Amy Coney Barrett emerges as favorite on right, target for left

Amy Coney Barrett has emerged as the favorite candidate for social conservatives in the debate over who President TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE should pick to replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Barrett — a 46-year-old appellate judge — checks multiple boxes for the right.

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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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerJoe Biden can't lead the charge from his home in Delaware Texas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Pelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing 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 FeinsteinDemocratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children DOJ probing stock transactions made by lawmakers ahead of coronavirus crisis: report Lobbying frenzy connected to stimulus sparks backlash 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 KaineStudents with disabilities could lose with COVID-19 stimulus package Coronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner Senate on cusp of coronavirus stimulus deal after agreements in key areas MORE (Va.), Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinWhite House, Senate reach deal on trillion stimulus package Some Democrats growing antsy as Senate talks drag on Senate fails to advance coronavirus stimulus bill for second time in two days MORE (W.Va.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEx-Sen. Joe Donnelly endorses Biden Lobbying world 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents MORE (Ind.) all voted for her. Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn Heitkamp70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama Pro-trade group launches media buy as Trump and Democrats near deal on new NAFTA MORE (N.D.), another Democratic swing vote, did note.

Moderate GOP Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGOP presses for swift Ratcliffe confirmation to intel post Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus Senate eyes quick exit after vote on coronavirus stimulus package MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGOP senators urge Saudi Arabia to leave OPEC Schumer: Senate should 'explore' remote voting if coronavirus sparks lengthy break Turning the virus into a virtue — for the planet 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 McCainJuan Williams: Biden's promises on women are a big deal Ernst calls for public presidential campaign funds to go to masks, protective equipment President Trump is right — Now's the time for 'all hands on deck' 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.”