WASHINGTON (AP) — The opening on the Supreme Court has created a dilemma for Democratic senators up for re-election this year in the states that President Donald Trump won in 2016.
The choice on whether to support the upcoming nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy will be a test for several Democrats in tough races. It could be particularly difficult for Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin.
They’ve sought to show their independence from the Democratic Party and their ability to work with the president, such as by trying to roll back some of the rules for small and medium-sized banks in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act signed into law in 2010.
They’ve also broken with the vast majority of Democrats when it comes to some of Trump’s most important nominations. They were the only Democrats to have voted for Trump’s first Supreme Court selection, Neil Gorsuch. They also were the first three Democrats to announce that they would be voting for Mike Pompeo as secretary of state.
But opposing Trump’s Supreme Court nomination could dissolve some of the goodwill they’ve built up with Trump supporters — who just so happen to represent most voters in their state. Trump won West Virginia by 42 percentage points in the 2016 election, North Dakota by 36 percentage points and Indiana by more than 19 percentage points.
“For voters in deep-red states who support Trump, this will be the litmus-test vote for whether you have President Trump’s back or not,” said Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a campaign group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. An affiliated group began running ads Thursday in 10 states that Trump won in 2016 where Democratic senators are now up for re-election.
Supporting Trump’s nominee would bring its own political peril for the Democrats. That move would risk alienating donors and the party’s base, potentially depressing voter turnout.
“There is an absolute meltdown on the left now about blocking this nomination,” said Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who is leading the GOP’s national Senate race efforts. “This is an incredibly difficult thing for them to try to address, and it’s going to create quite a bit of division.”
Going on the offensive, Trump wasted no time making the future Supreme Court vote a centerpiece of the fall elections. Just hours after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, Trump said at a rally Wednesday in Fargo, North Dakota, that Kennedy’s retirement makes control of the Senate “one of the vital issues of our time.”
Trump at the rally endorsed the Republican Senate nominee in the state, Rep. Kevin Cramer, and said Heitkamp would “vote ‘no’ to any pick we make to the Supreme Court.” And even if she ends up voting for his selection, he said, “she will vote ‘no’ the day after the election, on everything.”
The president met with Heitkamp, Donnelly and Manchin on Thursday night to discuss the Supreme Court vacancy, according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“I told the president that he has a chance to unite the country by nominating a true non-ideological jurist who could gain strong support from senators on both sides of the aisle, rather than create more divisions,” Heitkamp said.
Trump already has a list of potential court nominees and is expected to make a decision quickly. McConnell has signaled he wants to have a justice confirmed by October, which would be before the midterm election.
“We should be able to work our way through the confirmation process sometime before early fall,” McConnell told Fox News Thursday. “Hopefully in time for the new justice to begin the fall term of the Supreme Court.”
While Trump and national Republicans are relishing the coming Supreme Court fight, the Democratic senators from conservative-leaning states are treading carefully. Manchin indicated Thursday he was keeping an open mind.
“I just think you have to go through a process,” Manchin said. “I want qualifications. Somebody that’s well-qualified, understands the Constitution and the rule of law.”
Democratic consultant and pollster Paul Maslin disputed the notion that the vote puts the incumbents in a tough spot. Maslin said Trump approval ratings are such that Democratic incumbents are in a good place. Gallup’s most recent figures had the president with a 41 percent approval rating. He said he’s not surprised that the president is trying to highlight the Supreme Court vote.
“They’re looking for anything and everything to motivate their base because they know they’ve got a big problem on their hands,” said Maslin, who served as an adviser to Democrat Doug Jones’ successful Senate campaign last year in Alabama.
Maslin said the court opening might even end up helping the Democratic incumbents if voters become worried that a tilt to the right will endanger abortion rights, gay rights and access to health care. If the Supreme Court battle brings just 5 percent more young voters to the polls, “they will rue the day Anthony Kennedy decided to retire,” Maslin said.
“I will be surprised, if not shocked, if any of them lose,” Maslin said of the Democratic incumbents.