WASHINGTON — Just days before announcing her presidential candidacy, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard took a swipe at her fellow Democrats for “fomenting religious bigotry.”

Among her targets were U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Mazie Hirono.

Harris and Hirono had questioned one of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, Brian Buescher, about whether his affiliation with the Knights of Columbus — a Catholic organization with a history of anti-abortion activism — would infringe on his ability to be impartial.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard greets new council member Heidi Tsuneyoshi during recess.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has been on the offensive about what she perceives as “religious bigotry.”

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Right-wing outrage festered in conservative corners of the internet, but never really came to the fore of the political mainstream.

Gabbard changed all that Jan. 8 when the online news site The Hill published an opinion piece by her that appeared to attack Harris, Hirono and others within her own party for questioning Buescher about his faith.

“We must call this out for what it is — religious bigotry,” Gabbard wrote. “This is true not just when such prejudice is anti-Catholic, but also when it is anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-Hindu, or anti-Protestant, or any other religion.”

It was an extraordinary maneuver for a presidential contender, one that undercut a future primary opponent in Harris as well as a member of her own state’s delegation.

Now, Gabbard’s words are being used by a conservative dark money group that’s spent millions of dollars trying to influence the fight for the future of the U.S. courts.

In a recently released ad from the Judicial Crisis Network titled “Stop the Bullying,” Gabbard’s criticism of her colleagues play a prominent role in the messaging.

The spot opens with a narrator praising President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans for appointing “strong judges who will restore the rule of law” and “apply the Constitution just as it was written.”

The words play over video of Trump shaking hands with Senate Majority Mitch McConnell and conservative Supreme Court justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Then the colors go dim and the narrator takes a darker turn as images of Senate Democrats Dianne Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, Harris and Patrick Leahy flash on screen.

At the center of it all are five words from Gabbard’s op-ed in The Hill — “Fomenting bigotry, fears and suspicions” — with her name and title prominently displayed.

“Some Democrats are taking their obstruction to disgraceful new lows, shamefully bullying nominees, attacking them just because of their faith,” the narrator says.

The Judicial Crisis Network is using Tulsi Gabbard’s words about religious bigotry to attack Senate Democrats.

The Judicial Crisis Network plans to spend $1.5 million on a national ad campaign featuring the video.

In a statement to Civil Beat, Carrie Severino, the chief counsel and policy director of the organization, said her group sided with Gabbard in “flatly rejecting the bullying and anti-religious bigotry of Senate Democrats.”

“We encourage more Democrats to call out their own party members for this disgusting display and join with Republicans in confirming exceedingly qualified judges,” Severino said.

Gabbard declined interview requests for this story. Her congressional office spokeswoman, Lauren McIlvaine, said that Gabbard “clearly stated” in her op-ed that she opposes the nomination of Buescher to the federal court.

“Our office was not consulted, nor do we support this ad or its message,” McIlvaine said.

Playing Into The Right-Wing Narrative

Hirono, meanwhile, says she’s not surprised Gabbard’s words are already being used in attack ads meant to undermine Democrats’ efforts to slow the conservative court-packing.

As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hirono is one of the most prominent opponents of Donald Trump’s judicial nominees, and was front and center during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, which was one of the most contentious in modern history.

Hirono described Gabbard’s criticisms as both “unfortunate” and “off base,” especially when she tried to compare Senate Democrats’ questioning of judicial nominees to religious bigotry.

“I think it was foreseeable that the right-wing would latch on to this,” Hirono said. “These dark money groups like it when Democrats criticize other Democrats. I think they were delighted to come across these comments.”

Senator Mazie Hirono speaks on election night at the Dole Cannery Ballroom.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono has been at the forefront of the fight against President Donald Trump’s efforts to reshape the federal courts.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hirono said the new ad from the Judicial Crisis Network seems to be setting the stage for the next political throw down over a Supreme Court nominee, one that could be as contentious, if not more so, than the fight over Kavanaugh.

The Hawaii senator said she believes that Amy Coney Barrett, an federal appeals court judge who’s featured in the ad, is next in line should an opening arise on the high court in the next two years of Trump’s presidency.

During her 2017 confirmation hearing for the appeals court post, Democrats grilled Barrett about her Catholic faith and whether she could separate her religious views from her job as a judge.

The Notre Dame law professor had belonged to pro-life religious groups that opposed abortion, and her views were particularly concerning to those worried about the future of Roe v. Wade.

Hirono says it’s clear to her that conservative organizations, such as The Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation, want to see someone like Barrett on the court so that the right can continue to “weaponize religion” as a means to challenge certain rights.

‘Out In Front Of The Story’

Gabbard’s claims of religious bigotry have become a prominent part of her nascent presidential campaign, especially as more people begin probing her past.

The Hawaii representative is the first Hindu elected to Congress, and questions have already been raised about her ties to right-wing Hindu nationalists who supported her rise to Congress as well as her affinity for Narendra Modi, India’s strongman prime minister.

Her previously held socially conservative views — in which she railed against same-sex marriage and advocated for conversion therapy for gays — have also garnered national attention.

And her relationship with Chris Butler, the leader of a fringe sect of Hare Krishna based in Kailua called the Science of Identity Foundation, has been the subject of renewed scrutiny.

Butler played a role in Gabbard’s upbringing while her parents were devout followers of his teachings. The congresswoman has referred to Butler as the equivalent of her spiritual master, while others have likened his organization to a cult.

But instead of talking about her past, Gabbard has gone on the offensive, accusing those who question her of “fomenting bigotry” or at least being complicit in its proliferation.

In addition to her op-ed in The Hill, Gabbard published a piece on the Religion News Service website over the weekend entitled “Religious Bigotry Is Un-American.”

The commentary — which echoed the points from her op-ed in The Hill — appeared to be in response to a Jan. 5 article in The Intercept that detailed her campaign’s financial ties to Hindu nationalists.

Gabbard’s campaign shared the post with its supporters via email and then linked to a video of her in New Hampshire last fall where she delivered a near identical message to a roomful of voters.

That particular speech was in response to an audience’s member’s questions about Butler.

Todd Belt, a professor at George Washington University and director of the school’s political management program, said it’s pretty clear what Gabbard is doing.

He’s a former professor at the University of Hawaii Hilo and has a good understanding of Gabbard’s past. Now that she’s running for president, he said, she’s going to have to answer some tough questions that might be old news for those living on the islands.

“She’s trying to get out in front of the story,” he said. “This is sometimes called the inoculation technique.”

He said it could also be part of Gabbard’s strategy to distance herself from the Democratic establishment, something she’s done well in recent years, whether it was backing Bernie Sanders in 2016 or visiting with Trump after the election.

Whether it will work is another question. Belt said there’s a way to talk about religious freedom that doesn’t involve calling other people in your party bigots.

“Instead of calling people out and making enemies in the party, a better strategy would be to try to take that JFK mantle to discuss how religious freedom is central to what it means to be a liberal Democrat,” Belt said.  “That’s a more productive way to deal with it.”

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