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Trump faces tricky choice on Supreme Court pick
President Trump will soon name his Supreme Court nominee, an announcement that will reveal whether he plans to go all-in on Florida or fire up the social conservatives in his base just weeks before the election.
The choice is likely to come down to two contenders: Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a favorite among conservatives, and Judge Barbara Lagoa, a Cuban American from Florida.
Multiple sources familiar with the selection process say Barrett is the front-runner and that Lagoa is the only other candidate being seriously considered.
Senate Republicans are expected to line up to confirm either of the federal appeals court judges to occupy the seat left vacant by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
But with Trump trailing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in national polls and in several battleground states like Florida, the president's allies are trying to game out whether Barrett or Lagoa would deliver more electoral gains in November.
Barrett, a former Notre Dame law professor, is well known and seen as a galvanizing force in conservative circles. Lagoa has less name recognition, though some see her potential nomination yielding greater political dividends since it might energize more Cuban American voters in Florida and perhaps sway Hispanics elsewhere in support of Trump.
"The political considerations are around [Lagoa's] ethnicity, background as a working class daughter of Cuban emigres, and geography, which are very appealing," said Joe Grogan, former head of Trump's Domestic Policy Council. "There are concerns Amy might not go over well with some liberal to moderate Catholics who might already be inclined to vote against the president, especially some women."
Republicans have signaled approval of both nominees, but see an upside in Barrett, largely because of her conservative bona fides but also because she has already been vetted as a finalist from when Trump was deciding who should fill the vacancy left by Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement in 2018. Trump met with Barrett that year but ultimately nominated Brett Kavanaugh to fill the seat. He met with Barrett again this week.
Nominating Barrett, advisers said, would solidify the president's standing with his base and social conservatives, a key voting bloc that helped Trump win in 2016.
Barrett's judicial views on abortion are well established, a point of importance for lawmakers like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) who have been transparent that they are looking for a justice who believes Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. But that stance could alienate suburban women, a demographic that helped Trump four years ago but one that he has failed to maintain support from since taking office.
Barrett gained popularity among religious conservatives and anti-abortion groups during her confirmation hearing in 2017, for her current position on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, when she was questioned by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) about the role of her Catholic faith while ruling from the bench.
"The pro-life movement is more familiar with Judge Barrett at this point because of her last confirmation hearing when she went toe to toe with Sen. Feinstein and she was being attacked for her Catholic faith," said Mallory Quigley, vice president of communications at the Susan B. Anthony List.
"That was a moment that really caught the attention of the broader pro-life movement," Quigley said.
Trump has yet to meet with Lagoa, and he has been coy about whether he will do so when he's in Miami this week.
Biden has a slight lead over Trump in Florida, according to the RealClearPolitics average of state polls.
The president told reporters Thursday that he is "getting very close to a final choice" and plans to announce his nominee from the White House on Saturday.
Lagoa quickly shot up Trump's shortlist, and allies say the prospect of nominating a Cuban American woman who garnered solid bipartisan support in her confirmation to the federal appellate bench could be appealing to moderate voters.
The Senate confirmed Lagoa last year in an 80-15 vote. Nominating Lagoa to the Supreme Court would put some Democrats in a difficult position if they try to explain their opposition to a nominee they supported in 2019 or if they choose to go on the attack against a Latina on national television.
Barrett, by contrast, was confirmed by the Senate in a much narrower 55-43 vote, with only three Democrats voting for her.
Florida lawmakers in particular have lobbied for Lagoa, arguing she could help deliver the state's 29 electoral votes to Trump.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who introduced Lagoa at her 2019 confirmation hearing, told reporters this week that he spoke to Trump on Monday and offered praise for Lagoa.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), both staunch Trump allies, have also advocated for the judge and argued that she could buoy his prospects in the Sunshine State, which is all but a must-win for the president to secure reelection. DeSantis nominated Lagoa as the first Hispanic woman to serve on the Florida Supreme Court in 2019, before she was nominated by Trump to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.
Still, Trump allies acknowledge that the impact on the race in Florida would be limited. One former White House official doubted that choosing Lagoa would make a meaningful difference there.
The former official described the impact of the Supreme Court fight on the presidential race in the following way: "Conservatives who may be a little demoralized - a little bit beat up, de-energized by polling - get more energized."
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week showed Trump with a 4 percentage point edge over Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in Florida, a state the president won narrowly in 2016.
Part of Trump's calculation may be which judge will fare better in what is expected to be a bruising confirmation battle where Democrats are likely to highlight the nominee's views on abortion and access to health care just weeks before Election Day.
Another former White House official pointed to the chaos around the confirmation hearings for Kavanaugh, suggesting the president will be looking for a nominee who will be able to weather personal attacks without getting rattled.
"I don't think from a political vote getting analysis that that is part of the president's calculation," said Corey Lewandowski, one of the president's campaign managers during the 2016 campaign and a surrogate in the 2020 race. "The president's calculation is who is the best person to serve on the court. Who is the most competent person on the court, understanding that there is going to be a battle."