It will take until November to know for sure. But signs are growing that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell miscalculated politically in deciding so quickly that Republicans should prevent consideration of President Barack Obama’s latest Supreme Court nominee.
At a time when embattled GOP Senate candidates already face a potential electoral burden from the most likely Republican presidential nominees, McConnell’s decision is further threatening the party’s Senate majority and the job McConnell sought for years to gain.
The issue seems certain to play a role in a dozen states – most currently represented by Republican senators – that will determine if Democrats can regain the Senate control they lost in 2014.
Already, some of the most endangered Republicans have said they either would meet with Judge Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia, or, even worse for McConnell, would favor hearings and a Senate vote.
Interestingly, doubts about McConnell’s strategy are not just coming from more moderate Republicans from politically competitive states. Last week, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, a certifiable conservative, told a town meeting back home he favored hearings, though he’d likely oppose Garland.
“I would rather have you (his constituents) complaining to me that I voted wrong on nominating somebody than saying I’m not doing my job,” Moran said in Cimarron, Kansas, according to a report in the Garden City Telegram. Under pressure from conservatives threatening a primary challenge, he then backtracked, saying he knew enough about Garland to know he’d oppose him without hearings.
Meanwhile, The Des Moines Register reported that Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, encountered critical questions at town hall meetings in Iowa’s most conservative areas over his refusal to hold hearings on Garland. The paper accused the veteran Republican editorially of “pure partisanship – and simple stubbornness.”
So far, neither Grassley nor McConnell has weakened, though Grassley agreed to meet the judge for breakfast to explain why there would be no hearings.
Meanwhile, both sides are ratcheting up political pressure on the GOP leadership and vulnerable Republican senators.
A pro-Garland campaign organized by the White House and its allies has included polls in key lawmakers’ states showing the public favors both hearings and the judge’s confirmation.
Conservative groups have countered them by accusing GOP senators agreeing to meet with Garland of being RINOs (Republicans in name only), warning Garland would be a decisive liberal vote and backing McConnell’s decision to delay action until a new president is elected.
Moran’s seat will almost certainly remain Republican. The real election focus is on five states with vulnerable Republican freshman senators, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and on the open seat being vacated by Florida’s Marco Rubio.
Democrats need to gain four seats for a 50-50 tie that would enable them to control the Senate if they retain the presidency, meaning a Democratic vice president could break Senate ties.
So it was hardly surprising that Kirk, considered the most vulnerable GOP incumbent, was the first Republican to meet with Garland, and that Ayotte, Johnson, Toomey and Portman also said they would meet Obama’s nominee. But so far, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is the only GOP lawmaker favoring the full confirmation process.
McConnell’s tactic was widely seen as gambling on election of a Republican president in November while avoiding the wrath of his party’s right wing.
But he may also have figured that, with the right nominee, the White House could win over the four Republicans it would need, if all 44 Democrats and two independents stand firmly behind its nominee. Obama followed that script by picking Garland, a highly regarded judge with liberal views but a moderate, collaborative image.
Moran’s reversal indicates McConnell will likely be able to block action on Garland, at least until the election. But some Republicans have indicated that, if the GOP loses its bid to take the White House, the party might favor approving him then as more centrist than anyone Hillary Clinton would name.
His confirmation chances might even increase if some embattled GOP senators lose their seats, thanks in part to this issue. So Obama’s strategy may yet give the Supreme Court its first liberal majority in nearly half a century.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.