WASHINGTON — It’s a rare and momentous decision — one by one, seated at desks centuries old, senators will stand and cast their votes for a Supreme Court nominee.
It’s a difficult political call in the modern era, especially for the 10 Democrats facing tough re-election next year in states that President Donald Trump won.
“Resist” is the rallying cry for the Democratic Party’s liberal base, and that applies to all Trump nominees, even Neil Gorsuch, a mild-mannered jurist who won unanimous Senate backing to the appellate court in 2006. Democratic voters have flooded lawmakers’ offices with calls, protested outside state offices and tweeted vulgarities if senators even hint at being conciliatory with Trump and the GOP.
“I come from a state that no matter how I vote, 50 per cent of the people are mad,” says Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who will oppose Gorsuch. “So I’m kind of used to this. The only difference is that the ones who are happy are really happy.”
Already in the minority, Democrats face tough political odds in next year’s midterms, defending 25 seats for caucus members to the GOP’s eight. The looming question for the 10 Democrats is whether a Supreme Court vote will still resonate with voters in 19 months or whether Trump’s standing, the economy, jobs or health care would be a greater concern.
Trump won McCaskill’s state by almost 20 percentage points and conservative groups are running ads against her. But liberals are also fired up.
The January evening Gorsuch was nominated, McCaskill tweeted that there should be a hearing and vote on “ANY nominee” — a reference to last year’s Republican blockade of former President Barack Obama’s nominee for the same seat, Merrick Garland. She got more than 700 replies, some using curse words and threatening a primary.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester also will oppose Gorsuch, even though his state similarly supported Trump by 20 points. Tester said he’s concerned about how Gorsuch would rule on privacy issues and women’s health, and whether he’d support working people over corporations.
“I think that Montanans have always expected me to have a reason for why I voted, and I have plenty of them on Judge Gorsuch,” Tester said.
Marlene Johnson, 65, of Helena, said she hopes Tester’s opposition will hurt him politically. She is closely following the debate and called Gorsuch a decent person who is qualified to sit on the Supreme Court. She says Tester is “letting Montana down.”
Tester has never won more than 50 per cent of the vote. But Republicans are lacking a strong challenger, with their best chance, former Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, now serving as Trump’s interior secretary.
Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin had a different calculus — they’re all supporting Gorsuch. Trump won Indiana by 19 points, North Dakota by 36 points and West Virginia by 42 points.
Still, some Democrats are angry. About 20 protesters marched to Donnelly’s downtown Indianapolis office Tuesday, chanting: “No, no, Joe.”
North Dakota Democrat Dan Spiekermeier is more understanding of Heitkamp. The farmer said he’s upset that Republicans did not allow a vote on Garland, but said “some people among the Democrats need to be centrists, so I think she made the right call.”
In swing states where Trump had narrower victories, the decision may have been easier. Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow are all opposing Gorsuch. Trump won those states by a point or less.
It’s unclear if their eventual opponents will use the issue against them in 2018 — or if voters will even remember the Supreme Court fight. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, viewed as a likely challenger to Nelson, has so far avoided any direct criticism, though he supports Gorsuch.
In Wisconsin, though, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who is also up for re-election next year, tweeted to Baldwin in February that “pandering to liberal special interests in Washington is more important to you than listening to WI residents.”
Others in the state say they are tired of the politics.
“Nobody is making any concessions and I think this is going to be the downfall of both parties,” said Anna Street, a 56-year-old nurse from West Allis, Wisconsin.
In Ohio, where Trump won by 8 points, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown says he didn’t consider the political consequences when he made his decision to oppose Gorsuch the night he was nominated. Most Democrats waited until after his March hearings.
Brown has been the target of a steady stream of attack ads over Gorsuch. And Republican Josh Mandel, making a repeat try at unseating Brown, told supporters in a fundraising email that Brown’s decision was “uninformed, out of touch, knee-jerk politicking.”
Brown says he believes Gorsuch will favour corporations over workers and he gets “a lot of pushback on both sides on everything.”
As for whether voters will still support him, he says: “I guess we’ll see, won’t we? I think so.”