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 TrumpWhat will be October’s surprise? Poll: Half of Trump supporters don't trust integrity of election Report: German gov't thinks Trump would wreck US economy 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 CruzTed CruzThe 'Overton Window' and how Trump won the nomination with it Judge rejects attempt to stop internet oversight transfer Tech groups file court brief opposing internet transition suit 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 SandersBernie SandersWhat will be October’s surprise? Poll: Half of Trump supporters don't trust integrity of election War over the estate tax returns MORE have tapped on the campaign trail.

Sen. John McCainJohn McCainGOP lawmakers slam secret agreement to help lift Iran bank sanctions Kerry: US 'on the verge' of suspending talks with Russia on Syria Trump, Clinton to headline Al Smith dinner 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 McConnellMitch McConnellHomeland Security chief says 21 states have sought cybersecurity assistance 9/11 bill is a global blunder that will weaken US efforts abroad States urged to bolster election security 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleyMcConnell blames dysfunction on Dems Four states sue to stop internet transition Senate passes bill to preserve sexual assault kits 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 MurkowskiOvernight Energy: Obama integrates climate change into national security planning GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase Overnight Energy: Lawmakers kick off energy bill talks 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 JohnsonRon JohnsonElection-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Grassley accuses Reid of 'pure unfiltered partisanship' California to allow experimental drug treatments for the terminally ill 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 AyotteGOP senator: Block cash payments to state terror sponsors The Trail 2016: Just a little kick Abortion rights group ads tie vulnerable GOP senators to Trump MORE (N.H.), Rob PortmanRob PortmanOvernight Healthcare: Watchdog says ObamaCare program made illegal payments Portman ad features father of fallen Iraq soldier Election-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables 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 CornynHow the White House got rolled on the Saudi-9/11 bill GOP leaders express reservations a day after 9/11 veto override McConnell opens door to changing 9/11 bill 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.”