are not giving up the fight, the Committee for Justice is attempting to make Democrats pay politically for blocking an up-or-down vote on the nomination. Characterizing it as a “decent-sized buy,” Sean Rushton, executive director of the group, said the set of five 30-second television ads would begin airing early next week in Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina — all states where Senate Democrats’ terms expire next year. The ads will also air in Washington, D.C.
If Senate Republicans can’t break the anticipated filibuster, Rushton said the committee hopes to at least begin to set the issues table for the 2004 elections, with the Carolinas each already facing open-seat races and another possible retirement coming from Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.).
“That creates future awareness [of the issue] for potential Senate debates,” he said.
Thematically, Republicans and their conservative allies have accused liberals of painting Pickering as a caricature of segregationist Mississippi in the civil rights era. Democrats contend the judge has a questionable past but also a shaky record as a U.S. District judge on issues relating to civil rights.
Republicans believe their message will resonate with their conservative base, particularly in rural regions of the South, and they point to several victories in Southern Senate races last year as examples of where that theme fit their strategy.
But nowhere will the impact of a Pickering filibuster have as much of an immediate impact as in Mississippi, where Barbour and Musgrove are still in a heated battle with less than two weeks to go. “It looks tight,” Lott said of the race. “This could be the difference.”
Musgrove, like every other statewide elected Democratic official in Mississippi, is publicly backing Pickering’s nomination — a position that Barbour’s allies are anxiously promoting, which could set up a line of attack for Barbour if national Democrats fail to pay heed to the governor.
A group of Mississippians paid for ads, including one in Roll Call, promoting Musgrove’s support of Pickering. The group ran the ads through Policy Impact Communications, the public relations firm founded by Barbour in 1997. And Rushton said the Committee for Justice was leaving open the option of running ads in Mississippi if the filibuster is not defeated next week.
Rushton’s committee works out of the offices of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, the gubernatorial candidate’s lobbying firm. Policy Impact also works out of the firm’s offices, and is also producing the latest round of ads for the Committee for Justice.
Given the timing of the floor vote on Pickering — debate could begin later this week, with a vote likely by the middle of next week — some Republicans believe the conservative base will be fired up and take out its anger on Musgrove, regardless of the fact that he supported the nomination and as governor wasn’t able to vote.
“This is a big deal in the Mississippi gubernatorial race,” one conservative strategist said. “It certainly is convenient timing.”
Lott, however, deflected any thought that the strategy in working out the timing of the debate and vote on Pickering was designed to aid Barbour.
With leaders clinging to hopes of an early-November departure, Lott said, “Next week is really the last week we can do it if we’re going to get it done this year.” Lott conceded that the timing may end up helping Barbour, but insisted that was never his plan. “The confluence of events may have that effect, but it is not something that I planned out way back in April,” he said.
The nomination, which was defeated by the then Democratically controlled Senate Judiciary Committee in March 2002, was resubmitted to the chamber in January after the GOP took control of the majority. It languished in committee until Republicans voted it out in September.
Democrats don’t appear to have been swayed at all by a fear of backlash by Southern voters, either in Mississippi or other states. Lott said Pickering had “55 or more” votes as of now and “half a dozen still in play,” but interviews with Democrats on Tuesday showed little momentum building for the judge.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who had previously supported a controversial judicial nominee, Miguel Estrada, said Tuesday he’s opposed to Pickering. “I’m not going to vote for him because of judicial temperament,” he said.
Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), a target of the Committee for Justice ads, said she’s still undecided but that in the next week she would focus on what she’s been hearing from her constituents — a majority of which, she said, was negative. “I’m hearing a good bit from constituents who have concerns about the nomination,” she said, adding that the conservative ads targeting her would only be “confusing.”
“I’m sure it’s not going to be helpful,” she added.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), has not yet made up her mind. “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do,” she said.
In addition to the 51 Senate Republicans, Pickering has the public support of three Democrats — Sens. John Breaux (La.), Zell Miller (Ga.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) — and Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), leaving him in need of five more votes.
Another potential vote in his favor was Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), who was considering voting to invoke cloture and then oppose the nomination on final passage. But Biden said he was upset that the White House had resubmitted the nomination in the face of a rejection last year. “I’m probably going to vote to sustain the filibuster, that’s my instinct,” he said.
Another vote that slipped away was Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), who in February 2002 said he would support Pickering. Tuesday, Hollings was definitively opposed: “I’ve said no.”