WASHINGTON -- Democratic senators from six red states returned home over the weekend for the Thanksgiving recess to confront television ads connecting critics of Judge Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court with left-wing special interests. A simultaneous message intended ultimately to reach 10 million Americans made this same point.
The counterattack on Alito's behalf was triggered by the new TV advertisement of the liberal coalition opposing Alito's confirmation by the Senate. The ad claimed Alito, as a federal appellate judge, "even voted to approve the strip search of a 10-year-old girl." This distorts a case where a suspected drug dealer's daughter was searched, visibly not manually, by a female police officer in the presence of the child's mother. Alito's defenders make the legitimate argument that the assault against him ends up as a defense of drug dealers.
Red state Democratic senators, especially those up for re-election next year, face a dilemma in deciding how to vote on confirmation. The liberal pressure groups orchestrating the attack on Alito are central to the political health of the Democratic Party. But identification with them could be fatal in closely contested Senate races.
Alito clearly would mean a shift to the right when compared with the justice he would replace, Sandra Day O'Connor. Soft-spoken, modest and from an immigrant family, Alito lacked obvious flaws. Just as in an election campaign, the opposition research experts dug for dirt about the nominee.
They thought they hit pay dirt in Doe v. Groody, a 2004 case. But Alito's dissent on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals merely affirmed the right of Pennsylvania police to exceed the scope of a warrant to search all the occupants of a home to prevent "the removal, concealment or destruction" of drugs. While avowing "a visceral dislike" for searching the young, he called it "a sad fact that drug dealers sometimes use children to carry out their business and to avoid prosecution."
Alito's opinion would not seem to justify rejecting a Supreme Court nominee, and his defenders want to turn the debate to the nature of the opposition. Sponsoring the strip-search ad were People for the American Way, the Alliance for Justice, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The conservative Committee for Justice's TV ad contends that "liberal groups led by People for the American Way" oppose Alito to "take God out of the Pledge Allegiance" and "redefine traditional marriage."
This pro-Alito ad has begun playing in Arkansas, Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia. Identifying opposition to Alito with left-wing special interests is particularly unwelcome by Democratic senators up for re-election next year: Ben Nelson (Neb.), Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Robert Byrd (W.Va.). It might also trouble freshman Sen. Ken Salazar, who was elected in Colorado last year while promising not to filibuster judges, but who now says he has serious concerns with Alito.
At the same time that the TV ad appeared, the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network last Thursday sent a memo to 1,500 local and state political leaders belonging to 70 organizations. They are capable of distributing it via e-mail to 10 million people. The memo continued the assault on sponsorship of the strip-search ad by "a coalition of far-left groups led by People for the American Way and Alliance for Justice."
While revealing the true nature of Doe v. Groody, the memo says that "the liberals contend that children cannot be searched under the Constitution. This would amount to a 'get out of jail free' card for drug dealers who use young children to stash drugs." The Law Enforcement Alliance of America last week declared that "these shameless attacks on law enforcement officers and Judge Alito would have young children used as drug mules."
Red state Democratic senators have to consider consequences of collaboration by their leaders with architects of the assault on Alito. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid met privately Thursday with Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a sponsor of the strip-search ad, to plot strategy against Alito that may not be popular with all members of Reid's caucus.