Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, is getting ready for a fight that if won could help enshrine its policy priorities for decades to come.
It has been asked by White House officials to join a coalition of political advocacy groups that will provide key public support and promote President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, who will replace longtime senior associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, two people with direct knowledge of the matter said.
Americans for Prosperity has already publicly committed to spending up to seven figures in support of a Supreme Court nominee, provided the choice is of the same mold as Justice Neil Gorsuch.
However, the coalition expects to receive regular briefings and updates by Trump’s administration as officials go through the nomination process, those same people say.
It’s unclear which other groups have been called upon to work with Trump’s team, but those that supported Gorsuch’s nomination in 2017 include The Judicial Crisis Network and the Federalist Society. The JCN already has initiated a seven-figure ad campaign on cable TV and digital platforms calling those Trump is considering to replace Kennedy “the best of the best.”
So far, AFP has reaffirmed to the White House that it will back any of the nominees that are on the list the administration publicized in November 2017, but conversations are likely to intensify as the administration comes closer to making its final decision, a person familiar with the plan says.
When asked about the coalition, a White House official said, "All supportive organizations and individuals are receiving the message from the White House that the president is going to choose a quality nominee with the right experience, intellect and temperament.”
The official stressed that there has been no effort to make direct requests of outside organizations yet.
A spokesman for AFP declined to comment.
The Koch network’s activism in the Supreme Court decision is just the latest in a string of issues on its hit list.
Prior to Kennedy’s sudden announcement to step down from the bench, AFP had been privately and publicly lobbying the Trump administration to stick to its original list for any potential Supreme Court nominees.
Its extensive work to push for Gorsuch to become part of the Supreme Court in 2017 included its grassroots organizations launching three waves of direct mail campaigns and a series of targeted digital ads in 12 key states in support of him.
Sarah Field, AFP’s vice president of judicial strategy, explained in an interview that their standards for Kennedy's replacement are the same as those for Gorsuch. She would not say who they believe is the best replacement for him beyond the 24 names on the widely distributed list.
“We’ve been consistent in looking at judicial philosophy. We want someone who respects the constitution and who is not going to legislate from the bench,” Field said. “Those were the same standards for the Gorsuch confirmation, and we have the same standards now. We are excited by the list and excited by those on the list.”
She declined to comment about participating in the Trump administration's coalition to back its nominee.
The network has also been involved with advocating for tax reform, repealing parts of the Dodd-Frank Act and cutting back on government spending, among other issues.
Outside groups like the Koch network never play a role in the administration’s choice, according to Leonard Leo, Trump’s judicial advisor, who recently took a leave of absence from the Federalist Society to help the White House with the confirmation process.
“This administration has already been through this process once with the nomination of Gorsuch. They are very familiar with a whole range of different candidates, and this is a process that is run internally by the White House counsel,” Leo said. "They don’t need any outside assistance on that and they wouldn’t ask for it," he added.
He also explained that last time the White House interviewed candidates, the brain trust included Trump’s advisors including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who later resigned from his post.
“There was a committee of people including Vice President Mike Pence, then chief of staff Reince Priebus, White House Counsel Don McGahn and Steve Bannon. They did an interview of all the prospective candidates. They recommended three, and then they picked Gorsuch from that group,” Leo said.
Kennedy, who announced his retirement on Wednesday, was appointed by President Ronald Reagan. While conservative, he is considered a centrist and has been the swing vote on the Supreme Court.
With his July departure looming, conservatives now have the chance to install a jurist who will give them a solid five-vote majority on the high court.
That addition could lead to the repeal of abortion rights, expand protections for gun owners and result in stricter immigration policies.
The leading candidates to replace Kennedy all come from the same conservative cloth as Gorsuch.
The top contenders are reportedly Judge Amy Coney Barrett of Indiana of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, a former law clerk for Kennedy who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Others under consideration include Judge Thomas Hardiman of Pennsylvania, who sits on the 3rd Circuit and was the runner-up last year for the opening left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia that Gorsuch filled.