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Conservative judicial group is top donor to GOP state elections arm

Judicial Crisis Network previously spent millions to support Trump’s Supreme Court nominees

The Judicial Crisis Network spent millions to support Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in the face of vocal protest like this one in September 2018. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Judicial Crisis Network spent millions to support Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in the face of vocal protest like this one in September 2018. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The dark money group that spent millions on ads supporting Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court was the biggest contributor to Republicans’ state legislative campaign arm in the first half of 2019, in what may be an effort to affect judicial races.

The Judicial Crisis Network, a group dedicated to elevating conservative judges, spent a combined $22 million to promote the confirmations of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and contributed $1 million of the roughly $8.2 million the Republican State Leadership Committee raised through June 30 of this year, according to a report the RSLC filed last week. The RSLC then transferred about $1.2 million to its Judicial Fairness Initiative — nearly all of what the state judicial campaign group raised all year.

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The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the equivalent to the RSLC, raised a similar amount from unions.

Representatives for the RSLC and Judicial Crisis Network did not return messages seeking comment. Democrats and other critics have slammed the Judicial Crisis Network for refusing to disclose their donors. As a 501(c)(4) organization, the group is not legally required to.

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Douglas Keith, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal legal group housed at New York University’s law school, said the contribution was likely meant to affect state judicial races, though the campaign finance disclosures didn’t say definitively.

“The disclosures are what they are, so for all we know — more importantly, for all the public knows — it could be that the Judicial Crisis Network is giving money to be spent on state legislative races,” Keith said. “But it could also be that they’re just giving this money so that it can be spent on state Supreme Court races.”

It’s unclear how closely the RSLC and Judicial Crisis Network work together, but they often support the same candidates, Keith said.

“Their interests certainly seem to be aligned in these races,” he said.

In the 2018 cycle, the Judicial Crisis Network also spent on lower-court races in Arkansas and West Virginia, Keith said.

Conservative groups have long targeted state races, which has been crucial to building their power since the 1970s, said Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University who has written about conservative efforts to affect state politics and policy.

“Conservatives have made a concerted effort to invest in building cross-state power,” he said. “That is to say, not just having a presence within states but moving between states to wage electoral campaigns and legislative campaigns to push state policy and politics to the right.”  

The RSLC also had backing from top pharmaceutical and energy companies in the first half of 2019.

Though conservatives have focused more than liberals on state-level campaigns, there are signs that is changing, Hertel-Fernandez said.

The 2019 midyear reports show unions provided something of a counterweight for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the national group working on Democrats’ state legislative campaigns. The DLCC raised $1.15 million from its top seven labor contributors, including its largest single contributor, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which gave $500,000. Six other unions gave the group at least $100,000 each.

The DLCC does not have a wing dedicated to judicial races.

The Democratic group raised about $8.5 million in the first half of the year, securing contributions from the same pharmaceutical companies — including $175,000 from the industry’s lobby group, PhRMA — and oil and gas companies that gave to Republicans, though the RSLC tended to receive larger contributions from those sectors.

The DLCC had an apparent advantage on gun issues, raising $100,000 from the gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety. The National Rifle Association didn’t write a check to the RSLC in the first half of 2019, though the group did contribute $85,000 to the Republican Governors Association.

The DLCC held a significant advantage over the RSLC in the number of donors above the reporting threshold of an aggregate of $200. The Republican group listed just over 900 contributors, while the DLCC listed 11,900.

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Correction 12:57 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Republican State Leadership Committee.

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