The fight over Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination is turning into a proxy war over the looming November election.
With Barrett’s nomination on a glide path, senators in both parties are instead using the chamber’s debate to make their case to voters in the final weeks of the Nov. 3 election, where both control of the White House and the Senate majority are up for grabs.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — while acknowledging that he believes Democrats have a “good chance” of winning the White House — predicted that the Supreme Court fight would influence voters when they cast their ballots.
“I think the public will go into the voting booth. And they’ll say, ‘Okay I’ve seen the kind of judges Democrats will nominate. I’ve seen the kind of judges Republicans will nominate,’ and that will be important to people,” Graham said.
Both sides are predicting the Supreme Court fight will pay political dividends in an already volatile election. Democrat believe the potential implications for health care give them a potent political force and Republicans are hoping for a redux of 2018, when several Democratic senators who opposed then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh lost.
Republicans are tying themselves closely to Barrett, believing the Supreme Court energizes their voters and could shore up support for GOP, or Republican-leaning, voters that might have grown exhausted by Trump.
“What’s really going to help the Senate races I think is putting the Supreme Court justice front and center,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a recent interview with Fox News. “Every single challenger to every one of my incumbents is opposed to this nominee, every one of them.”
Republicans find themselves playing defense in several states where their incumbents are up for reelection, and GOP senators privately say they would rather talk about the courts than Trump’s tweet-of-the-day or the ongoing coronavirus health pandemic.
As he and Democratic nominee Amy McGrath fielded several questions during a debate this week about Washington’s response to the coronavirus, McConnell noted that while they could spend the whole debate talking about the coronavirus “there are some other issues going on here, like a new Supreme Court justice.”
And several Republicans in tough races quickly tied themselves to Barrett.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who has trailed Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham in several polls, wrapped up his questioning of Barrett by telling her that “I look forward to supporting your nomination.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), another member of the committee who like Tillis is in a competitive race in November, praised Barrett for “setting such a great example for women of all different thought processes.”
A New York Times poll released on Thursday noted that Graham, who is fighting for his political life in South Carolina, got a bump over the course of the four days of the committee hearings on Barrett’s nomination.
Graham is facing a tougher-than-expected political battle as he runs for a fourth term in the Senate. Asked if he thought confirming Barrett was worth losing his seat, Graham laughed.
“I think that is not even a remote consideration for me. Trust me, I know South Carolina. Amy [Coney] Barrett fits South Carolina pretty good,” he said.
Republicans used the hearing to try to go on offense in two areas: Asking if Democrats will expand the Supreme Court if they win the White House and the majority, and running attacks on Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a member of the committee and the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
“We welcome her presence in the United States Senate. We welcome her presence on the Judiciary Committee. She’s missed I think something like 40 straight Judiciary Committee votes,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), in one of several swipes from Republican members at Harris over the week.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) added during the hours-long Q&A of Barrett that “we have seen repeatedly Joe Biden and Kamala Harris refuse to answer whether they would pack the court.”
Democrats have tried to tamp down talk of whether they would expand the Supreme Court if they win back both the Senate and the White House, acknowledging that it’s become a GOP talking point. Democratic nominee Joe Biden told reporters that he “not a fan,” in what was viewed by some as a signal about where he would go if he wins the White House.
And Democrats got in hits of their own during the hearing. Harris, who participated remotely, citing the GOP’s response to a recent coronavirus outbreak among senators, name-checked several states where GOP senators on the committee are up for reelection as she talked about the number of Americans who could lose their health insurance if ObamaCare is struck down.
Sen. Sheldeon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) also called out Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is up for reelection, as he warned about Americans who could lose their health insurance.
“Sen. Cornyn has filed brief after brief arguing for striking down the ACA. …When Texans lose their ACA health care protections, hop, hop, hop, to see whose doorstep that steps on,” Whitehouse said.
Democrats view health care as an issue that both motivates their own base of voters as well as picks up swing voters and independents, after they successfully won back the House majority in 2018 with a focus on GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said that while Democrats may “lose this battle,” referring to being unable to prevent Barrett from being confirmed, that “the war is to be won. And that war is the election.”
“Every single senator, Republican senator, who is up this year including four on the Judiciary Committee should be asked why are you so eager to put this person on the court who will strike down our healthcare,” she said.
They also believe they have the American public on their side. Several polls since Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death have shown that a majority support letting the next president fill the vacancy. Republicans, under a timeline laid out by Graham and McConnell, are set to confirm Barrett to the Supreme Court only days before the Nov. 3 election.
“I don’t come out of this with cries of defeat, you know why, because it’s motivating more people to vote. You choose to do it in the middle of an election, so let’s all go out there and vote,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), another member of the Judiciary Committee, added that while Republicans “have the majority, they have the votes, but we have the American people on our side.”