Democrats are developing a clear advantage in the political fight over President Donald Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, with public polling showing opposition to the Senate rushing her confirmation, the focus of the fight shifting to friendlier political terrain and Republicans openly wishing for Democratic missteps.
There is little Democrats can do to stop Barrett’s nomination from moving forward if Republicans remain unified behind her. But Barrett’s views against the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and abortion rights could harm both Trump’s reelection and Republican chances of holding control of the Senate.
The strategies for both parties are fairly obvious: Democrats, led by presidential nominee Joe Biden, plan to relentlessly spotlight Barrett’s views against Obamacare and argue she is part of a Republican plan to kill protections for people with preexisting conditions. Republicans intend to engage in pure power politics and will attempt to bait Democrats into attacking the religion or lifestyle of Barrett, a 48-year-old mother of seven and former law professor at Notre Dame.
Republicans initially hoped the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg could energize their base and help shift the election’s focus away from the coronavirus pandemic to friendlier partisan territory. Democratic messaging discipline, however, has so far kept the debate focused on health care, the issue that helped them take control of the U.S. House in 2018 and still affords them a massive advantage today.
“President Trump sees a chance to fulfill his explicit mission: steal away the vital protections of the ACA from countless families that have come to rely on them for their health, their financial security, the lives of those they love,” Biden said on Sunday in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.
Biden’s statement on Barrett’s nomination on Saturday was almost entirely devoted to health care and noted that the nominee “has a written track record of disagreeing with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act.”
The court is set to hear a lawsuit ― viewed as frivolous by all but the most conservative legal experts ― on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act not long after the election. Trump’s Justice Department has supported the lawsuit, which would kill the law that helped reduce the number of uninsured Americans to record lows.
Polls from both the New York Times and Washington Post released Sunday showed Biden with a steady and substantial lead over Trump, and more trusted by a majority of voters to pick the new Supreme Court justice.
Biden’s focus on health care was echoed by nearly every major Democratic figure. Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, the most vulnerable member of Congress, said Friday that Trump was aiming to “throw our health care system into even greater turmoil” with the nomination. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the most progressive member of the chamber, said Republicans “now want to ram through a Supreme Court nominee who will vote to destroy the Affordable Care Act, kick millions off their health care, and eliminate protections for preexisting conditions.”
Democrats also began airing ads linking the nomination to the health care fight. “A Supreme Court controlled by Donald Trump could overturn the Affordable Care Act by the end of this year,” a narrator warns in a new ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the election for the GOP-held seat in southern Illinois’ 13th Congressional District. “Rodney Davis won’t help us. He votes with Trump.”
Another ad, from the liberal nonprofit group Piedmont Rising, attacks North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis for “rushing an appointment on to the Supreme Court who will vote to overturn on our healthcare.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are desperate to change the subject and seem to be goading Democrats to attack Barrett’s religious beliefs, perhaps recalling that they received a political boost from the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh after he was accused of sexual assault. (Multiple GOP operatives suggested Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, might go after Barrett’s Catholicism.)
Trump attempted to gin up controversy during a press conference on Sunday night, citing a New York Times op-ed by a Catholic leftist and unnamed comedians who he said were engaging in “disgraceful” attacks on Barrett’s faith.
Republicans had hoped for other benefits from the nomination. They believed it could help boost their incumbent senators in GOP-leaning states by forcing voters back to their partisan corners, and could provide a fundraising boost to at least partially offset the tens of millions of dollars Democratic candidates and groups raised in the hours and days following Ginsburg’s death.
Republicans have a 53-47 majority in the Senate, and most acknowledge the Supreme Court vacancy does not help Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, Arizona Sen. Martha McSally or Maine Sen. Susan Collins, all of whom are trailing in public polling. But the GOP was hopeful it could help Sens. Joni Ernst in Iowa, Thom Tillins in North Carolina, Steve Daines in Montana and others in conservative states.
So far, that has not shown up in polls. Public surveys released this week showed Democratic candidates leading in Iowa and North Carolina, the two states likely to determine the Senate majority, and a close race in South Carolina, a deeply conservative state where Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham finds himself in an unexpectedly tight battle for reelection.
Few Republicans have released fundraising totals in recent days, even if many GOP operatives believed the announcement of Trump’s nominee would lead to a windfall. In multiple appearances on Fox News over the past week, Graham openly begged the audience for donations to help counteract the mounting war chest of Jamie Harrison, his Democratic opponent, who is outspending on television ads by large margins. “Help me. They’re killing me, money-wise. Help me,” Graham told Sean Hannity’s audience on Thursday night.
Republicans could still make gains. Democrats could misstep, either in their treatment of Barrett or in the procedural roadblocks they are deploying to slow down her confirmation. Or Barrett’s performances in Judiciary Committee hearings could turn into cash windfalls.
But for the moment, the majority of the benefits from the Supreme Court battle have accumulated to Democrats.