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The Memo: GOP seeks to make Jackson part of broader Biden midterm war

Republicans don’t have the votes to stop Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson from being confirmed to the Supreme Court — but they hope to use her nomination battle to advance their political war against Democrats, with an eye to the midterm elections.

The GOP’s game plan is to fit Jackson’s story into a bigger narrative that casts President Biden and his party as soft on crime and preoccupied with identity politics and “wokeness.”

Those lines of attack were evident on Monday, as Jackson’s confirmation hearing opened before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The criticisms will be sharper when senators question Jackson directly on Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Monday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) used his opening remarks to allege the Biden administration is “waging a war against the rule of law.” He cited rising crime rates in many cities, as well as historically high levels of unauthorized border crossings.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) went after Jackson in more personal terms, but in a way intended to make a case against the president who had nominated her. 

Blackburn asserted that the nominee had been engaged in a years-long effort “to protect convicts.”

The Tennessee senator, who also mentioned critical race theory and a “progressive agenda that is being pushed in some of our public schools,” went on to muse about whether Jackson had a hidden agenda “to let violent criminals, cop killers and child predators back to the streets.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said that he would want to hear more from Jackson about her sentencing of sexual predators, including those in child pornography cases. 

Hawley contends Jackson has a record of leniency in such cases, though the charge has gotten a lot of pushback — and not only from liberals. In the conservative publication National Review, writer Andrew McCarthy called Hawley’s allegations “meritless to the point of demagoguery.”

None of those attacks will change the end-result of Jackson’s confirmation process unless any Democratic senator breaks ranks and votes against her. There has been no suggestion of that so far. Some Democrats, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (Ill.) hold out hope of getting a modicum of GOP support for her.

Last year, three Republican senators — Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — voted with Democrats to confirm Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

But even if Jackson does take her place on the high court’s bench, Republicans believe her hearing can still serve a political purpose.

“The confirmation process has turned into a political campaign and a branding exercise,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist who led the communications drive to support Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was nominated by then-President Trump in 2017.

“There is an opportunity here to make this part of the larger branding of the entire Democratic Party,” Bonjean added, especially if Republicans weave her into “a larger narrative against the Biden administration as being soft on crime.”

To further that end, Republicans are expected to pick up on Jackson’s work as a federal public defender and her advocacy for some controversial clients, including inmates of the Guantánamo Bay prison camp.

This line of argument has run into some mild resistance even from some Republicans, including Sen. John Kennedy (La.).

“We’ve all represented clients that we didn’t agree with and in some cases, didn’t even like,” Kennedy told The Washington Post last week. “But everybody has the right to counsel.” 

Democrats, meanwhile, present Jackson’s work as a public defender as an asset.

“You understand our justice system uniquely through the eyes of people who couldn’t afford a lawyer,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told Jackson at Monday’s hearing.

Still, the attempt to cast Jackson as an emblem of Biden’s weakness on crime could find fertile ground. A CBS News-YouGov poll in mid-January indicated that 61 percent of adults disapproved of the president’s handling of crime, while only 39 percent approved.

Matt Mackowiak, the chairman of the Travis County, Texas, Republican Party, said GOP attacks on Jackson “could connect to a broader message about defunding the police and not supporting public safety” on the part of Democrats.

But Mackowiak cautioned that his fellow Republicans should not exaggerate the lasting effects of Jackson’s nomination process, one way or another.

He noted that her confirmation, if it happens, “doesn’t change the balance of the court at all. It’s not even clear that Republicans are even going to fight all that hard.” In the midterms, he added, issues like inflation and border security are likely to resonate more strongly with voters.

Republicans also must tread carefully when it comes to how vehemently they oppose Jackson.

She is, famously, the first Black woman to be nominated to the Supreme Court.

If she is confirmed, she will become only the sixth female justice in the court’s 233-year history. She would be only the fourth person of color, after the late Justice Thurgood Marshall and current Justices Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor.

While robust questioning of Jackson is to be expected on Tuesday and Wednesday, lines of questioning that seem disrespectful or demeaning of the judge could backfire badly.

Excessively aggressive questioning, including on Jackson’s record as a public defender, would be akin to “trying to lean into a buzzsaw,” said Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh. “They know they don’t have the votes. It’s all posturing.”

Democratic senators, for their part, are embracing and amplifying Jackson’s history-making status.

“This is not a normal day for America. We have not had this moment before,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) enthused on Monday. 

Durbin called the occasion “a proud day for America” and lauded Jackson as an “inspiration to millions of Americans who see themselves in you.”

Republicans, though, are still hoping they can make Americans see something different and more sinister — and cause damage to Biden by doing so.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. 

Tags Clarence Thomas Cory Booker Dick Durbin Donald Trump Joe Biden John Kennedy Josh Hawley Ketanji Brown Jackson Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Marsha Blackburn Neil Gorsuch Sonia Sotomayor Supreme Court Susan Collins Tom Cotton

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