Trump Ballot Removals Reflect Efforts of Liberal-Funded Groups

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(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump’s removal from primary ballots in Colorado and Maine marked a win for two activist groups funded largely by liberal donors that have worked methodically to transform a scholarly thought experiment about the 14th Amendment into a real-world legal strategy.

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Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, and another group, Free Speech for People, have been catalysts for the years-long campaign to boot Trump from the presidential ballot using a provision that bans those who “engaged in insurrection” from holding office.

They raised millions of dollars from individual donors and liberal philanthropists, including George Soros and Craig Newmark, helping power an effort that will decisively shape how the 2024 election unfolds and potentially prompt a constitutional crisis.

While now pushing to bar Trump from ballots elsewhere in the country, including Illinois and Massachusetts, the groups are gearing up for a fight over the Colorado case at the US Supreme Court, which agreed on Friday to review it on an expedited basis with arguments on Feb. 8.

Read more: Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Trump Colorado Ballot Appeal

In his appeal to the Supreme Court this week, Trump argued he didn’t take part in an insurrection by trying to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, saying the clause doesn’t apply to the US president.

“The game plan is to vindicate our clients’ rights in the Supreme Court and to win,” said Donald Sherman, a lawyer with CREW, the ethics group based in Washington that brought the Colorado lawsuit.

Separate Campaigns

CREW, which recruited the lawyers and plaintiffs in the Colorado case, has brought several legal challenges arguing the Capitol siege on Jan. 6, 2021 was an “insurrection” as defined by the US constitution’s 14th Amendment. Their challenges have gotten further than any others brought under that legal theory.

The organization kicked off its work in this area in 2022 when it brought a lawsuit to remove a local official who participated in the Jan. 6 riots. When the judge disqualified the person from office, CREW began working on similar litigation against Trump, Sherman said.

CREW, which was founded in 2003 as a liberal counterweight to conservative watchdog groups, reported revenue of nearly $6.4 million in 2022.

Free Speech for People, a group based in Massachusetts that was founded to fight the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, launched a separate campaign in 2021 to bar Trump from office. The organization, which reported its largest-ever annual revenue of over $3.7 million in 2022, has brought legal challenges in states including Oregon, Minnesota and Michigan to remove Trump from the ballot based on Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, which includes the insurrection clause.

Though the cases in Minnesota and Michigan were thrown out on procedural grounds, the group is continuing to file legal challenges as recently as this week in Illinois and Massachusetts.

Read more: The 14th Amendment Challenge to Trump, Explained

“We have to ensure that we are a country of laws, governed by laws, not by raw power,” said John Bonifaz, co-founder of Free Speech for People.

CREW and Free Speech for People say they support one another’s efforts, but they have not coordinated their strategy and there’s some tension between them over the best approach to the litigation. While Free Speech for People pursues its own legal challenges, CREW said it is focused on the impending Supreme Court fight over its Colorado case.

Sherman of CREW noted that his group submitted amicus briefs on specific constitutional legal questions in Free Speech for People’s cases, saying, “We have done our level best to help everyone that has brought a credible case to enforce Section 3 against the former president.”

Colorado Case

CREW’s Colorado challenge was carefully orchestrated. The group tapped Mario Nicolais, one of Colorado’s leading Republican election lawyers, and Martha Tierney, a leading Democratic election lawyer in the state, to represent the plaintiffs. They also brought in lawyers from Olson Rimsley, a firm that includes the former solicitor general of Colorado.

Together, the team of lawyers identified who they thought would be the strongest plaintiffs possible: Republicans and unaffiliated voters. Nicholas asked his friend, Krista Kafer, a Denver columnist and lifelong Republican, to join.

“I know some Republicans are really critical that I was willing to work with a group that is left-leaning, but this is the way I think people should work together on things that matter to them,” Kafer said.

Materials that CREW compiled for the Colorado case played a central role in the decision by Maine’s secretary of state last week to remove Trump from the state’s primary ballot. Both CREW and Free Speech for People consulted with the team of lawyers and voters in Maine about their efforts.

Read more: Trump Sues Maine Official Who Disqualified Him From Ballot

There are many other legal challenges pending across the country seeking to remove Trump from the ballot, including dozens from GOP presidential hopeful John Anthony Castro. Most of those are unlikely to succeed.

Chaos Concerns

Even though both groups have received funding from liberal donors, they say they’re nonpartisan and don’t advocate for either political party. That positioning is important given that both groups are tax-exempt nonprofits, which are not allowed to engage in political campaigning.

Free Speech for People last year received funding from Newmark, the billionaire businessman and Craigslist founder who often gives to left-of-center causes; Tides Foundation, a left-leaning donor-advised fund; and Arkay Foundation, which gives to environmentalist and democratic causes.

CREW has received millions from the Foundation to Promote Open Society, which is funded by Soros, the liberal philanthropist; the Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, a major funder of left-leaning causes; and the Marisla Foundation, which is run by the granddaughter of Getty Oil Company founder Jean Paul Getty.

Sherman acknowledges that critics see potential for his group’s efforts — and the court fights they have set off — to create turmoil.

“People have raised the concern about chaos in the election,” said Sherman. “But if Trump loses and there’s chaos as a result, it would only come from Donald Trump’s decisions.”

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