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PFA Vows $18M Spree on Judges

A pair of conservative organizations with strong ties to the White House and Congressional GOP leaders on Wednesday announced a $21 million TV and grass-roots campaign in the anticipated battle over a Supreme Court vacancy later this summer.

Progress for America plans to take the lead role in defending the expected nomination — or nominations — to the Supreme Court. The group, a so-called 527 run by GOP media advisers with connections to both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, is devoting a minimum of $18 million to its campaign, with roughly 70 percent of that going to a national and localized TV campaign.

While stating that the organization had no inside knowledge about whether Chief Justice William Rehnquist or other justices would announce their retirements later this month, the group’s president said he had already raised most of the $18 million for the campaign.

“Progress for America will spend a minimum of $18 million promoting any potential nominee or nominees to the Supreme Court,” Brian McCabe said after a media briefing on the campaign.

The $18 million figure is based on the anticipation of just one retirement, even if there is an elevation from within to chief justice and a nomination from outside to fill that vacancy. If more than one justice retires, McCabe said his group will spend much, much more on the campaign to defend President Bush’s nominees.

“Progress for America will allocate additional resources to it,” he said.

In another sign of how high the level of anticipation is about a vacancy on the high court, Jessica Boulanger, a top press aide to House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), is taking a leave of absence from the Hill and going to work for the group. Boulanger will focus almost exclusively on the Supreme Court fight, providing added heft to the group’s burgeoning media operation.

The group is on such elevated alert for a retirement that it has assembled its own “SCOTUS Short List,” a document resembling Roll Call’s “Face Time” feature tracking appearances on Sunday talk shows. Instead, the “Short List” tracks the number of major media mentions of a potential nominee to the Supreme Court.

The current leader is Michael Luttig, a judge for the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with nine mentions in top publications such as Legal Times and the Wall Street Journal. Three other appellate court judges — John Roberts of the District of Columbia Circuit, Michael McConnell of the 10th Circuit and Harvie Wilkinson of the 4th Circuit — are tied with eight mentions as of June 1.

Buttressing the Progress for America campaign, the Judicial Confirmation Network, a coalition of “grasstop” and grass-roots activists around the country, expects to spend at least $3 million on its media campaign for a Supreme Court nomination fight. The group, whose lead counsel is Wendy Long, a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, has focused its efforts in the judicial filibuster fight on moderate Republicans in Democratic-leaning states.

For the Supreme Court fight, the Judicial Confirmation Network expects to expand its reach into Republican-leaning states with Democratic Senators, particularly North Dakota, where Sen. Kent Conrad (D) faces re-election in 2006.

Combined, the two conservative groups set an opening ante of more than $20 million in the fight over a Supreme Court nomination — already almost doubling the estimated cost of what was spent in the spring by both liberal and conservative groups over the future of the filibuster.

One of the leading groups on the left opposed to Bush’s nominees, People For the American Way, mocked the amount of money and the claim by McCabe that they had no inside knowledge of a pending retirement. “What do they know that we don’t know?” Ralph Neas, the organization’s president, asked in a statement. “They must be expecting an extremely controversial nominee, if they need to spend that much on the confirmation process.”

With Rehnquist battling thyroid cancer, groups on the left and right as well as many Senators, are convinced that at least one justice will retire when the court’s term comes to an end later this month. No vacancy has occurred since 1994, the longest run without a retirement since the early 1820s.

In the filibuster fight, Neas’ group spent $5 million to defend the right of Democrats to filibuster Bush’s judicial selections. He was joined by the Alliance for Justice and MoveOn.org’s PAC in TV campaigns, adding up to roughly $10 million spent on the left in the fight that served as a prelude to the Supreme Court battle.

Those liberal groups have so far declined to release their spending plans for a potential court vacancy.

McCabe’s organization, according to documents it provided Wednesday, spent $3.2 million on its TV campaign to back up Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) effort to make a parliamentary move to end filibusters. Other conservative groups did not engage that heavily in terms of TV ads.

What the groups on the right lack in experience in terms of judicial battles — Neas and his allies at Alliance for Justice and the Leadership Conference on Civile Rights have been involved in the issue since the early 1980s — they are trying to make up for with money and efficiency.

Progress for America has taken the lead role on the right as central nervous system for media campaigns on all top conservative causes, particularly judicial nominations and Bush’s efforts to revamp Social Security.

McCabe declined to spell out precisely what percentage of his $18 million would be dedicated to the TV campaign, but said the percentages would be similar to previous efforts.

The group has so far spent $11.1 million on its Social Security and filibuster fights, with $7.9 million, or 71 percent, going to TV commercials.

If that percentage holds up, Progress for America will spend about $13 million on paid media. Half of that will go to a national ad campaign, with the remainder going to targeted states where Senators will be hit with commercials urging them to support the nominee.

On the filibuster fight and in the pending Supreme Court battle, some other conservative groups will also go on the air but not with the volume of Progress for America, according to those involved in the discussions. Judicial Confirmation Network’s primary focus is on getting activists in key states to apply pressure on wavering Senators.

Focus on the Family, one of the most prominent social organizations because of the popularity of James Dobson’s radio show, is also expected to take a lead role in driving activists around the country.

The Committee for Justice, founded by Bush family ally C. Boyden Gray, and the Federalist Society will serve as a nexus for legal scholars and the dissemination of information about the nominee’s background to the media.

Gray is expected to also be one of the leading surrogates on network and cable TV news programs once a nominee is announced.

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