GOP, Dems Ramp Up Midterm Messaging on Kavanaugh
If all goes according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's plan, Judge Brett Kavanaugh will be confirmed as the next Supreme Court justice and in place for the start of the October session. Such a timeline will likely put the critical vote front and center just weeks from Election Day and up the ante for several red-state Democrats fighting to retain their U.S. Senate seats.
Already, Republican candidates running against the chamber’s most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year have made the nomination part of their pitch to mobilize voters.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, a Yale law graduate who clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts, released his first television ad Monday, arguing that "our way of life is as risk" and that "the eyes of the nation" are on his state, which Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points. "We decide which values control the Senate, and the Supreme Court," Hawley says in the ad. "Claire McCaskill wants liberals in charge. That’s how she votes. That’s not Missouri’s way, and it won’t be my way."
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is running against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, released a memo highlighting the incumbent's support for Obamacare and abortion rights, key issues that Democrats argue are at stake with this new court pick. Morrisey "will use this opportunity to remind voters about his West Virginia conservative values, strong record defending the Constitution, and his staunch support for President Trump’s conservative judicial picks," said campaign communications director Nathan Brand.
Manchin was one of three Democrats who voted last year with Republicans to confirm Trump's first Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. Others include North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp and Indiana's Joe Donnelly, who are also up for re-election in the fall. But since Kavanaugh would swing the balance of the court for a many years to come, lawmakers have additional considerations this time around. The calculus is extraordinarily tricky for vulnerable Democrats, who are weighing the Trump resistance among the party base along with the political reality of their conservative-leaning states.
Several red-state Democrats declined invitations to the White House Monday for the unveiling of the nominee, arguing that they prefer to meet him one on one. While many Democrats, including potential 2020 presidential contenders, rushed to oppose Kavanaugh outright, moderate Democrats plan to take their time. In statements, Heitkamp and Donnelly didn't provide any clues about where they stand on the nomination, saying they take their role to provide the president with advice and consent seriously. Manchin, however, identified areas to which he will be paying close attention.
"The Supreme Court will ultimately decide if nearly 800,000 West Virginians with pre-existing conditions will lose their healthcare," he said. "This decision will directly impact almost 40% of my state, so I’m very interested in his position on protecting West Virginians with pre-existing conditions."
Indeed, preserving the Affordable Care Act is a top issue animating the Democratic base. Democratic groups aiming to pressure moderate party members and a few pro-choice Republicans have been pointing to Obamacare and the future of abortion rights as key battle lines. The group Demand Justice released an ad Monday night along those lines; it will run in Maine and Alaska, where Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, respectively, are considered key swing votes. "Call your senators and tell them to oppose Trump's extreme nominee," the narrator says in the spot.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer highlighted health care and abortion in his opposition, pledging to oppose Kavanaugh "with everything I have, and I hope a bipartisan majority will do the same. The stakes are simply too high for anything less."
In an interview with “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Democratic Whip Dick Durbin urged his colleagues to think about the court beyond the scope of the midterms. "It's about more than the next election. It's about what country the United States of America is going to chart as its course in the future on this Supreme Court," he said. “I think each and every one of them take that seriously, that personally."
Meanwhile, conservatives are ramping up pressure of their own. The Judicial Crisis Network announced a $1.4 million ad buy in Alabama, Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia, red states represented by Democratic senators. The group pledged $10 million to support Neil Gorsuch last year, and pledged $7 million in the fight against then-President Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland. "Judge Kavanaugh is a home run," said the group's policy director, Carrie Severino. "Like Gorsuch, Judge Kavanaugh is brilliant, fair and independent, committed to following the law and honoring the Constitution."
Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group aligned with the Koch brothers, committed to a seven-figure investment in advertising and grassroots engagement in support of Trump's pick. “President Trump promised to nominate a Supreme Court Justice of the highest caliber – one who would interpret the law as written, defend the Constitution, and not legislate from the bench. In nominating Judge Kavanaugh, he has kept that promise," said AFP Vice President of Judicial Strategy Sarah Field. "Democrats and Republicans should unite in bipartisan support behind his confirmation.”
And other Republican Senate challengers rushed to announce their support of Kavanaugh. "I am sure Senator Donnelly will eventually say that he will vote for him, because it is an election year," said Indiana U.S. Senate candidate Mike Braun, a businessman. "But I can immediately say without hesitation that I would support this nomination and I hope the Senate moves quickly to confirm the President’s choice.”
The opportunity to shape the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court and to fill federal judgeships across the country has been an organizing principle for conservative voters. The vacancy created by the death of Antonin Scalia in 2016 drove Republican voters to coalesce around their then-presidential nominee, Trump. In 2018, party strategists say the president's second court appointment and recent favorable decisions by the court could work to the GOP's favor in November by enthusing base voters. But since the Kennedy seat could be filled by Election Day, it's unclear whether Republican voters will turn out to simply say "thank you" to the president and his party.