Arkansas Ads Take Up Alito Confirmation Battle

Ads supporting and opposing Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito aim at a small target audience: African American voters in Arkansas. As confirmation hearings near, both sides seek influence beyond the Senate vote.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

A new radio ad opposing Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito debuted today and it's aimed at a finely targeted audience, African-American voters in Arkansas. The newest Alito ads, pro and con, don't offer much in the way of enlightenment about what sort of Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito would be, but as NPR's Libby Lewis reports, they do reflect the new world of Supreme Court nomination battles.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

Here's one ad some Arkansas radio listeners woke up to today.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Unidentified Man: The Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina left thousands of our people behind and suffering. Now Bush has made a decision that could leave us all behind.

Unidentified Woman: Bush has named Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, and it's a big problem. The Supreme Court is where we've won some of our most important victories. But with Alito, we could lose our gains on civil rights, voting rights, affirmative action and job discrimination.

LEWIS: And here's another one with the Reverend Bill Owens of Memphis, Tennessee. Owens tells listeners Samuel Alito stands for religious liberty.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Reverend BILL OWENS: There are those who want to drive any religious expression out of the public square. You know who they are, the folks who sue towns for putting up nativity scenes and menorahs, who tell little girls in the first grade that they can't draw pictures of our Savior, Jesus Christ, for class projects. Now these extremist groups want our senators to vote against Judge Alito for the United States Supreme Court.

LEWIS: Alito's confirmation hearings begin Monday here in Washington, so why are advocates on both sides pumping thousands of dollars now into ads to reach black voters in Arkansas? Well, ask Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor. He's one of the targets along with fellow senator, Blanche Lincoln.

Senator MARK PRYOR (Democrat, Arkansas): For whatever reason, whenever these controversial judges come up I get a lot of attention.

LEWIS: Here's one reason: Pryor and Lincoln are both moderate Democrats in a state where President Bush received 54 percent of the vote in the 2004 election. In other words, they're blue in a red state. To reach them, interest groups on both sides of the Alito nomination are using a new tool familiar in national political campaigns, microtargeting. Gary Mark(ph) says the strategy is the same as going after NASCAR dads in the presidential race. He heads the conservative group that sponsored the ad with Reverend Bill Owens.

Mr. GARY MARK: We think African-Americans in Arkansas have a strong, powerful voice with both the senators in that state, and we want to make sure that we tell them a strong, positive message about Judge Alito.

LEWIS: Political scientist Susan MacManus says what's going on here has less to do with Alito as a judge than with the ideological battle going on in America.

Ms. SUSAN MacMANUS (Political Scientist): In these Arkansas ads, you see the conservative side trying to wedge a little bit and pull a little bit of the African-American vote to their side, which is pro-Alito, on the basis of religion. But the liberal side is trying to hold onto that African-American vote and keep the other side from wedging it away from them. And what's the issue? It's the traditional civil rights issues: voting rights, affirmative action, civil liberties.

LEWIS: So is Senator Mark Pryor feeling the pressure now?

Sen. PRYOR: Well, you know, it's just--you just expect it. On a Supreme Court nomination, you're going to get pressure on both sides and you just have to really weigh the true facts.

LEWIS: Pryor says he'll listen to those voters who call him, and he says he'll just pray for the best and hope he makes the right decision.

Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington.

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