Trump’s Supreme Court fight targets red-state Dems

President Trump won’t announce his Supreme Court nominee until Tuesday night, but Republicans have already started planning pressure campaigns aimed at keeping red-state Democrats from opposing the pick.

Strategists with ties to Senate Republicans say the nomination issue is ripe enough for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to make it the first major focus of the 2018 midterm cycle as the party looks to soften up vulnerable Democratic senators.

“You can expect a very robust week from the NRSC in terms of action, particularly as it relates to red-state Democrats up in states that Trump won,” said a Republican strategist familiar with the 2018 races.

ADVERTISEMENT
The Supreme Court fight stands to further complicate a difficult map for the Senate Democrats, who must defend 10 seats in 2018 in states that Trump carried in November. And some of those states weren’t close — Trump won 69 percent of the vote in West Virginia and 63 percent in North Dakota.

Both of those states’ Democratic senators, Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight Energy: EPA aims to work more closely with industry Overnight Finance: Lawmakers grill Equifax chief over hack | Wells Fargo CEO defends bank's progress | Trump jokes Puerto Rico threw budget 'out of whack' | Mortgage tax fight tests industry clout Lawmakers try again on miners’ pension bill MORE (W.Va.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampWells Fargo chief defends bank's progress in tense Senate hearing Dems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada Red-state Dems need more from Trump before tax embrace MORE (N.D.), are up for reelection in 2018.

The Supreme Court fight could pressure red-state Democrats, who are pushed between a party that increasingly demands opposition to Trump and voters who backed his agenda at the polls.

“A lot of these red-state Democrats are in a real bind,” a Senate Republican aide told The Hill.

“They not only have to appease their base, but they have to appease the majority of their state who voted for President Trump,” the Senate aide said.

Trump’s Tuesday announcement will kick off what’s expected to be a brutal confirmation fight between two entrenched parties.

Multiple reports peg three federal judges as the top choices. Appeals Judges Neil Gorsuch and Thomas Hardiman are considered the leading contenders, while Appeals Judge William Pryor — seen as the most polarizing option on Trump’s shortlist — has reportedly fallen out of favor.

Democrats are itching to avenge the successful Republican effort to block former President Obama from filling the seat vacated by Justice Antonin Scalia, who died nine months before Election Day.

His death and the battle for the seat recast the presidential campaign, with Republicans framing it as a referendum on which presidential candidate voters wanted to fill the Supreme Court seat. But Democrats still hold a grudge against what they view as an unprecedented move to deny Obama his right to appoint the next justice.

While Trump wants Republicans to change the Senate rules to pre-empt a filibuster push by Democrats, 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 (R-Ky.) all but ruled out that tactic in an interview with The Hill last week.

That leaves open the threat of a filibuster, a tactic rarely employed for a Supreme Court nomination.

But in a Monday interview with Politico, Sen. Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyOvernight Energy: Dems take on Trump's chemical safety pick Dem senator slams Trump for dedicating golf trophy to hurricane victims Dem senator compares Trump to Marie Antoinette MORE (D-Ore.) predicted that Democrats will ultimately filibuster any nominee.

A filibuster would force Republicans to woo eight Democrats over to win nomination, with red-state Democrats as the main targets.

So far, most vulnerable Senate Democrats have remained silent about Trump’s looming Supreme Court decision.

Manchin is a clear target for Republicans, since he faces a potentially tough reelection in a state that Trump carried by more than 40 points. Manchin has also shown a willingness to buck his own party on other votes.

He’s already signaled his support for two controversial Trump Cabinet nominees — Attorney General nominee Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsIntel leaders: Collusion still open part of investigation Republicans jockey for position on immigration Biden to Alabama: No more extremist senators MORE and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson — and cautioned Democrats against blocking Trump’s Supreme Court nominee at a December conference in Washington before meeting with the president personally in New York.

Former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open Overnight Finance: White House requests B for disaster relief | Ex-Equifax chief grilled over stock sales | House panel approves B for border wall | Tax plan puts swing-state Republicans in tough spot Senators grill ex-Equifax CEO over stock sales MORE (D-Mont.) is the only other vulnerable Democrat who has commented on the looming Supreme Court battle. In a short statement to CNN, he did not rule out supporting Trump’s nominee.

Democrats acknowledge that Republicans will push them hard on this issue, noting that some vulnerable senators will be open to voting for his pick if the nominee isn’t too far outside the mainstream.

“They have to do what they have to do in order to get reelected,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to former Sen. Harry ReidHarry ReidChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies Republicans are headed for a disappointing end to their year in power Obama's HHS secretary could testify in Menendez trial MORE (D-Nev.). “These folks know their states best.”

Democrats have lambasted Republicans for the push, arguing they should not be rewarded for playing politics with the seat for months.

“If the nominee is not bipartisan and mainstream, we absolutely would keep the seat open. … We will fight it tooth-and-nail as long as we have to,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance | Puerto Rico's water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents' right to sue Crying on TV doesn't qualify Kimmel to set nation's gun agenda Trump knocks ‘fake’ news coverage of his trip to Puerto Rico MORE (D-N.Y.) said last week on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Looking to lay the groundwork early, Republican groups spent Monday turning up the heat on those vulnerable senators.

Following Merkley’s comments, the Senate Leadership Fund, a major GOP super PAC, sent a deluge of press releases Monday afternoon that questioned whether red-state Democrats would join the blockade.

America Rising Squared, the nonprofit arm of the GOP super PAC America Rising, launched a new digital ad Monday that splices together past clips of Senate Democrats — including Tester and other vulnerable Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyKoch-backed group targets red-state Dems on tax reform Dems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada Agricultural trade demands investment in MAP and FMD MORE (Ind.) and Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillKoch-backed group targets red-state Dems on tax reform Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open Las Vegas highlights Islamist terrorism is not America's greatest domestic threat MORE (Mo.) — calling for an up-or-down vote on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.

And earlier that day, NRSC communications director Katie Martin needled Senate Democrats in a statement by warning that they will be in for a “rude awakening” if they refuse to let Trump fill the Supreme Court seat.

That’s on top of the pressure that’s already been mounting on red-state Democrats through outside spending.

Earlier this month, the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN) launched a $10 million national ad campaign that focuses on Democrats up for reelection in states won by Trump.

JCN policy director Carrie Severino told The Hill that once Trump makes his announcement, the group immediately plans to launch a website and other introductory materials and start to turn up the heat on those senators.

One notable exception from the group’s initial target list is Manchin, since he has signaled that he’s willing to support some of Trump’s nominees.

While Severino understands that not all of the targeted senators will vote for Trump’s pick thanks to the political considerations, she implored senators to respect the process by avoiding a filibuster and allowing an up-or-down vote.

“President Obama’s first two nominees and his nominees that were not in the middle of elections, they got up-or-down votes without anyone trying to block and filibuster them,” she said.

“That appeal to fairness is something many of the [Democratic] senators ought to respond to.”

Much is up in the air in the hours before Trump reveals his pick — the prospective justice’s record will undoubtedly open up new lines of attack for Democrats, while offering Republicans a tangible nominee around whom to rally.

As both sides gear up for the impending fight, the Senate Republican aide told The Hill that the court issue could be a litmus test for vulnerable senators.

“You never know what 2018 is going to be about,” the aide said.

“This is the first test for people back home in these red states for them to ask their senator: ‘Where do you stand?’ ”