Amy Coney Barrett has emerged as the favorite candidate for social conservatives in the debate over who President TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE should pick to replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Barrett — a 46-year-old appellate judge — checks multiple boxes for the right.
Her age will allow her to influence the court for decades, she’s unabashedly conservative and deeply religious, and her gender, conservatives hope, will make it harder for critics to paint her as extreme on women’s rights and health care.
Abortion is expected to be at the center of the Senate debate on the next court pick no matter who Trump nominates because of Kennedy’s status as a pivotal vote on the issue.
But picking Barrett would guarantee an explosive confirmation fight in the Senate and likely spark a broader, all-out culture war months before a midterm election where Republicans are battling to keep control of Congress.
Conservatives have rallied around Barrett, who has questioned Roe v. Wade and the court’s deference to legal precedent — raising the prospect that she would be more likely than other picks to vote to overturn the 1973 decision legalizing abortion.
She’s in the top tier of contenders.
In addition to Barrett, Trump is said to be heavily considering Brett Kavanaugh, a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Raymond Kethledge, a judge on the 6th Circuit.
Just the speculation that Barrett could be tapped to succeed Kennedy has sparked early crossfire, underscoring that she’s viewed as one of, if not the, most controversial pick Trump could make.
“She is a conservative woman who has been successful, who has been a mother, been a professor, which represents a lot of conservative women out there. ... The left hates that. It does not fit their model,” Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, said on Fox News radio.
Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Progressives push for fossil subsidy repeal in spending bill Louisiana delegation split over debt hike bill with disaster aid MORE (D-N.Y.) made Barrett his first direct target, warning she would be an “activist” justice and the “deciding vote” on overturning Roe v. Wade.
Conservatives are privately questioning Kethledge and Kavanaugh, setting Barrett up as the nominee who could most excite the base heading into November.
Barrett is relatively new to the federal judiciary, joining the 7th Circuit last year. But she vaulted through the ranks of conservative circles after she survived a showdown with Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee who appeared to question if her Catholic faith would influence her rulings.
“The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern when you come to big issues that people have fought for for years,” Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate advances Biden consumer bureau pick after panel logjam Republicans caught in California's recall trap F-35 fighter jets may fall behind adversaries, House committee warns MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the panel, told Barrett during the hearing.
Republicans quickly seized on the remarks, accusing Democrats of trying to apply a religious test to judicial nominations.
Conservatives are publicly rallying behind Barrett, arguing the optics of a female nominee could scramble the Democratic narrative that Trump’s pick will be detrimental to women’s rights and abortion.
“Opposing a woman will probably be more awkward for senators than opposing a man would be,” Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor for National Review, wrote in a Bloomberg op-ed publicly urging Trump to pick Barrett.
He added that if the court was going to overturn Roe, “it would be better if it were not done by only male justices, with every female justice in dissent.”
Unlike Kethledge and Kavanaugh, Barrett — a Notre Dame Law graduate and clerk to former Justice Antonin Scalia — has another advantage: She was recently confirmed to the 7th Circuit by, essentially, the same Senate that will vote on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
Democratic Sens. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDemocrats confront 'Rubik's cube on steroids' Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - What do Manchin and Sinema want? MORE (Va.), Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBiden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Manchin: Biden told moderates to pitch price tag for reconciliation bill Biden employs flurry of meetings to unite warring factions MORE (W.Va.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyRepublicans may regret restricting reproductive rights Sanders traveling to Iowa, Indiana to pitch Biden's spending package Supreme Court battle could wreak havoc with Biden's 2020 agenda MORE (Ind.) all voted for her. Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampWashington's oldest contact sport: Lobbyists scrum to dilute or kill Democrats' tax bill Progressives prepare to launch counterattack in tax fight Business groups aim to divide Democrats on .5T spending bill MORE (N.D.), another Democratic swing vote, did note.
Moderate GOP Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCollins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid McConnell privately urged GOP senators to oppose debt ceiling hike GOP senator will 'probably' vote for debt limit increase MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff Graham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet Trump, allies launch onslaught as midterms kick into gear MORE (Alaska) both supported Barrett for her current position.
But they would face a mountain of pressure to oppose Barrett because of her previous writings. Collins said this week that she would not support a nominee who is “hostile” to Roe v. Wade.
Sarah Peck, a spokeswoman for Kaine, said he supported Barrett because of her “professional record” and pledge to “follow the law,” but added that a Supreme Court nomination is substantively different.
“A mistaken Supreme Court ruling can be both catastrophic and difficult to correct,” she said.
Donnelly would face enormous pressure to support Barrett because she is from Indiana.
Barrett’s supporters note that she said in 2013 that it was “very unlikely” that Roe v. Wade would be overturned and the “fundamental element, that the woman has a right to choose abortion, will probably stand.”
Democrats counter with a slate of legal writings, including a 2003 article where Barrett argues stare decisis should be “flexible.” She wrote in a separate 2013 law article that the doctrine “is not a hard-and-fast rule in the court’s constitutional cases.”
“The public response to controversial cases like Roe reflects public rejection of the proposition that stare decisis can declare a permanent victor in a divisive constitutional struggle,” Barrett wrote.
With their narrow majority effectively capped at 50 as Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCollins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Meghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden Biden steps onto global stage with high-stakes UN speech MORE (R-Ariz.) undergoes treatment for brain cancer, Republicans have no room for error.
But some conservatives — burned for years by nominees they believe shift toward the middle once on the bench — are urging Trump to nominate Barrett even if she might not be the safest choice.
Leadership at the American Family Association, the American Principles Project and the Judicial Action Group, in a recent letter, urged Trump to nominate Barrett because she wouldn’t be a “stealth nominee.”
“It is better to have a vacancy until next year,” they wrote, “than to fill the seat with a weak nominee who will betray your legacy and the constitution for the next forty years.”