(Reuters) - I was watching CNN’s Anderson Cooper interview the ubiquitous Stormy Daniels lawyer Michael Avenatti last night when a stark advertisement caught my eye. The commercial opened with warm color video of Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley, then cut to shots of President Trump shaking hands with Justice Neil Gorsuch and smiling proudly as the new justice was sworn into office. The accompanying audio celebrated the Trump administration’s conservative makeover of the federal judiciary.
Then things got dark. Literally dark. The sunny shots of smiling Republican men gave way to black and white photos of Democrats accused of obstructing the confirmation of Trump’s judicial nominees in order to preserve the power of liberal judicial extremists who want to deprive Americans of their religious liberty and Second Amendment rights.
But what differentiated this ad from typical partisan fare – and the reason it held my attention – was that more than half of the Democrats it depicted were women. All of the “extremist” judges depicted in the ad are female: U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. And of the 11 Democratic senators shown as the narrator talks about obstructionist gamesmanship, six are women: Elizabeth Warren (shown twice!), Patty Murray, Debbie Stabenow, Dianne Feinstein, Claire McCaskill and Heidi Heitkamp.
I’m all for gender equality – even in political attack ads - but this ad is disproportionate. There are 16 Democratic women in the U.S. Senate, and the commercial depicted six of them as Trump-blocking stonewallers. (McCaskill and Heitkamp, it’s worth pointing out, are in tough reelection campaigns in Republican states.) By contrast, only five of the 33 Democratic men in the Senate were depicted in the ad.
The commercial is the work of the Judicial Crisis Network, a deeply conservative nonprofit that spent millions of dollars advertising against Senate confirmation of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland and millions more advocating for Justice Gorsuch’s confirmation. Like many politically engaged nonprofits, JCN does not disclose its donors but it’s quite well endowed. OpenSecrets.org reported last November that tax records show JCN received $23.5 million in 2016 from another conservative nonprofit.
On Wednesday, I spoke with JCN’s chief counsel and policy director, Carrie Severino, about the ad, which is the latest installment in the group’s ongoing campaign to blame Democrats for stalling Trump’s judicial picks. Severino said the campaign is meant to call attention to delay tactics like insisting on hours of debate before votes on even noncontroversial nominees and refusing to hold voice votes. “It’s pure politics,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘How can we gum up the works, slow walk candidates and run out the clock?’” (Democrats, of course, contend that Republican complaints about stall tactics are pure poppycock; on Tuesday, for instance, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley displayed a poster on the Senate floor that showed Trump’s first 14 nominees to federal appellate courts were confirmed in 125 days, compared to 251 days for Obama’s first 14 circuit court candidates.)
Did Judicial Crisis Network mean to feature an outsized proportion of women as Democratic obstructionists? Severino said no. Three of the four liberal Supreme Court justices are women, she said, so there was no gender bias in showing them. “I apologize to Justice (Stephen) Breyer if we deprived him of his 15 seconds of fame,” Severino said jokingly.
The ad featured Elizabeth Warren because she is a leading Democrat and possible 2020 presidential candidate. Otherwise, Severino said, the selection of women’s photos to depict what she considers Democratic stonewalling is pure coincidence, not subtle messaging about powerful women opposing the president.
“My best guess as to the explanation is that it’s a fluke,” Severino said. “Maybe I need to have that on my radar more as we’re putting these together.” Severino pointed out that JCN is led by a woman, and, in a followup email from a spokeswoman, noted that the group ran advertisements backing Amy Coney Barrett and Joan Larsen, two of President Trump’s judicial appointees. JCN’s ad wasn’t aimed at any particular demographic, Severino told me. “We want to make this issue more salient to all Americans,” she said.
Not everyone is buying Severino’s account. Marge Baker, an executive vice president at the left-leaning nonprofit People for the American Way, told me she thinks JCN deliberately chose to overrepresent women in the ad. “Presenting the face of evil as women senators and women justices, given the track record of the administration (JCN) is defending, is troubling and dishonest,” Baker said. Every Democrat in the Senate, for instance, protested the nomination of Michael Brennan to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because one of Brennan’s home-state senators opposed his nomination. Yet JCN’s ad disproportionately depicted Democratic women as obstructionists, Baker said.
What’s especially galling to Baker is that JCN’s million-dollar ads back an administration that has nominated only 26 women to serve as judges, a nomination rate of 23 percent. (Obama’s nominees were 42 percent female.)
I’m going to take Severino at her word, this time. But I’ll be watching with interest the next time JCN puts out an ad.