The New York Times: For Midterms, Supreme Court Political Drama Plays to Its Audience

07/11/2018

BOONVILLE, Ind. — Joe Donnelly knew his audience: Addressing a group of camouflage-clad union mine workers and retirees here last weekend, the Democratic senator trumpeted his efforts to protect their pensions and health care, asked attendees to raise their hands if they knew someone with a pre-existing health condition, and made not a single mention of the coming Supreme Court vote that could determine his political fate in November.

“It’s a big deal to those who know it’s a big deal, but it doesn’t translate to folks that go to work every day — they’re focused on things that make their life better,” said Russ Stillwell, a former Democratic state lawmaker from this southern Indiana community, explaining why Mr. Donnelly had ignored the most urgent topic in Washington just days before President Trump would nominate Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Two days later, in a Democratic campaign office at a strip mall in eastern Pennsylvania, a different atmosphere prevailed in the run-up to Mr. Kavanaugh’s nomination. Susan Wild, who is running for an open House seat in her Lehigh Valley district, and several dozen volunteers made phone calls Monday evening to women in the area, warning them that another conservative justice would put Roe v. Wade “in more danger than ever,” as a script provided to campaign workers described it.

“It’s not just Roe — it’s a lot of things Democrats care about,” said Barbara Diamond, a local activist who joined the volunteer session. “Affirmative action, the A.C.A., gun control — lots of things the court has the power to roll back.”

The monthslong Supreme Court clash that lies ahead will draw hundreds of thousands of activists to the fray, produce tens of millions of dollars in advertising and consume untold hours of television coverage.

But the long-awaited debate over replacing Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s swing vote is more likely to intensify the existing forces of the 2018 midterm elections rather than turn the campaign on its head.

In Senate races, Mr. Trump’s judicial selection could amount to a test of fealty for Democratic lawmakers in mainly conservative states like Indiana, where control of the chamber is likely to be decided. But the choice of a judge who could threaten abortion rights is likely to stir renewed opposition from voting groups, like white women, in the moderate suburbs that may determine control of the House.

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In House campaigns and some state-level races, the nomination is resonating very differently.

In the educated suburbs where Mr. Trump’s party is already on defense — and struggling to dissuade moderate women from deserting it altogether — the prospect of an election-year abortion debate is far more unsettling to Republicans, and could fire up already-energized liberals while cleaving centrist women from the G.O.P.

By midday Tuesday, multiple Democratic congressional candidates, in areas like northern New Jersey and the outer suburbs of Chicago, had attacked their Republican opponents for their views on abortion.

In Pennsylvania, where Republicans have traditionally soldered together a coalition of rural whites who are more culturally conservative and upscale suburbanites mainly concerned with taxes, an abortion-rights battle could further dismantle that fraying alliance. State Representative Leanne Krueger-Braneky, a Democrat helping lead the party’s strategy in legislative campaigns, said the Republican coalition was already straining badly.

In the past, she said, some Republicans had managed to avoid getting pinched on the abortion issue because the Supreme Court had limited states’ abilities to regulate the procedure. But Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination could change that.

“My experience is that most moderate Republicans don’t want to have to vote on unconstitutional abortion bans, because their constituents are opposed to them,” Ms. Krueger-Braneky said, predicting, “This is an issue that people will come out and vote on.”

Ms. Wild’s opponent in the Seventh District, Marty Nothstein, said on Tuesday that he was not so sure about that. Mr. Nothstein, a local official in Lehigh County who was an Olympic gold medalist in cycling, said in an interview that he still believed the election there was more likely to hinge on economic matters than on issues related to the court, like abortion.

“We have to get away from this partisan anger and gridlock and move forward,” Mr. Nothstein said.

Yet in an illustration of the predicament confronting Republicans like him, Mr. Nothstein — while describing himself as “pro-life” — also declined several times to say whether he favored overturning Roe v. Wade.

Ms. Wild and her volunteers, on the other hand, took a bring-it-on attitude toward a debate over abortion rights. At her campaign office on Monday, a huge sheet of paper hung from one wall, with a block-lettered question in red ink — “Why do you fight for reproductive justice?” — beneath which supporters scrawled their replies.

Ms. Wild, a lawyer who was endorsed by multiple abortion-rights groups in a contested primary, said the Supreme Court fight would add urgency to the Democrats’ efforts to take back some power in Washington. She warned that Mr. Trump’s nominee could revive “the days of back-room abortions” and neuter the judiciary as a restraint on the president.

“I hear a lot from voters about there being a check on the Trump administration,” she said.

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Read the full article from The New York Times.

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