Ascent of a Woman
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Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on the American Prospect as "The Next Phyllis Schlafly."
With the attention of the political world now turning to the 2006 midterm elections, the GOP is already preparing one facet of their strategy: They're hoping to use the looming battles over judicial nominations to rile up their evangelical base and to paint Democrats as liberal obstructionists determined to block President George W. Bush's choices at any cost.
Here's a name you'll hear more and more when that strategy kicks into high gear: Kay Daly. A blond, 38-year-old Virginia woman who describes herself, with disingenuous self-deprecation, as a "stay-at-home mom," Daly heads a four-year-old conservative group called Coalition for a Fair Judiciary. The organization's goal is to boost judicial candidates she deems worthy, which coincide rather overwhelmingly with the ones Bush deems worthy. During Bush's first term, her dogged advocacy for the president's judicial picks largely passed under the radar of the biggest mainstream media outlets, but her zeal won applause from the conservative establishment. American Conservative Union President David Keene recently described her as "the next Phyllis Schlafly."
Now Daly is poised to rise ever higher in the conservative firmament. While GOP strategists see upcoming judicial battles as key to expanding their electoral majority, hardcore conservatives see these struggles in stark ideological terms – particularly the inevitable fights over nominations to the Supreme Court. Flush from election day gains, these activists see the courts as unconquered territory: the last redoubt of the left, the final frontier in their Holy War on liberalism. Making headway on that front is now mission No. 1 among right-wingers, and Daly's activities will be central to their hopes for success.
Daly is already sounding the conservatives' post-election battle cry – and, in the process, she's offering an early glimpse of the GOP's plan to use judicial issues as a wedge in the run-up to the midterms. Her pitch is based on a standard-issue set of distortions and coded-references to East and West Coast elites: Democratic senators who oppose Bush's nominations are merely doing the bidding of liberal groups, like People for the American Way, who are funded by a shadowy consortium of trial lawyers, unions, and Hollywood celebrities. This alliance of Dems and liberal organizations, well aware that they're getting clobbered in the electoral arena, are using the courts to block GOP advances on moral issues like abortion and gay rights. What's more, Daly warns, Democrats continue doing the bidding of these groups at their peril.
This line may not be wholly original, but Daly is fast becoming its most vocal proponent in the mainstream media – particularly now that it's become clear that judicial issues helped the GOP make gains on election day. On Nov. 4 – barely 24 hours after Bush's victory and former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle's defeat – CNBC's Capital Report invited her on the show to offer the right's interpretation of the Democratic debacle. Daly immediately blamed Daschle's defeat on his "obstruction" of Bush's judicial picks. His loss, she said, was "a warning to those who are out there who are following in Senator Daschle's footsteps." She added a vaguely menacing coda: "I think there are going to be a lot of nervous senators who are up in 2006."
What enables Daly to issue such Sopranos-esque refrains? Does she command a mob of grassroots volunteers, ready to spring into action the moment she fingers an offending senator? Or is she a one-woman operation, a political operative who, simply by getting gullible reporters to quote her as president of a formidable-sounding "coalition," creates an illusion of grassroots support for Bush's nominees?
In interviews and on the coalition's Web site, www.fairjudiciary.com, Daly describes the group as comprising "more than 75 grassroots organizations dedicated to supporting qualified, capable federal judicial nominees." In an e-mail, Daly told me that the groups include Americans for Tax Reform, the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition, and a number of others. Asked to name the group's top dozen donors, she said the organization hadn't focused on fundraising in the past but hoped to raise between $500,000 and $1 million in the coming year, mainly from small donors.
Ms. Daly also concedes that her group's staff now consists of "just me." And as is true with so many other "grassroots" groups on the right, it's impossible to know just how much clout the "coalition" she presides over actually wields.
The right has done something incredibly smart in recent years: They've recognized that by merely making a group sound powerful, they can eventually make it become powerful. That's why these organizations lend their name to Daly's coalition: It allows her to describe herself as the head of an impressive-sounding coalition of "75 groups." That designation enables her to get quoted in mainstream media outlets (she's graced CNN, The Washington Post, The Hill, and many others, often described exactly as she describes herself); that, in turn, inflates the organization's importance to the point at which Democratic senators in red-hued districts quake at the sound of her voice. Or, at least, such is the goal. What the right understands better than the left is that power flows from the mere perception of power.
After all, Daly doesn't appear to have any particular qualifications to speak as an expert on legal affairs. She is not a lawyer; she is a political consultant with an extensive background in marketing. She's worked a variety of corporate communications jobs, most recently with the Signature Agency, a Raleigh-based firm that develops marketing strategies for Fortune 500 companies.
Daly is at bottom a Republican operative. She has held a range of communications and policy positions for GOPers, like former Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and former Rep. Fred Heineman of North Carolina. In the mid-1990s, Daly married Jack Daly, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor. The Dalys represent a picture-perfect Republican union – their second son's middle name is "Reagan" – and are fierce partisan warriors who are not afraid to get their hands dirty on behalf of client or party. Jack Daly threw waffles at candidate Bill Clinton during a campaign stop in Winston-Salem in 1992. And last spring, in the midst of a nasty Republican congressional primary in North Carolina, the Dalys were accused of sending out fictitious e-mails to Christian voters about a rival of Kay Daly's candidate, in which a character named "Pastor Randy" falsely alluded to a variety of lurid criminal charges against the rival. Kay Daly has denied involvement.
Kay Daly's star began rising on judicial issues just after the 2000 election, when she orchestrated a communications team for what she called "an ad hoc coalition of groups" (sound familiar?) that lobbied for the confirmation of Attorney General John Ashcroft. After he was confirmed, Daly organized that group into a 501(c)4 and dubbed it the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary.
Daly's stock soared in 2003, when her group played a murky role in the bruising fight over Manuel Miranda, a once-obscure GOP Senate staffer who became a right-wing folk hero after he mysteriously obtained confidential Democratic strategy memos about judicial affairs. Just after excerpts of the memos were leaked to the media, Daly's Web site was among the first to post them in their entirety, leading liberal groups to allege that she was acting in cahoots with Miranda. That charge, of course, only made Daly more popular on the right.
The explosive controversy surrounding the scandal carried an important lesson for Daly and other conservatives. It showed that the battles over judicial nominations – and the perception on the right that Dems were colluding with left-wing interest groups to block GOP judge picks – could play neatly into a broader GOP electoral strategy by inflaming the party's evangelical base. For her part, Daly was very explicit about hewing to that strategy. In late 2003, she implemented an electoral pledge, asking Democratic Senate candidates in the coming 2004 elections if they would support a straight, filibuster-less "up or down" vote on the president's nominees. Those who didn't, she remarked cheerfully at the time, would be "labeled enemies of the constitution."
Daly is best understood as a marketing specialist who is hawking a singular product: outrage over "liberals" who won't simply rubber-stamp whatever judicial nominee Bush puts forth. Her customer base is comprised of right-wing Christians who readily, indeed eagerly, lap up her pitch. And recent history shows that the strategy works – both for Daly's reputation on the right and for the GOP at large (which enjoyed pumped-up evangelical turnout on Nov. 2, thanks in part to the judicial wars of the last few years).
The strategy, of course, will only grow more pronounced as the judicial battles heat up in anticipation of 2006. Just look at a fundraising appeal she e-mailed to supporters just before election day: "Even after this election ... Supreme Court vacancies loom ominously in the not-do-distant future. ... Please give your most generous contribution so that we can continue to take on the well-funded forces on the Left, educate the public in states with critical Senate races and go into the Supreme Court battle armed (not with spitballs, as Senator Zell Miller so aptly quipped) with a howitzer of information, action items and pro-active communications tools." The checks, no doubt, have already started flowing.
Greg Sargent is a contributing editor at New York magazine.
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