Obama Advocacy Group Fails to Move Supreme Court Nomination

Organizing for Action’s phone banking had little impact on Garland’s Senate outlook

Chief Judge Merrick Garland / AP
April 28, 2016

Merrick Garland is no closer to confirmation as the next Supreme Court justice than he was at the beginning of April despite a sustained campaign by President Obama’s personal advocacy group financed by some of the country’s top Democratic donors.

Organizing for Action has brought its eight-figure budget to bear on Merrick’s behalf, holding rallies, buying digital ads, and manning the phones to pressure Republicans into proceeding with his nomination to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat.

One Senate Republican’s office reported getting hundreds of phone calls per day supporting Garland’s confirmation in the first two weeks of April, though sources say the calls have mostly stopped since then.

OFA has little to show for its efforts beyond a few meetings between Garland and a handful of Republican senators, most of whom said they still opposed moving on his nomination.

"As far as impact goes it was equivalent to a mouse jumping on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Didn’t move the needle at all, and now the calls have stopped," said the Republican office’s chief of staff, who asked that he and his employer remain anonymous.

Inaction by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) may again prevent OFA from advancing the president’s top priorities in Congress.

OFA’s Katie Hogan, who was recently promoted to executive director, did not respond to a request for comment on its work.

Organized as a 501(c)(4) "dark money" nonprofit in 2013 and financed by the deep-pocketed donors of the Democracy Alliance, OFA was supposed to channel the president’s formidable campaign apparatus into a permanent lobby for his policy agenda.

Like Garland’s nomination, most of the group’s top priorities—issues such as immigration, gun control, global warming, and the minimum wage—have enjoyed little to no success in Congress.

To the extent that OFA’s has won any policy victories, they have mostly been through unilateral actions by the president, such as executive orders on gun control and immigration and an international climate deal that has not received congressional backing.

The group’s inability to effectively pressure a Republican-led Congress on major issues relegates it mostly to a communications role. Its activists are frequently enlisted to fight for various Obama policies, but their work produces more rhetorical than legislative support.

That is a departure from the group’s mission. When the Democracy Alliance incorporated OFA into its portfolio of liberal groups in 2014, it stressed the group’s ability "to build pressure to overcome political intransigence."

"Its efforts have … successfully secured the support of several Members of Congress on immigration reform and [firearm] background checks," DA wrote in briefing materials for its donors. Neither of those issues has received congressional approval in the two years since.

DA partners continue to provide significant financing for the group. Its largest 2015 donor, DA partner and OFA board member Philip Munger, gave more than $2 million last year and more than $250,000 in 2014. Amy Goldman-Fowler, another Alliance donor and a member of OFA’s advisory board, gave $500,000 in 2014.

Even with those sizable donations, OFA finances took a hit in 2014. According to its most recent filing with the Internal Revenue Service, the group raised $14.3 million that year, compared to $26 million in 2013. With nearly $18 million in expenses in 2014, the group ran up a seven-figure deficit.

Its lackluster fundraising came despite contracts with at least ten fundraising firms. In its IRS filing, it reported paying those firms more than $1.5 million to raise about $318,000 for the group, though it noted that it had not kept track of the exact sums raised by each of the firms.

OFA also contracts with the Messina Group, a consulting firm owned by Jim Messina, the manager of Obama’s 2012 campaign and OFA’s cofounder. Messina, who now chairs OFA’s board, did not draw a salary from the group that year, but his firm received $135,000 for consulting services and another $48,000 for leasing office space to OFA.

The group listed 11 salaried staffers on its 2014 IRS filing. All made six figures, though the group reported paying its female employees just 74 cents for every dollar it paid its male employees.