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The focus of the presidential race, which for months had largely been defined by the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing protests in U.S. cities, suddenly veered into new territory following the death of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday.
During the past few days, all eyes have shifted to the impending political fight in the Senate over the confirmation of President Trump’s nominee to replace Ginsburg. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he intends to move forward with the process, with the goal of having the new justice confirmed before Democrats potentially take over control of the Senate in January. Two GOP senators have said they oppose filling the seat before the election, but Republican leadership has expressed confidence they have enough votes to confirm the eventual nominee.
Replacing Ginsburg with a conservative justice in the vein of Trump’s two previous nominees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, would represent one of the most significant ideological shifts for the court in modern American history, legal scholars say. A potential 6-3 conservative majority could lead to major changes in a long list of laws regarding significant issues — including abortion, voting rights, environmental protections, LGBTQ rights, gun control and health care.
Why there’s debate
There’s little doubt that the unexpected vacancy on the Supreme Court has upended the campaign. There is disagreement, however, on which party will benefit from the sudden emergence of a Supreme Court fight less than two months before Election Day.
Some pundits say the situation provides a boost to Trump. The president has trailed Joe Biden by a significant margin through most of the race, largely because of public disapproval of his response to the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. The confirmation battle pushes those issues off the front page and allows Trump to focus on a fight he’s much more comfortable having, experts say. A vacancy on the court could help persuade socially conservative voters who have drifted away from Trump over the past four years to rally behind him as they did in 2016. A strong conservative majority could also benefit Trump if the court is asked to rule on a possible contested election.
Others argue that Biden and his fellow Democrats will benefit more from a high-profile confirmation battle. Left-leaning campaign funds saw an unprecedented wave of donations in the hours after news of Ginsburg’s death broke. The importance of the court will boost enthusiasm across the diverse Democratic base and could persuade progressive voters who are skeptical of Biden to back him.
The issue could also help Democrats in their effort to take back control of the Senate. The confirmation presents a tricky political choice for incumbent GOP senators in tough reelection races. Supporting the nomination could alienate swing voters in their state, especially suburban voters who worry a new conservative justice would pose a threat to abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act. On the other hand, voting against the nominee would likely anger the GOP base. A late shift with either group could mean the difference in which party holds the Senate in 2021.
Trump said he plans to announce his nominee later this week, likely on Saturday. It’s unclear at the moment whether Republicans intend to complete the confirmation process before the election on Nov. 3 or whether they will opt to do so during the “lame duck” session between November and January.
Advantage for Republicans
Social conservatives will rally for the chance to deal a blow to abortion rights
“With anti-abortion rights sentiment an ‘anchor’ of the Republican base, the coming weeks may help Trump shore up evangelical and conservative Christian support before November 3.” — Joseph Stepansky, Al Jazeera
Court fights in the past have boosted conservative enthusiasm
“The make up of the Supreme Court motivates voters of both parties, but if 2016 is any guide, it motivates Republican voters more.” — Brian Bennett and Tessa Berenson, Time
The court fight pushes issues that were hurting Trump out of the news
“The vacancy hands Trump an unexpected opportunity to fire up his voters and shift the narrative of the election away from his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its subsequent economic fallout.” — David Jackson, John Fritze and Michael Collins, USA Today
The vacancy helps Trump remind conservatives of the importance of the White House
“The calculus for Trump is clear. After struggling deep into this election cycle, he needs to remind his base that he is their champion on social issues, such as abortion, LGBTQ rights, and other key decisions that lie with the high court. And as the two most recent nomination processes have shown, Trump and Senate Republicans are more than capable of seating justices favored by conservatives.” — Katelyn Burns, Vox
The GOP base may rally to defend Republican control of the Senate
“Some hopeful Republicans believe that the Supreme Court nomination will help ‘nationalize’ the Senate elections, and in a way that will help flagging incumbents.” — Bill Powell, Newsweek
A conservative Supreme Court could favor Trump in election court cases
“With scores of court challenges underway across the country seeking or opposing coronavirus-related changes to voting procedures, the change in the ideological balance of the high court could affect the outcome of such fights — even if a new justice doesn’t take the bench until after the election.” — Josh Gerstein, Politico
Advantage for Democrats
Abortion emerging as a key election issue is bad for Trump
“The Supreme Court battle could backfire on the President. It could boost liberal turnout among voters who fear, for example, that the new conservative majority will seek to limit or even outlaw the right to an abortion. A prolonged fight over this issue ahead of the election may further weaken Trump's already compromised position among suburban women voters.” — Stephen Collinson, CNN
The vacancy may persuade progressives to reluctantly back Biden
“In 2016, many Republicans said they held their noses and voted for Trump because they were worried about the Supreme Court. Four years later, unenthusiastic Democrats may do the same with Joe Biden.” — Jared Mondschein, Conversation
What happened with Kavanaugh's confirmation could indicate how elections go this time
“In 2018, many pundits believed that the emotional battle over Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court would rally outraged conservatives to turn out in the midterm elections. Instead, there was a blue wave. And if the early fundraising numbers are any indicator, there may just be too much on the line for Democrats this year for Trump to overcome.” — Katelyn Burns, Vox
Trump’s coronavirus failures are more important than a Supreme Court seat
“I don’t think the message of ‘forget the pandemic and that you lost your job, we need to get Trump’s nominee on the court’ is a winning message as compared to 'remember, because of Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus, you lost your job and your life is now upside down and all he thinks is important is getting another justice on the court.’” — Political analyst Rick Tyler to USA Today
The confirmation vote is a no-win situation for swing-state Republican senators
“The death of Ginsburg on Friday also creates a sudden and unexpected minefield for Republicans in the U.S. Senate, who are at risk of losing their narrow majority in the November election.” — Scott Shafer, KQED
The flood of donations allows Democrats to step up their campaign spending
“The ultimate impact on the election won’t be known until November, but in the meantime, it’s given a lot of Democrats a lot more money to spend between now and then.” — Ben Jacobs, New York
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