WASHINGTON – For Republicans, the nomination fight over Amy Coney Barrett is a chance to seal conservative control of the Supreme Court for decades. For some GOP senators, it's also a lifeline they hope will preserve their political careers and their party's control of the chamber in November's elections.
The battle over President Donald Trump's pick is letting Senate Republicans facing tough reelections highlight issues like abortion and link themselves to a conservative, religious woman whose confirmation seems certain. Most importantly, they hope it will change the subject from Trump and his failure to control the coronavirus pandemic, which threaten to make Election Day miserable for the GOP.
But even some Republicans privately doubt the court battle will distract voters enough to make a difference. And Democrats are appealing to voters too, saying the GOP-led Senate is ignoring greater needs to quickly cement a 6-3 conservative court majority, threatening Democratic priorities like former President Barack Obama's health care law and the right to abortion.
“The Senate has a big job to do right now, and that's fighting the virus and getting people the relief they need,” said Democratic consultant Rodd McLeod, citing long-stalled economic relief legislation. “Instead, they're rushing through this nomination.”
There are competitive races for around a dozen GOP-held seats as the party defends its 53-47 Senate majority in next month’s elections. About half of them are in states like Montana and Kansas where Trump won easily in 2016 and embracing Barrett should win broad approval. But the rest are in battleground states like Arizona, Georgia, Iowa and Maine, where backing her is riskier.
Either way, both sides are using the Supreme Court battle in fundraising appeals and other ways that underscore its political potency.
From the day after the September death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — whose vacancy Barrett will fill — through this Wednesday, each party has spent around $4 million on broadcast TV commercials highlighting the nomination fight, according to Kantar/CMAG, the ad-tracking firm. Democrats have advertised in seven Senate races and Republicans in eight. All but one, Sen. Doug Jones' uphill effort to survive in GOP-dominated Alabama, are contests where Republicans are defending seats.
In a common GOP theme, a spot by Senate candidate Rep. Roger Marshall of Kansas says Democratic challenger Barbara Bollier would be “just another liberal rubber stamp” for judges favored by Democratic leaders.
The liberal group Demand Justice is running its own ad against incumbent GOP senators in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine and North Carolina, hitting them for ignoring the pandemic while “rushing to play politics with the court."
Four GOP senators in competitive campaigns are on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which wrapped up hearings Thursday on Barrett's nomination. All four — John Cornyn of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Thom Tillis of North Carolina — used the sessions to praise Barrett and flash opposition to abortion or champion other hot-button conservative favorites.
That didn't escape the notice of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., her party's vice presidential nominee and a Judiciary Committee member. She recited the number of people from those states who she said would lose coverage if the justices strike down the health care law. The court is scheduled to hear arguments in a GOP-backed case seeking to dismantle the statute the week after the election.
No GOP senator stood to potentially benefit more than Graham, the Judiciary chairman.
Seeking his fourth term from a state where Trump remains popular, Graham faces a tossup contest against Democrat Jaime Harrison, who raised a record $57 million in this year's third quarter. Chairing the televised hearings gave Graham four days to boast about golfing with Trump, demonstrate how GOP Senate control means more conservative judges and to gesture to women voters, many of whom have fled the party because of Trump.
Graham said Barrett's confirmation will pierce “a reinforced concrete barrier around conservative women." Barrett, 48, has previously expressed opposition to abortion but during the hearings asserted that as a justice she'd set aside her personal views.
So far, public opinion polls offer little evidence that supporting Barrett is a clear winner.
A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, conducted mostly before nomination hearings began, showed Americans roughly evenly divided among favoring her confirmation, opposing it and being uncertain. In a recent survey by The Washington Post and ABC News, a slight majority of registered voters said they’d prefer letting the next elected president fill the seat.
“It's motivating both parties' bases for sure," said Republican pollster Robert Blizzard. “It's not changing the narrative or the trajectory of the races. But that's today," he said, citing possible unforeseen events by Election Day.
So far, Democratic senators and outside groups opposing Barrett have used measured tones against her.
That contrasts with the 2018 confirmation fight over Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of a decades-old sexual assault that he denied. Republicans turned raucous public protests into a weapon for that fall's elections, accusing Democrats of using “mobs” to oppose him.
This week, no public witnesses were allowed in the hearing room because of COVID-19 restrictions. “It's not a strategic choice, it's a fact of the times,” said Brian Fallon, who heads the progressive Demand Justice.
Ironically, Democrats have spent most of their money on Supreme Court-themed ads against Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who's not facing reelection, are the only two Republicans expected to oppose Barrett, but Democrats think the issue helps emphasize Collins' support for the divisive president.
One spot by Democratic challenger Sara Gideon pictures Collins with Kavanaugh. Collins' decisive vote for him has been a major issue in her campaign. “Susan Collins is an enabler," the announcer says.
Collins has said she'll oppose Barrett because Republicans were rushing the vote too close to the presidential election. When a vacancy occurred in February 2016, the GOP refused to consider Obama's nominee, claiming that year's election was too soon.
AP writer Emily Swanson contributed to this report.