WASHINGTON — Right-leaning criminal justice advocates say they have the magic issue that can separate Republican presidential candidates from the crowded pack at the GOP debate Thursday night and send them soaring above the Donald Trump-shaped clouds obscuring them from potential voters.
For months, right-leaning criminal justice advocates have been meeting with Republican presidential candidates and pushing them to join the bipartisan effort to reduce the prison population and send fewer nonviolent drug offenders to jail in the first place. At the debate in Cleveland Thursday night, the conservative advocacy world hopes those efforts will pay off and Republicans on the debate stage will take the opportunity to use criminal justice to make a name for themselves.
"A lot of these issues that the candidates are going to be asked about — the Iran nuclear deal and abortion and guns — you know, those are all very, very important issues to be sure, but the answers from the candidates are going to be largely the same," Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a new 501c4 from the bipartisan groups behind the Coalition for Public Safety, told BuzzFeed News. "On criminal justice reform, that's where things could really get interesting."
Harris, a former Republican operative and state GOP official in Kentucky, is on the ground in Cleveland pushing campaigns to focus on criminal justice and reporters to ask more about it. It's the first step in a big new lobbying effort by advocates to urge Republican candidates put criminal justice into their stump speeches and onto their list of promises.
The U.S. Justice Action Network is able to directly engage candidates, urge supporters to pressure politicians and push a specific issue agenda. Thanks to the byzantine political money system, it's not exactly an offshoot of Coalition for Public Safety — an effort funded jointly by progressives like the Center For American Progress and conservative libertarians like Charles Koch — but it shares the same funders, has a similar logo, and has many of the same consultants work for it.
The group plans to directly pressure the Republican field, as well as the Democrats, in the coming months in a number of well-funded and noisey ways. Thursday's high-profile debate, Harris said, offered the perfect time for that engagement to begin.
"It's really our presidential debut," she said. "The presidential campaign is really a new space for this issue."
Harris and other conservative-leaning criminal justice advocates said the issue offers a chance to break out to candidates grouped near the bottom of polls who are trying desperately to shout over Trump.
John Kasich, the governor of Ohio and winner of the last lectern on the primetime Fox News debate stage, was singled out by Harris and other conservative-leaning advocates as a man who could ride criminal justice to higher ground in the Republican presidential field.
"Here we are in Ohio, and John Kasich actually has a great record on criminal justice reform," Harris said. Kasich has "banned the box" in Ohio state hiring and signed a bill into law that gives judges more discretion to sentence low-level drug offenders to something besides prison and allows some drug offenders already serving time to petition for early release.
Kasich's record has been "visionary," Harris said. "He actually said that jailing the mentally ill is a disgrace," she added. "And, you know, you don't hear that a lot from candidates."
Other candidates on the stage have a chance to use criminal justice to make a name for themselves, said advocates. Mark Holden, a top lawyer for the Kochs in Wichita, Kansas and their pointman on criminal justice, said Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — whose presidential campaign has suffered some setbacks of late — is still the leading voice on criminal justice in the Republican field.
"The one that is the best on this issue is Rand Paul. He's been out there for a while on it," he said. But Holden was quick to say he was not endorsing anyone and that advocacy by the powerful Kochs is making its mark up and down the list of candidates.
At a Koch event last weekend in California, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made an impression when he expressed support for efforts to end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders at the federal level, a top agenda item for criminal justice advocates. Holden also praised recent criminal justice rhetoric from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and the state's former governor, Jeb Bush. Kasich also earned some praise.
"He could be really interesting on this issue," Holden said.
Trump, the man of the hour in Cleveland, could also earn some substantive cred with criminal justice talk on the debate stage, said advocates.
"We don't really know what Donald Trump thinks of this," said Matt Haney, policy director at #Cut50, the bipartisan criminal justice reform group headed by Van Jones. "He's said some ugly, painful things in the past, but that was a long time ago. It would be nice to see if his thinking has evolved on this issue."
The debate signals a shift to a higher gear in the already fast-paced Republican presidential race. The well-funded and increasingly vocal criminal justice advocacy movement is intent on playing its part in electing the next president, and cashing in on that when it comes time for new laws to be written and signed. Advocates will be watching to see what candidates do on stage in Cleveland to show their allegiance to the cause.
"For people who are looking to get past the noise and the show of Donald Trump and everything else, criminal justice is a place where they can talk substantively and put forward solutions," Haney said. "A lot to us will be watching closely."