Court drama jolts Senate races

Court drama jolts Senate races
© Greg Nash

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia is throwing another curveball into the Republican battle to maintain control of the Senate.

Vulnerable senators were hoping to be able to focus on their records as the party defends 24 Senate seats in November.

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Instead, those senators have to make a choice: Pit themselves against the GOP presidential field by agreeing to take up President Obama’s nominee, or face attack ads suggesting they’re part of Washington’s “dysfunction” by fighting to keep the seat vacant.

With Republicans only able to lose a handful of seats and keep their majority, the path ahead is fraught with danger. 

Up to now, the vulnerable lawmakers have tried to localize their reelections bid and avoid being dragged into the GOP infighting among the presidential field.

Republicans in blue-leaning states, in particular, have sought to stay above the presidential fray, with some wary of being tied too closely to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE.

But Democrats are seeking to link the Supreme Court and the presidential race in the minds of voters, suggesting the GOP’s refusal to take up Obama’s nominee puts them squarely in line with Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWhatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong This week: Congress gets ball rolling on tax reform Week ahead: Senators work toward deal to fix ObamaCare markets MORE and Trump.

“[Senate Republicans] prefer to delay, delay, delay until they elect a President Cruz or President Trump who can nominate someone who supports their brand of extreme conservatism,” Amy Dacey, the CEO of the Democratic National Committee, wrote in a fundraising email.

Vice President Biden echoed her comments, telling MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that the Senate GOP is “intimidated by the dominant element of the Republican Party, the national politics right now, the far right.”

Even before Scalia’s death, Republican senators were keeping a close eye on the voter frustration that Trump, Cruz and Democratic candidate Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies Clip shows Larry David and Bernie Sanders reacting after discovering they're related For now, Trump dossier creates more questions than answers MORE have tapped on the campaign trail.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad with pro-communist posts The VA's woes cannot be pinned on any singular administration Overnight Defense: Mattis offers support for Iran deal | McCain blocks nominees over Afghanistan strategy | Trump, Tillerson spilt raises new questions about N. Korea policy MORE (R-Ariz.) told The Hill shortly before Scalia’s death that “anybody who is an incumbent who is running for reelection ought to be very concerned.”

The Arizona Republican — who faces both a primary challenge and competitive general election — quickly backed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform MORE’s (R-Ky.) strategy of allowing the next president to fill the seat.

But GOP incumbents, currently dispersed across the country, are struggling to deliver a unified message.

At the center of it all is Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyRepublicans jockey for position on immigration House clears bill to combat crimes against elderly Grassley: DACA deal wouldn't need border wall funding MORE, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. The Iowa Republican, who is up for reelection, has told not ruled out holding a hearing for Obama’s nominee even as he has backed McConnell’s calls to keep the seat empty.

Grassley isn’t alone in sending mixed message.

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiRepublicans jockey for position on immigration GOP senator knocks Trump: 'Not a fan of governing by tweet' How the effort to replace ObamaCare failed MORE (R-Alaska), who is also up for reelection, initially told Alaska reporters that the president’s nominee should get a hearing. She then backtracked late this week and said the president should “follow a tradition embraced by both parties and allow his successor to select the next Supreme Court justice.” 

Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGun proposal picks up GOP support GOP lawmaker to unveil bill banning gun bump stocks Senate Homeland Security chairman backs bump-stock ban after Las Vegas shootings MORE (R-Wis.), in particular, has been slammed by Democrats and the media after expressing seemingly contradictory positions.

The Republican lawmaker, considered one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents, told a local Wisconsin radio station that he thought the seat should be filled by the next president.

But, in the same interview, he said that he's "never said that we shouldn't vote" on a nominee, suggesting that decision rests with McConnell but also that "doing nothing is still an action."

The mixed messaging has delighted Democrats, who say the division among Republicans indicates they will eventually cave to pressure and take up Obama’s nominee. 

Democrats are also taking swipes at GOP Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteDems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada Stale, misguided, divisive: minimum wage can't win elections Trump voter fraud commission sets first meeting outside DC MORE (N.H.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open Reddit hires first lobbyists Senate panel approves bill compelling researchers to ‘hack’ DHS MORE (Ohio), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Johnson — incumbents who are at the heart of the battle for the upper chamber. All of them have backed McConnell’s strategy.

Lauren Passalacqua, the national press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said their stance represents “unprecedented obstruction” and that “voters will turn out in November to elect people who will actually do their jobs.”

But GOP incumbents have more to worry about than Democratic attacks, as any move to accept Obama’s nominee could invite a late primary challenge.

While 62 percent of people in a Fox News poll said they want the president and Congress to fill the court vacancy now, only 36 percent of Republican voters took that position.

Despite an onslaught of pressure from Democrats, Republican senators remain bullish that the Supreme Court won’t spill over their efforts to maintain the Senate majority in 2017.

“I don't think we’ll feel the pressure from certainly my constituents in Texas. I think it’s likely you’re going to see it from … the allies of this administration,” Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGun proposal picks up GOP support House bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Republicans jockey for position on immigration MORE (R-Texas) told a local radio station. “We’ve drawn a line in the sand and said it’s not going to happen, and we just need to hold that position.”

Johnson said that he wasn’t worried about political backlash, saying, “I think my position is very reasonable: Let the people decide.”

Republicans have also tried to turn the tables on their Democratic opponents, suggesting they’re wanting to leapfrog the American people by approving a justice in the final year of Obama’s presidency.

Johnson’s campaign pointed to the filibuster of Justice Samuel Alito in 2006 by then-Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.), the incumbent’s likely Democratic opponent. They also hit back at robocalls from a progressive outside group featuring Martin Sheen 

“Senator Feingold’s left-wing campaign is made for an Aaron Sorkin TV political fantasy, so it only makes sense that a phony president from Hollywood would get a co-starring role,” said Brian Reisinger, a spokesman for Johnson’s reelection campaign.

Ayotte and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, her likely Democratic opponent, have also traded fire, with Ayotte spokeswoman Chloe Rockow saying the Democratic governor and her “Washington allies” are trying to “exploit this issue for political gain.”

While the confirmation fight has stirred Democratic activists, vulnerable Republicans are quickly getting backup.

The conservative Judicial Crisis Network is running TV ads in the home states of Ayotte, Grassley, Johnson, McCain, McConnell, Portman and Toomey supporting them for letting “the people decide” the next Supreme Court justice.

Grassley, meanwhile, doubled down on the belief that his reelection bid is separate from the Supreme Court issue.

“I think that I have a responsibility to perform, and I can’t worry about the election. I’ve got to do my job as a senator,” he said when asked about the potential political risk during a call with reporters. “There’s going to be a lot of tough votes, so that isn’t a consideration.”