Trump’s Supreme Court pick seen as unlikely to jump-start campaign

Tribune Content Agency

President Donald Trump is counting on the battle over a Supreme Court vacancy to inject new life into his faltering campaign, but it’s unlikely to overshadow the ongoing pandemic and struggling U.S. economy that have battered his chances for re-election.

The president plans to formally begin the confirmation battle at 5 p.m. Saturday in Washington in what he has billed as a “monumental” White House ceremony to reveal his nominee to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the high court.

Trump has told associates he’ll nominate Amy Coney Barrett, an Indiana-based federal appeals court judge, according to people familiar with the matter. She is a favorite of social conservatives, who want to establish a 6-3 majority on the high court.

The nomination — coming just 38 days before the vote — means Trump is making his choice a centerpiece of his argument for a second term. The president has insisted that the Senate vote on his pick before the Nov. 3 Election Day, saying it’s essential for avoiding a potential tie vote if the results are contested.

Even some of Trump’s advisers acknowledge the fight might not offer political salvation, despite allowing him to change the subject from the virus and the economy. The relatively slim number of Republicans who vote almost solely on the makeup of the Supreme Court are likely already in Trump’s column, while other voters have more pressing needs on their minds.

“If I asked the question: ‘all things being equal, would you rather have Congress debate about the Supreme Court seat or on another stimulus package?’ They’ll choose the stimulus,” said John McLaughlin, a Trump campaign pollster. “People don’t want to see unemployment go up.”

About 29 million Americans continue to collect unemployment benefits and Congress has failed to pass another round of stimulus. At the same time, coronavirus infections in the U.S. has surpassed 7 million — the most of any country — as a new wave of cases builds heading into the fall.

Polls suggest voters haven’t shifted since Ginsburg’s Sept. 18 death, with Democratic challenger Joe Biden still about 7 points ahead of Trump in national averages.

The battle over the vacancy could energize some of Trump’s core voters — such as evangelicals and Roman Catholics in Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Barrett is known to be against abortion. Democrats, though, appear to be just as galvanized.

Almost two-thirds of Biden supporters say the court vacancy makes it more important that the Democrat wins the election, compared to 37% of Trump supporters who say the same of the president, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll. And a series of Fox News polls show that voters in swing states Ohio, Nevada and Pennsylvania trust Biden more than Trump to make a Supreme Court nomination. The surveys showed Biden leading in all three states.

The difference is especially stark among moderates. Nevada and Pennsylvania moderates trust Biden to make a better Supreme Court choice by a margin of 18 points, while in Ohio the margin is 33 points.

Still, Republican voters and lawmakers — even those less enthusiastic about Trump — have typically united around the president’s judicial nominations.

The Trump campaign and its allies point to how his promise to install right-leaning judges helped rally conservative voters to his side in 2016. Exit polling of the 2016 presidential election found that Trump enjoyed an advantage over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton among voters who said Supreme Court appointments were the most important factor or an important factor.

“Supreme Court of the United States vacancies were a huge issue for then-candidate Trump in 2016 and we always knew they would be again in 2020,” said Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman. “A sizable number of our voters are very much energized by Supreme Court selections.”

Plus, other allies argue, any time spent talking about the Supreme Court helps him, because it means less time talking about the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 people in the U.S. The fight is an obvious opportunity for the president to shift the national conversation, said Barry Bennett, a Republican strategist who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign.

“This is a 2-foot putt,” Bennett said.

Trump is pressuring Biden to release a list of potential Supreme Court nominees like he did shortly before Ginsburg’s death. Biden’s refusal to do so, Trump said Thursday at a rally in Florida, shows his nominees will be “handpicked by extremists” like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Some Republicans also believe the confirmation battle could backfire on Democrats if they move too aggressively to oppose Trump’s nominee. GOP leaders credit a so-called “Kavanaugh Effect,” named for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, for helping the party win key Senate races in 2018 after Democrats pressed Kavanaugh on sexual assault allegations and invited an accuser to testify at the hearings.

“The question is how badly do they behave,” said Bennett. “If they pull another Kavanaugh they might lose the House. How is it that they manage their base’s expectations without looking like fools?”

Democrats won control of the House in the 2018 elections that immediately followed Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation.

In the days after Ginsburg’s death Democrats rallied, with the small-dollar fundraising platform ActBlue reported taking in $100 million

The non-partisan organization, which allows people to register on its website, reported more than 40,000 registrations last Saturday and Sunday, a 68% increase from the previous weekend. Not every state requires new voters to mark their party affiliation, but among those that did, almost two times as many identified as Democrat than Republicans, according to a spokesman for the group, Jordan Wilhelmi.

Democrats have also seized on Trump’s comments this week that he wants his nominee confirmed before Nov. 3 in part to help decide any legal disputes related to the election. His campaign has challenged rules for mail-in ballots, which the president has said, without citing evidence, would cause widespread fraud.

Biden’s aides say he plans a two-pronged attack against Trump’s nomination: Decrying the president’s desire to push through a lifetime appointment to the high court with just a few weeks left before Election Day, and arguing that having three Trump-appointed justices on the court jeopardizes women’s health.

Biden said voters should focus on “what it’s going to mean” if the high court eventually knocks down Obamacare, including the possibility that insurance companies could deny coverage to pregnant women on the basis they have a “pre-existing condition” or charge women more than men for the same treatment.

“A lot’s at stake in this appointment,” Biden told reporters Wednesday. “And the way that they are violating the essence of what the founders thought, that the voters should have a chance to have a say. The election has already begun. This is an abuse of power, what they’re doing.”

Biden hasn’t, and is unlikely to, speak in more direct terms about the threat to abortion, leaving that to pro-choice women’s groups such as Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL, as he aims to avoid alienating voters who oppose abortion or are ambivalent about it.


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