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Conservatives Keep Up Pressure On Senate GOP To Hold The Line On SCOTUS Nominee

Merrick Garland Supreme Court Nomination

While there have been a handful of Republican Senators, such as Mark Kirk, Susan Collins, and Jerry Moran, who have crossed the line, the Senate Republican Caucus remains largely united in opposition to either hearings or a vote for Judge Merrick Garland, who President Obama has chosen to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a host of conservative groups are united to ensure that the GOP caucus as a whole stays in lockstep:

There are plenty of plausible reasons why Republicans might eventually fold in the standoff over the Supreme Court: overwhelming public opinion, a Democratic pressure campaign, and vulnerable GOP senators trying to save their jobs, to name a few.

But there’s another, even more persuasive, reason they won’t: the wrath of the right wing.

The activist right has been galvanized by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s quick and forceful insistence that the Senate will not take up a high court nominee for the rest of Barack Obama’s presidency, spending millions already to defend the GOP position with likely lots more to come. Tea party groups that have dissed McConnell for years as an establishment sellout are singing his praises.

It’s safe to say all of that would end the instant Republicans agreed to take up Merrick Garland’s nomination. And the fire would turn inward at the worst possible moment for Republicans, as the party is scrambling to save its narrow Senate majority in November.

“If the senators start to move off of this position, the biggest problem they are going to face is going to be a loss of support … they’re going to alienate the most active part of their constituency,” said Adam Brandon, president and CEO of FreedomWorks. “I want Mitch McConnell to see that the potential grass-roots army is far stronger than anyone on K Street.”

Look no further than the reaction to Sen. Jerry Moran’s (R-Kan.) break with party leadership last week — he said the Senate should take up Garland’s nomination — to see how important it is to the base not to fill Antonin Scalia’s vacant seat this year. The conservative Judicial Crisis Network vowed a “robust” campaign against Moran to change his mind. The Tea Party Patriots threatened to back a primary challenger against the first-term senator.

It’s easy enough to imagine the entire Senate GOP getting the same treatment.

The JCN has already spent $4 million on ads, both bucking up McConnell and Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and going after Democrats from red states. The deep-pocketed group says it has the resources to keep it up as long as needed.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, meanwhile, has been fundraising off the Supreme Court vacancy for weeks, a tactic that works only if the party remains united. And Susan B. Anthony List, which opposes abortion rights, has shifted its focus from the presidential campaign to holding the Senate, with plans to spend millions helping senators who oppose abortion rights.

“This would be the worst point in history for a cave to occur, and for that reason I do not believe it will,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president. “When there is true leadership coming out of the Senate, it’s a more appealing body to defend.”

When former House Speaker John Boehner resigned under pressure last year, all eyes shifted across the Capitol to McConnell, who’s drawn more than his share of flak from the right for cutting deals with Democrats. His vow for no hearings or vote on the president’s court pick instantly remade the majority leader’s reputation with his conservative adversaries. But the dynamic could change just as quickly if he backs away.

“If Republican senators can’t fulfill the basic task of defending the Constitution, they should be defeated at the ballot box,” said Ken Cuccinelli of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group that consistently works against McConnell.

McConnell’s confidants say the message has been received. People close to him say he’s holding the line 100 percent, and that the Republican Conference overwhelmingly has his back. McConnell appeared on four Sunday political shows this month to repeat at length his plans to allow voters “to weigh in” before the vacancy is filled.

“This is first time I find myself praising Mitch,” said Brandon of FreedomWorks.

“I don’t think [conservatives] would be happy. I wouldn’t be happy” if McConnell relented, said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. “The idea that anybody is sort of exerting pressure and somebody’s going to crack is just not reality.”

While a growing number of Republicans say they will meet with Garland, just three GOP senators — Moran and moderates Susan Collins of Maine and Mark Kirk of Illinois — have truly broken with the leader and called for hearings and consideration of Garland’s nomination. GOP senators such as Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rob Portman of Ohio, all of whom face tough reelection campaigns, say they will meet with Garland merely to reiterate their position that the seat should be filled by the next president.

Democrats believe McConnell is motivated by self-preservation. Siding with activists on the Supreme Court, they say, could help the majority leader avoid Boehner’s fate.

“I do believe he’s going to lose the majority. And he’s hoping that 2018 is going to be better [electorally] and he wants to save his job so he’s around [to return to majority leader] in 2018,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said in an interview. “He’s actually saving himself and sacrificing his people that are up this time. He knows what happened to Boehner.”

This largely mirrors what I have been saying about the political motivations behind how the Senate is approaching this vacancy since Justice Scalia passed away. Virtually from the moment that news hit the Internet, conservative activists and conservative Senators jumped on the idea that there should be no vote to fill the vacancy until after the next President takes office. This position was quickly adopted by all of the Republican candidates for President, by Mitch McConnell himself, and by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley. Conservative activist groups quickly made “No Hearings, No Votes” a priority issue for them and began warning Republican Senators that deviation from this position could have severe repercussions More importantly, notwithstanding the limited defections we’ve seen so far the Senate GOP Conference has remained largely united even in the face of polling that has shown that most Americans believe that the Senate should give the President’s nominee a hearing and a floor vote. To a large degree, that unity can be traced to a combination of political calculation and the fact that Senate Republicans believe they have more to fear from a backlash from conservatives than they do from voters in the fall.

To put it bluntly, the calculation that Republicans are making is that most voters are unlikely to consider the GOP’s position on Merrick Garland’s nomination as a deal breaker on Election Day. Given political history, this isn’t a an unfair or illogical conclusion at all. In the past, it’s generally been the case that persuadable voters are most strongly motivated by so-called “pocketbook” issues when they are making their decision about who to vote for. These include issues such as the state of the economy, taxes, as well as their own personal economic situation. Other issues, such as foreign policy also play a role, but that often depends on the state of the world at the time of the election. Other issues, such as gun control, the Supreme Court, and abortion rights, tend to be low priority issues for these voters, and it is generally the case that voters who are most inclined to punish a Republican at the polls because of their position on a vote for Merrick Garland is a voter who wasn’t going to vote Republican in the first place. On the other side of the ledger, though, are the heavily committed Republican voters who would be strongly motivated to punish GOP incumbents for straying from the party line. Given this political reality, it’s not surprising that the Senate GOP is likely to hold the line on this nomination, and that they’re unlikely to change their position unless the hard-line activists change their position. At the very least, that’s unlikely to happen at any point between now and Election Day.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Mu says:

    Jan 21 2017, Senate Majority leader Schummer welcomes President Clinton’s nomination of Barack Obama to the vacant SCOTUS seat, promises rapid confirmation after eliminating the filibuster. Mitch McConnell found dead in is bed with a JEB! sticker over his mouth and nose, suicide suspected.

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  2. C. Clavin says:

    14 Republicans who actually care about the Republic have to join with the Democrats to allow Garland to become a Justice.

    Two weeks into the nomination fight, 16 Republican senators now say they will meet with Garland — over 25 percent of the GOP caucus — according to a running count by NBC News.

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  3. al-Ameda says:

    On the other side of the ledger, though, are the heavily committed Republican voters who would be strongly motivated to punish GOP incumbents for straying from the party line. Given this political reality, it’s not surprising that the Senate GOP is likely to hold the line on this nomination, and that they’re unlikely to change their position unless the hard-line activists change their position. At the very least, that’s unlikely to happen at any point between now and Election Day.

    Dead on. 6 years of full-on obstruction have proved to me that it is unlikely that Republicans will pay for this latest round of planned assured dysfunction.

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  4. James Pearce says:

    But there’s another, even more persuasive, reason they won’t: the wrath of the right wing.

    Oooh, the wrath of the right wing. Scary scary. Considering the only victims of “the wrathful right wing” these days have been other right-wingers, “Please proceed, governor.”

    To put it bluntly, the calculation that Republicans are making is that most voters are unlikely to consider the GOP’s position on Merrick Garland’s nomination as a deal breaker on Election Day.

    The dealbreaker is going to be Donald J. Trump. Republicans really need to smarten up.

    They think the right wing is wrathful now? Wait until President Clinton Jr. gets her mandate.

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  5. James Pearce says:

    @al-Ameda:

    6 years of full-on obstruction have proved to me that it is unlikely that Republicans will pay for this latest round of planned assured dysfunction.

    I continue to think that past results do not guarantee future performance.

    Dynamics change. Obama is being term-limited out of the White House. They need to pivot away from obstruction and towards some kind of positive agenda. Right now they’re stuck in a rut, testament to a lack of ideas beyond “take our country back from this liberal menace our neighbors .”

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    @James Pearce: When Hillary gets elected, the RWNJs will blame RINOs collectively for not nominating a True Conservative ™. (Even if they nominate Cruz, he won’t be a True Conservative ™ after he fails conservatism by losing.) They won’t single out McConnell for blame. It won’t motivate a primary challenger or a fired up base against McConnell. And as Majority, even Minority, Leader, he’ll still collect a lot of cheddar. Mission Accomplished. He’s not up ’til ’20, but why take chances?

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  7. HarvardLaw92 says:

    The conservative Judicial Crisis Network

    Interestingly, this org was originally known by another name – the Judicial Confirmation Network – and was formed specifically to advocate for / try to bully through the confirmation of Bush’s court nominees.

    It changed its name (although not its mission, which has always been to assure a conservative majority in the federal courts) about the time that Obama assumed office. I guess it sort of had to do so – otherwise the hypocrisy would have been too blatant to ignore. Truthfully, it’s too blatant to ignore regardless.

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  8. C. Clavin says:

    @HarvardLaw92:
    I was unaware of that…too funny.

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  9. James Pearce says:

    @gVOR08:

    When Hillary gets elected, the RWNJs will blame RINOs collectively for not nominating a True Conservative

    I dunno. This is the go-to complaint when they go the “electable” route, when they pick a Romney over a Gingrich, but I’m not sure it will work so well with a Trump.

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  10. al-Ameda says:

    @gVOR08:

    When Hillary gets elected, the RWNJs will blame RINOs collectively for not nominating a True Conservative ™. (Even if they nominate Cruz, he won’t be a True Conservative ™ after he fails conservatism by losing.)

    If Trump is the nominee who goes down in flames, you bet there will be recrimination – conservatives will be lit up like the burning bush, however if Cruz is the losing nominee they’re going to have to be more imaginative when it comes to their whining and finger-pointing.

    If the GOP ends up brokering the convention I happen to think Paul Ryan will be asked to save the game, just as he was asked to save the speakership.

    A Ryan and Kasich ticket might go far, especially among those resentful and angry white working class voters who think that they want Social Security and Medicare privatized.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    @al-Ameda: They can always point out Cruz’ history as a Washington insider and say he was only pretending to be a true conservative. It might even be true.

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  12. HarvardLaw92 says:

    This just in – the union case out of California (Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association), which looked to be headed for. 5-4 gutting of public employee unions, has resulted in a 4-4 split, affirming the 9th Circuit’s ruling in favor of the unions.

    Thanks Teapublicans! :-)

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  13. george says:

    Unforced error on the GOP side. They could have given a hearing, voted no, and moved on to the next candidate to reject – that’s business as usual for both sides.

    By refusing to even give a hearing they’re just making their obstruction glaringly obvious even to people who don’t follow politics much (ie most of the population). Still can’t figure out why they’re taking the hard route on this. However, I suspect it’ll result in a much more liberal justice when Clinton wins the presidency; a number of people have speculated that’s what Obama had in mind in the first place. If so, good on him.

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  14. Pch101 says:

    @gVOR08:

    Yep. Ideologues have real difficulty seeing the linkage between their own idiocy and the lousy outcomes that they produce. (It doesn’t help that they regard themselves as a silent majority; if they acknowledged their minority status, then they might figure that they’ll need to cut deals if they are going to achieve their objectives.)

    When the hard right bangs on about accountability, what they’re really talking about is blame. They themselves are never responsibility for anything. If they get the nominee who they want and lose, they’ll still blame the “liberal media” or whatever other nonsense that they can dream up.

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  15. Tony W says:

    @george:

    a number of people have speculated that’s what Obama had in mind in the first place.

    I, for one, admire Garland’s patriotism and willingness to take one for the team. He is a true American hero.

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  16. steve s says:

    They could have given a hearing, voted no, and moved on to the next candidate to reject – that’s business as usual for both sides.

    Weeks after saying Obama should nominate Garland but won’t cuz he’s a politics-playing liberal, they’d have a public forum demonstrating what a great candidate he is for 2 months and then they’d just all vote no on him and nobody would notice? Nope. They had to insist on no hearings from the start because it was obvious that publicizing their behavior would make sensible people see them as immoral assholes. Which they are.

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  17. george says:

    @steve s:

    Weeks after saying Obama should nominate Garland but won’t cuz he’s a politics-playing liberal, they’d have a public forum demonstrating what a great candidate he is for 2 months and then they’d just all vote no on him and nobody would notice? Nope. They had to insist on no hearings from the start because it was obvious that publicizing their behavior would make sensible people see them as immoral assholes. Which they are.

    No human alive doesn’t have some issues that a partisan group (like say the GOP senate) can’t use to regretfully vote against. The argument “he looked good but under examination issues were revealed” will get by most people (who just aren’t that interested in politics to begin with and even less so in the composition of the supreme court), especially since it can be covered in a lot of legal talk. Most people, for instance, didn’t care one way or the other about Bork. People who care about something like that already know which party they’re voting for (though Trump might turn some away from the GOP).

    But refusing even to give a hearing, that’s non-technical, and its easy to understand and sounds unfair even to people who don’t follow politics. Its a rookie mistake on their part.

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  18. steve s says:

    Garland’s family is uber-connected among the Washington elite. Hearings usually last a couple of high-profile months. A sitting GOP senator said Obama should nominate this guy by name. After a 2-3 month media parade promoting him as the most bipartisan, kindest, gentlest, beltway-centrist jurist Superman, no way they come out of voting that guy down without weeks of damage right before the convention.

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  19. steve s says:

    They didn’t have Any good choice, because they are immoral deranged cretins.

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