Tumultuous court battle upends fight for Senate

The burgeoning battle over who should replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is upending the fight for control of the Senate.

With 43 days until Election Day, and voting already underway in some states, the Supreme Court fight is a volatile issue likely to overshadow the final weeks of a campaign already taking place amid a historic pandemic.

"It's another wild card into an already very I would say ... in some ways a volatile political environment," said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), Thune's Democratic counterpart, predicted that the final stretch would be "intense." Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), a member of GOP leadership, agreed, adding that "it probably goes through the roof on both sides."

The Senate battle is viewed by political handicappers as a toss-up, with Democrats having momentum in recent weeks. They need to gain at least three seats and the White House to take back the majority.

Both sides believe the fight to replace Ginsburg will fire up partisans at a time when they are already amped up.

"I think you're looking at a fairly combustible situation here, where it's going to be something unlike what we've seen in American politics," said a GOP official about the final stretch.

GOP senators are using the issue to contrast themselves with challengers in Georgia, Montana and South Carolina, three red states with seats that Democrats are hoping to flip.

Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) have both thrown their support behind the vow by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to give whomever President Trump nominates a vote.

"If Democrats take control of the Senate, they have said they will add four seats and pack it with activist judges. The choice for the future of the Supreme Court is clear, and our nation's founding principles are at stake," Perdue said in a statement.

GOP strategists hope the fight will shore up their base, which views the courts as a top priority, at a time when they are worried about losing right-leaning independents unhappy with Trump and his handling of the coronavirus.

"This has the potential to bring soft Republicans back home in a significant way," said a GOP strategist involved in the Senate fight.

While questioning how much the issue will really raise turnout, Republican strategist Doug Heye said it will drive fundraising and give GOP senators an issue popular with their base to tout heading into Nov. 3.

"They now have something new to talk about that allows them to be on offense, so it would be political malpractice not to," said Heye, who called a Supreme Court confirmation battle "such a motivating factor for Republicans."

In other states, the fight could help Democrats.

Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Susan Collins (Maine) are the two GOP senators running for reelection in states Trump lost in 2016 and is expected to lose this cycle. Collins says the Ginsburg seat shouldn't be filled until after the election.

Trump has criticized Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who also supports putting off the court fight until after the election.

"I think Susan Collins is very badly hurt by her statement yesterday. And I think - I think Murkowski is very badly hurt. And she doesn't run for two years, but I think this will follow her into the beautiful ... state of Alaska," Trump told "Fox & Friends" on Monday.

He also praised Gardner, putting pressure on him to stick with McConnell.

"I think it's going to help Cory. I do. I think it's going to help Cory Gardner. He's a great guy, by the way, and a - very, very loyal to the party and loyal to his state. He loves his state, and I know that for a fact," Trump said.

Bitterness over the GOP's decision not to give a hearing to Merrick Garland, then-President Obama's final Supreme Court nominee, shadows the Senate fight.

Several vulnerable GOP senators, at the time, supported McConnell's decision to refuse to give Garland a hearing or a vote.

Two years later, a fiery battle took place over Justice Brett Kavanaugh's nomination. Republicans hammered red-state Democrats over their votes against Kavanaugh, who faced old charges of sexual assault, and believed the issue bolstered their candidates in the final stretch of the 2018 cycle.

The 2020 fight comes amid a difficult environment for several GOP senators.

A New York Times-Siena College Research Institute poll found that voters in Arizona, Maine and North Carolina trust Biden more than Trump to pick a Supreme Court nominee.

"I think this raises the intensity and urgency on the Democratic side," said a Democratic strategist, adding that "there's a lot of energy and enthusiasm" among voters.

Pointing to the polling, the strategist added that Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), Collins or Gardner voting to confirm Trump's nominee before the election could be "deeply problematic" for the three Senate incumbents.

Money has poured in for Democrats across the map following Ginsburg's death, including more than $100 million as of Sunday through ActBlue and more than $20 million through the Pod Save America's anti-McConnell initiative, according to a Democratic official.

Democrats are also seizing on how a more conservative Supreme Court could affect health care, an issue they believe fires up their voters and sways independents. Democrats put concerns over protections for pre-existing conditions and health care coverage at the center of their 2018 campaign, when they won back the House.

Putting health care at the forefront, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case that could determine the future of the Affordable Care Act shortly after the November election, feeding fears that a 6-3 conservative court could strike down the law.

"Republicans have been dragged down all cycle by their records of refusing to stand up to the president for what's right and voting to gut health care protections for pre-existing conditions. The question of filling this vacancy shines an even brighter spotlight on these vulnerabilities," said Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the Democratic campaign arm.