Republicans mum on possibility of Trump filling Supreme Court seat

The decision by Senate Republicans to block President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee is becoming a bigger political gamble as Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump's first fundraising email had 60 percent spam rate Trump, Clinton fundraising off Brexit vote UK vote triggers talks with US MORE comes closer to clinching their party’s nomination.

Endangered Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteMcConnell quashes Senate effort on guns Republicans blast latest Gitmo transfer Bipartisan gun measure survives test vote MORE (R-N.H.), and Mark KirkMark KirkThe Trail 2016: Berning embers Senate Dems link court fight to Congressional Baseball Game Bipartisan gun measure survives test vote MORE (R-Ill.), among others, have tried to distance themselves from Trump, but the Supreme Court debate is making that task more difficult. 

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Democrats increasingly argue that Republicans are threatening to block Obama’s replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia so that Trump has the power to shape the future of the court.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) sent out press releases on Wednesday linking Trump and the Supreme Court debate to Republicans in Arizona, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

“By backing Senator McConnell’s Supreme Court obstruction to help Donald Trump pick the next Supreme Court Justice, these Republican senators are locking themselves in a Trump straight jacket and throwing away the key,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Senate Republicans are leery of the association with Trump because they privately harbor doubts about his judgment. Few, however, are willing to criticize him publicly. 

Senate Republicans on Thursday declined to say whether they would prefer that Trump fill the court vacancy instead of Obama. 

“I’m not going to answer that question,” Sen. Dean HellerDean HellerLong past time to fix evidence-sharing across borders Obama's great internet giveaway Senators to Obama: Investigate whether Pentagon misled Congress MORE (R-Nev.) said, chuckling, when asked about whom he more trusted to make the selection.

“I wouldn’t want to rank it,” echoed Sen. Jeff FlakeJeff FlakeMcConnell quashes Senate effort on guns Bipartisan gun measure survives test vote Senate Republicans may defy NRA on guns MORE (R-Ariz.).

“I’m not going to get into it,” added Sen. Mike CrapoMike CrapoPost Orlando, hawks make a power play Overnight Cybersecurity: Senate narrowly rejects expanding FBI surveillance powers Senate narrowly rejects new FBI surveillance MORE (R-Idaho).

In any other presidential election year, it would be hard to imagine sitting Republican senators waver on the question of whether they would prefer their potential nominee or a sitting Democratic president shape the future of the Supreme Court.

Leon Wolf, a contributor on RedState.com, a conservative blog, opined over the weekend that Trump would probably nominate worse justices than Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonSanders shares star power with NY House hopeful Trump, Clinton fundraising off Brexit vote UK vote triggers talks with US MORE.

“Trump has literally never on the campaign trail expressed a belief that the power of the executive — as wielded by him — should be limited in any way,” he wrote.

Democrats have tried to exploit the doubts about Trump’s judgment. 

“First Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonMcConnell quashes Senate effort on guns Bipartisan gun measure survives test vote Senate to vote on two gun bills MORE refuses to do his job, and now he’s ready to entrust Donald Trump with the responsibility of making a lifetime appointment to the country’s highest court,” Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the DSCC, said in a press release issued Wednesday.

Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents this year.

As Trump has solidified his lead by winning states and racking up delegates, vulnerable Republicans have distanced themselves from both him and the debate over Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

“I’m not in charge of the process,” Johnson said Thursday. “This is being blown way out of proportion by the left.

Johnson argues he’s trying to empower voters, not Trump, by pushing the court decision to 2017.

“We’re really letting the American people decide by their votes for whomever they decide for president. We’re taking a risk. There’s no guarantee,” he said. 

Some polls show a strong majority of independents in Senate battleground states think Obama and the Senate should fill the Supreme Court vacancy this year.

A survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm, found that 62 percent of voters want Scalia replaced before the end of the year.

One Republican senator privately fretted that he and his fellow Senate Republicans could suffer political damage that costs them their majority and the White House, empowering a future Democratic president to nominate a far-left jurist who would likely be confirmed by a Democratic-controlled Senate. 

“What’s the point of falling on our swords if Trump’s going to lose,” said the lawmaker who requested anonymity to discuss his views frankly.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyDozens of senators push EPA for higher ethanol mandate Civil liberties group mobilizes against surveillance amendment Brother may I? Congress must reform senseless drug regulation MORE (R-Iowa) said it’s too soon to assume Trump will win the party’s nomination, even though he has built up a commanding lead in delegates.

“You ought to wait until he’s our nominee,” he said.

Some GOP strategists say vulnerable GOP incumbents will take political fire as long as they continue to refuse to hold confirmation hearings for Obama’s nominee, though question whether Trump’s dominance will hurt them even more.

“It’s going to be tough for vulnerable Republicans to defend the stance either way,” said John Ullyot, a GOP strategist and former Senate aide.  

Aides to endangered Republicans facing reelection argue that the Supreme Court is less of a motivating issue than the economy or national security. In states such as New Hampshire and Ohio, the crisis of opioid abuse ranks third in importance, they contend.

“The notion that this is going to drive millions of people to the polls with flecks of spit on the corners of their mouth, I just don’t buy it,” said Rich Galen, a GOP strategist. 

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) on Thursday argued that Clinton or her rival, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders shares star power with NY House hopeful Dems adopt minimum wage in platform draft Clinton warning about 'accessible' email adds fuel to controversy MORE (Vt.), a self-described Democratic socialist, could prove to be as much of a political liability as Trump as the court debate heats up. 

“Republicans argue that Democrats are putting themselves in political danger by supporting a candidate who is under investigation for sending classified information on her private and unsecure email server — or — for supporting a self-described socialist,” said Alleigh Marre, a spokeswoman for the committee.