KEVIN LEININGER: Supreme Court pick gives Sen. Joe Donnelly a headache pro-Kavanaugh lobbying group is working to resolve

Homeowner John Robins, receives a brochure supporting Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh from Landon Porter, grass roots director for Americans for Prosperity. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
Americans for Prosperity volunteer Brian Thompson greets Brigid Frey, who supports pro-life Supreme Court justices. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
If no one was home, Americans for Prosperity left literature asking residents to call Sen. Joe Donnelly on Brett Cavanaugh's behalf. (Photo by Kevin Leininger of News-Sentinel.com)
Justin Stevens
Joe Donnelly
Kevin Leininger

As a Democratic U.S. senator representing mostly Republican Indiana, the November election poses an especially vexing challenge for Joe Donnelly: Should he follow his party’s lead and try to keep Brett Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court, possibly alienating voters in a state that supported the president who nominated him? Or should Donnelly give President Trump what he wants, likely cementing a conservative majority on the court for years to come?

Representatives of a conservative group took to Fort Wayne’s phones and streets this week working to ensure the latter.

“We want someone (on the court) who will interpret the Constitution as written, not rule from the bench,” Americans for Prosperity State Director Justin Stevens said before teams of employees and volunteers began a lobbying effort intended to flood Donnelly’s office with pro-Kavanaugh calls. Since the statewide effort began in Indianapolis last week, about 84,000 calls and hundreds of home visits have been made.

Stevens insists the campaign is not intended to influence the political makeup of the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim 51-member edge in the 100-member body. Rather, it is intended to shape the court in a way consistent with Americans for Prosperity’s stated goal of spreading freedom, “because it gives everyone the best opportunity to pursue happier, healthier and more successful lives.” The organization was founded in 2004 and has been largely funded by David and Charles Koch. In addition to Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, the group plans similar efforts out of its other Indiana offices in Carmel, Martinsville and Jeffersonville.

Although the current lobbying campaign is led by a handful of permanent staff and some paid temporary employees, Stevens said it is truly a grass-roots effort consisting mostly of volunteers. Still, the effort is decidedly high-tech: Calls and home visits are selected on the basis of voter-registration rolls indicating which residents are politically engaged and therefore most open to influencing outcomes. People contacted by phone can be automatically forwarded to Donnelly’s office, while teams making home visits are guided by hand-held computers identifying which houses to visit and which to pass.

That way, Stevens said, teams won’t waste limited time and resources trying to influence people who don’t know or care about the issues in the first place. The strategy appears sound, if my admittedly limited exposure to it this week is any indication.

Canvassing a southwest-side neighborhood represented on City Council by Republican Jason Arp, the responses from homeowners were both knowledgeable and sympathetic.

Although John Robins admitted he doesn’t know much about Kavanaugh, he believes the Senate should give him a “fair shot” because he supports much of Trump’s agenda. “I’m a union man, and I don’t like NAFTA,” he said, referring to Trump’s campaign to renegotiate trade deals he considers bad for American workers. “Other NATO nations should be paying their fair share and we have to do something about immigration.”

Brigid Frey conceded she’s “not a fan of Donnelly’s,” but will probably call his office on Kavanaugh’s behalf because she considers the nominee a “strong family man” and supports his apparent pro-life philosophy.

For Wade DeSelm, who said he voted for Trump mostly because he didn’t want Hillary Clinton picking justices, the knock on the door was a welcome sound.

“Kavanaugh was as good a pick as Trump could have made. This is why people voted for him; Trump was very transparent (by releasing a list of potential nominees). I like his constitutional focus. Donnelly has to vote for Kavanaugh, if he wants to keep his job,” he predicted.

Despite its efforts, Americans for Prosperity knows success is never a sure bet. Last year its lobbying failed to keep the Legislature from increasing the state’s gasoline tax, and later in the year it couldn’t prevent City Council from increasing income taxes to pay for riverfront development and other improvements.

But if history is any indication, the group may have better luck this time around. Donnelly was one of three Democrats to support Neil Gorsuch’s successful nomination to the court last year and has said he “works for the people of Indiana, and I want them to have a voice in this.”

Right now, according to a new poll by SurveyMonkey and media start-up Axios, Hoosiers prefer Donnelly’s Republican opponent Mike Braun by two percentage points. And with Stevens expecting his organization to make even more than the 350,000 phone calls it logged in support of Gorsuch, those Hoosier voices will almost certainly drown out those of his party’s Beltway leadership. Americans for Prosperity hopes so, anyway.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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