The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday has set off a fierce political battle over her replacement and thrust the sudden vacancy into the forefront in the November presidential election.
Ginsburg, who died on Friday at age 87 of complications from pancreatic cancer, was a fierce advocate for women’s rights and the court’s leading liberal voice. Her death gives President Donald Trump a chance to expand its conservative majority with a third appointment at a time of deep divisions in America.
Political strategists say it could bolster his effort to shift the subject away from his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans, while galvanizing both his conservative base and Democrats who fear a change in the balance of power on the Supreme Court.
“This is going to set off a titanic battle. This could seriously effect the election,” said David Gergen, a political adviser who has served four US presidents, both Republican and Democratic.
Trump, seeking re-election on November 3, already has appointed two conservatives to lifetime posts on the court, Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Friday he intends to act on any nomination Trump makes, while Democrats immediately called for the seat to be kept vacant until after January 20, when the winner of the November 3 election will be sworn in.
Trump has been trailing Democratic opponent Joe Biden in opinion polls for months, as Democrats have sought to make the election a referendum on Trump and in particular his response to the public health crisis.
“Any week Donald Trump doesn’t have to talk about coronavirus is a net positive for him,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist who worked for 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. “Historically, Republicans vote on the court. I think some Republicans will see this as the October surprise to gin up excitement in their base,” Payne said. “(But) I think progressives understand the stakes in this election better than they ever have.”
‘A turning point’
Trump had already sought to capitalize on right-wing enthusiasm for his judicial nominees, by adding 20 names to his list of people he would consider nominating to the Supreme Court on September 9.
The Susan B. Anthony List, a leading anti-abortion group, said the opportunity for Republicans to fill the seat was “a turning point for the nation in the fight to protect its most vulnerable, the unborn.”
Biden has not released a list of potential Supreme Court picks but has pledged to nominate a Black woman if a seat becomes available while he is president.
Katon Dawson, a Republican consultant and a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said the development would help Trump with moderate Republicans who may not like him but are aligned with him on policy.
“This solidifies those votes for him.” Dawson said.
But an attempt to rush the nomination just before the election could backfire on Republicans, especially Senators who face tough re-election battles in November, he added.
The threat of losing abortion rights could also exacerbate Trump’s struggles with women voters, said Andrew Feldman, a strategist who works on progressive issues. “When you ask these suburban women to think about the issue of choice, I will take our side of that argument every day,” he said.
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