WASHINGTON — Democrats learned the hard way in 2016 that the right is much more animated by judicial fights after Republicans’ refusal to consider the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick B. Garland helped rally conservative voters behind Donald J. Trump so he could fill a vacancy held open for nearly a year.
Now a new group is emerging on the left in an aggressive effort to counter that imbalance. Demand Justice, a nonprofit being formed by veterans of Capitol Hill, the White House and the Clinton and Obama campaigns, hopes to become a permanent fixture motivating progressive voters on issues related to the federal judiciary while influencing the Senate on judicial nominees.
The organization, which expects to raise $10 million in its first year, is not planning to devote its energy to changing the views of Republicans. It instead wants to instill the same kind of zeal in progressives when it comes to the courts, to make the argument that in the current political environment, it is the federal courts that are the final authority on issues important to progressives such as immigration, abortion, gay rights, social policy, the environment and corporate power, to name a few.
The group will be led by Brian Fallon, the former spokesman for Hillary Clinton who had previously worked at the Justice Department and on Capitol Hill for Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. He said he is giving up a role as a television analyst to concentrate on the new push.
The organization’s founding comes at a time when Mr. Trump and his Republican allies in the Senate are intently focused on remaking the federal courts. Mr. Fallon and others behind the new group acknowledge that conservatives have been much more effective at turning the courts into a rallying point for their voters. In the case of Mr. Garland, not only were Democrats unable to capitalize politically on the Republican blockade, but the decision by Senate Republican leaders to ignore the nomination was ultimately seen as bolstering Mr. Trump and Republican candidates for the Senate among conservatives who consider the Supreme Court a top voting priority.
In an interview, Mr. Fallon said the goal of Demand Justice “will be to try to do opinion research and experiment digitally to figure out how we can sustain a conversation and change minds and sensitize rank-and-file progressives to think of the courts as a venue for their activism and a way to advance the progressive agenda.”
Demand Justice aspires to be a counterweight to conservative advocacy groups such as the Judicial Crisis Network, which was formed in the early 2000s to help build political support for Republican judicial nominees and also helped strengthen Republican resolve in the blockade of Mr. Garland. Democrats have often taken a different approach, with an advocacy coalition springing up around individual Supreme Court nominees but retreating once the fight concluded.
“We have ignored this field of battle for too long,” said John Podesta, the longtime top Democratic adviser who said he encouraged Mr. Fallon to push ahead. He said the right sees the courts as a place to impose “permanent conservative change.”
“On the progressive side,” he continued, “we are a little bit old-school where you just pick qualified people and it will all work out. Obviously we came to a rude awakening with the Garland fight.”
Mr. Fallon has assembled an initial staff that includes judicial experts such as Christopher Kang, a former senior congressional staff member who played a central role in the Obama administration’s vetting of judicial nominees, and Paige Herwig, a former Judiciary Committee aide to Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the panel. The new organization will rely on a digital team led by Gabrielle McCaffrey, a digital organizer for the Clinton campaign. Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster, will conduct research for the group. About a dozen staff members will be housed in newly leased space near the White House.
Mr. Fallon said he was more than halfway to the initial fund-raising goal. He declined to name donors but said the organization had multiple backers and was also planning to seek smaller contributions online. He spoke recently at the Atlanta conference of the Democracy Alliance, a network of progressive donors that has included the billionaires George Soros and Tom Steyer.
With Republicans controlling the White House and the Senate, Democrats are limited in their ability to block Mr. Trump’s judicial nominees since they can be confirmed solely with Republican votes under Senate policies imposed by Democrats in 2013. But Mr. Fallon said the group was quickly preparing for a Supreme Court battle should an opening occur and had already compiled background dossiers on those included on a list of potential Supreme Court nominees assembled by the Trump campaign. The group will also seek to draw attention to lower-court nominees it considers far out of the mainstream.
To start, the digital campaign will cover 14 states, including Maine and Alaska, home to potential swing-vote Republicans. The group will also focus on states represented by conservative-state Democrats including Montana, Missouri and Alabama, as well as more Democratic-leaning states such as Minnesota, Colorado and Michigan where Senate Democrats tend to back more Trump nominees than those from other blue states. Activists want lawmakers to know that support for problematic Trump nominees will be noted by the left.
“The Democratic senators have the idea that the only political cost is on the right,” said Caroline Fredrickson, the president of the liberal American Constitution Society. “I don’t think that is true at all.”
The new group also intends to become active next year in early presidential nominating states in an attempt to elevate the courts as an issue and keep pressure on Democratic candidates to commit to naming progressive judges.
Republican voters, particularly those considered evangelical Christians, have long been seen as more driven by the makeup of the Supreme Court in voting and cited it as a top issue for them in 2016.
Whether Demand Justice and the current Republican push to reconfigure the courts through lifetime appointments to a new generation of conservatives can stir Democrats to approach judicial fights with the same passion as conservatives remains to be seen. But one thing is clear — the Garland defeat showed that Democrats have a lot of ground to make up.
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