Why the Supreme Court Fight Is a Tightrope for Trump in November
WASHINGTON — As President Trump prepares to reveal his Supreme Court nominee on Saturday, and Senate Republicans move to hold lightning-quick confirmation hearings ahead of the election, they are making risky calculations aimed at navigating difficult political straits with less than 40 days left in the campaign.
In order to achieve a new 6-3 conservative majority on the court, Republicans are poised to defy a clear majority of voters who have indicated in polls that they want the winner of the election to pick a nominee for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. They are even willing to energize Democratic turnout in the short run by elevating issues like abortion, if it means achieving the long-term goal of tilting the court further to the right.
That gamble would almost certainly play out if Mr. Trump nominates Judge Amy Coney Barrett, the leading contender and a favorite of social conservatives. The political consequences would be less clear if he chose the preferred candidate of some of his advisers: Judge Barbara Lagoa, a Latina whose elevation might help him carry the must-win state of Florida in November.
The president appears intent on picking Judge Barrett, though, according to Republicans familiar with his conversations. And his advisers and party lawmakers are placing wagers on a Barrett pick that are based on hope as much as strategy, as Mr. Trump trails in battleground states and the Senate G.O.P. majority appears increasingly precarious.
They believe a partisan fight over the court offers them at least a chance to steer the debate away from political danger zones like the president’s handling of a virus that has claimed over 200,000 American lives and his unceasing rhetorical eruptions, most recently his indication that he would be unwilling to agree to a peaceful transition of power.
“Either the election can be about Trump or about Covid or about the Supreme Court,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, the long-serving Tennessee Republican who is retiring next year. “And I think, of those three, if it’s about the Supreme Court, that traditionally has helped Republicans more.”
If Republicans are skeptical that they can retain the presidency and the Senate in any election that is a referendum on Mr. Trump’s leadership, they are betting that Democrats will botch the confirmation process with ferocious attacks that make whichever woman he picks a sympathetic figure.
On this, Republicans say, they have history on their side, as they point to the bitter 2018 fight over Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh that resulted in the party’s adding to its Senate majority.
“It’s going to be Kavanaugh on steroids,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas.
But the bulk of those 2018 victories came in heavily red states. This fall, Republicans are again defending a seat in one of two states where they lost seats in 2018, Arizona, and others in a host of states that are Democratic-leaning or evenly divided.
What is especially striking about Mr. Trump’s calculations is that, for a president who openly uses the levers of government to advance his re-election interests, he has proved unwilling so far to seriously consider a justice who may offer him the most political help.
Members of the Florida congressional delegation, as well as some of the president’s own campaign aides, have nudged the president to nominate Ms. Lagoa, a Miami-born appellate court judge whose parents fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba. These Republicans have argued that Mr. Trump would lift his standing in Florida and in other vital states with large Hispanic populations, such as Arizona, by effectively making a Latina his running mate in the final weeks of the race.
“Justice Lagoa would be a great pick,” said Senator Rick Scott of Florida, noting that she was the first Cuban-American to have served on the Florida Supreme Court.
Should the president substantially cut into Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s advantage in Democrat-dominated Miami-Dade County, it would all but snuff out any chance Mr. Biden has to carry Florida.
Not picking Ms. Lagoa, who was appointed to the federal bench with the support of 80 senators, would verge on political malpractice, some Republicans believe.
“As goes Florida, goes so goes the nation,” said Scott Reed, the top strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Yet Mr. Trump’s senior aides have all but resigned themselves to his selecting Judge Barrett, the former Notre Dame law professor the president put on the federal bench in 2017.
Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff, and the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, have been especially insistent on Judge Barrett. Mr. Meadows has argued to Mr. Trump that Ms. Lagoa has an insufficient record on which to judge just how conservative she is, according to Republicans briefed on the conversations. At the same time, conservative interest group leaders have sought to derail Judge Lagoa by reminding the president that it was his former adversary, Jeb Bush, who first put her on the bench.
Another issue is that Mr. Trump’s instincts are still geared toward his political base, and he continues to behave like a candidate who is running in a Republican primary. When offered the choice between making broad appeals or burrowing further into his overwhelmingly white and largely male base of support, he almost always sides with his core voters.
That, more than anything, is what alarms Republicans about Judge Barrett and gives Democrats a measure of political hope — the possibility that she will bring Mr. Trump few voters he doesn’t already have, while driving more people into Mr. Biden’s column.
“I think it’s going to increase our turnout of young women,” said Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, who acknowledged that she wanted to turn Mr. Trump out of office but was not overly enthusiastic about Mr. Biden.
The risk in putting forward a nominee like Judge Barrett who would allow Democrats to elevate the question of legal abortion, which is broadly popular, was easy to glimpse in interviews with Republican lawmakers from Republican-leaning states who declined to offer direct views on Roe v. Wade.
“It’s subject to the Supreme Court to determine whether it’s consistent with the Constitution and the laws,” said Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who’s locked in one of the closest races in the country. “To this point, they’ve affirmed it and reaffirmed it.”
Asked if he wanted the ruling overturned, Mr. Tillis said, “I have a strong view on life,” while offering a remarkably candid dose of clarity on his strategic thinking on the issue. “My opponent wants to go to Roe v. Wade, and I then go back to him taking very radical positions on late-term abortions,” he said.
Asked if he wanted to overturn Roe, Mr. Cornyn said, “I’m pro-life, but I also understand what that would mean in terms of the country.”
Yet Republican strategists are hopeful that Democrats, furious about Senator Mitch McConnell’s decision to push through a nominee weeks before the election, will not be able to contain their hostilities and will unwittingly help the conservative cause no matter whom the president picks.
“After Saturday, Mitch is in charge,” Mr. Reed said with evident relief about the process shifting from Mr. Trump to the long-serving Republican Senate leader.
With Judge Barrett, especially, Republicans are hopeful that Democrats will appear insensitive to a 48-year-old mother of seven, including a son with Down syndrome and two adopted children, and will offend Catholic voters.
“It has the capacity to be explosive,” said Josh Holmes, a longtime adviser to Mr. McConnell.
Senior Democrats are aware of the political hazards with Judge Barrett, and her biography in an election which the Catholic vote is crucial. That’s why some have started privately agitating, as first reported by Politico, for Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, to replace the 87-year-old Senator Dianne Feinstein as the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee with a younger, more aggressive lawmaker.
Some in the party, however, are comforted by the broader composition of the panel.
“I think we’ve got enough women on the Judiciary Committee who know how to handle themselves,” said Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington.
Democratic leaders like Mr. Biden and Mr. Schumer are trying to keep the court focused squarely on health care, believing that any discussion about future court rulings on the Affordable Care Act benefits the party, no matter how conservative or liberal the state.
A titanic clash over cultural hot buttons such as abortion rights or gun rights might ultimately be more helpful to some Senate Republicans in rallying their base in tough re-election races than in delivering additional votes to Mr. Trump.
Some of the states the president is eager to poach from Democrats, such as New Hampshire and Minnesota, or that he is straining to defend, like Michigan, tilt toward supporting abortion rights.
“New Hampshire is a pro-choice state,” said Judd Gregg, a former Republican governor and senator there. “If it becomes a major issue, especially for independent women, it will have an impact.”
But further inflaming an already polarized electorate could be enough to propel embattled senators from red-leaning states, like Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Joni Ernst of Iowa, and even those from more moderate states with large evangelical populations, like Mr. Tillis. Of course, that’s cold comfort to G.O.P. senators from Maine, Colorado and Arizona, states where over half the electorate supports abortion rights, according to polling in recent years.
But for now, Republicans are happy just to be changing the subject.
“We’re going to spend the month of October talking about what Republicans and this administration have done best for last four years,” Mr. Holmes said. “These hearings are not going to be a retrospective on the pandemic or a discussion on the personalities of the candidates.”