The battle lines were drawn, the polls were stable — and then came the news that liberals have been dreading for years.
Neither party could say with confidence late Friday night how Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death would alter the presidential campaign. The only certainties are these: an all-out battle over filling her vacancy before Jan. 20, and already motivated electorates in both parties further riled by the fight.
The news dropped just as Joe Biden had solidified his lead in the polls, Donald Trump’s campaign was scraping for money and Democrats looked to close out the race focusing on Trump’s struggles with the coronavirus and the economy. Insomuch as Trump is struggling, Republicans said the change of subject can only help.
With Trump promising a high court nominee within days, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowing to hold a vote before the January inauguration, Republicans were betting a Supreme Court fight would veer the narrative back to the kind of social issues they believe will animate their base and draw Trump-wary Republicans back into the fold.
Democrats, though, pointed to now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in the fall of 2018, and predictions at the time that they would motivate Republicans to turn out in droves in the midterm elections.
Instead, Democrats swamped the GOP across the board.
The death of Ginsburg, a beloved figure on the left, and the battle to name her successor have the potential to motivate Democrats in ways not seen before.
“The truth of the matter is, not only are the courts on the ballot, but generations of decisions are on the ballot. I think we’ll see enthusiasm like we’ve never seen before,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist. “For so many people, this election could mean life or death. That’s how we treat it.”
Republicans were equally bullish about the effect on their own voters. At recent battleground state rallies, Trump has taken pains to ask supporters to envision the judicial appointments that would be made by a Democratic president, going so far as to say there would be no more Second Amendment if he weren’t reelected.
Trump now has the opportunity to profoundly transform the ideological makeup of the court.
“Supreme Court openings for Republicans now — and specifically for President Trump — [are] all upside if you look at the politics of it,” said Matt Schlapp, chair of the Conservative Political Action Committee. “There’s no downside.”
With just 11 days until the first debate, the Supreme Court vacancy has blown up what had been a remarkably stable race in a remarkably unstable year. Biden’s monthslong polling edge had barely budged, and both sides were set in their strategies. While Biden was savaging Trump as an incompetent failure, the president was castigating his rival as a tired and ineffective insider.
The vacancy gives Trump a powerful late appeal to traditional Republicans who’ve long been uncomfortable with him. The president has spent much of his campaign highlighting the long list of judges he’s confirmed and last week unveiled a list of potential Supreme Court, a project he’d been working on for months.
The pick is almost certain to bolster Trump’s lagging fundraising at a time when he’s facing a cash crunch. Democrats are already benefiting: The small-donor platform ActBlue reported raking in millions of dollars late Friday.
While many establishment Republicans were queasy about pulling the lever for Trump in 2016 — particularly after the release of the lewd Access Hollywood tape in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women — they did so after being reminded that he would stack the bench with conservative justices.
“If you are a Republican who needed a reminder about the stakes of your vote, you got one tonight,” said Scott Jennings, who was a top political aide in the George W. Bush White House. “This exact scenario recovered a huge number of GOP voters for Trump in late 2016 and could well do it again.”
The vacancy comes amid increasing Republican alarm about an enthusiasm gap between the two parties. Democrats have been requesting absentee ballots at a far higher rate in key states, raising concerns among party strategists that the opposing party is far more revved up than they were four years ago.
“That’s what Trump wants: When you talk about the Supreme Court, you’re talking about social issues and that’s how he wants to close out this campaign,” said Heather Colburn, a Democratic strategist. Colburn noted, though, that an election about values could also reinforce Biden’s message from the beginning of his campaign to “restore the soul of this nation.”
Some senior Republicans hope the forthcoming pick will give conservatives a jolt.
“There was always going to be massive turnout, and Democrats are already fired up beyond belief. With Democrats likely to enjoy a significant advantage in early, mail-in voting, we’re going to need every vote we can get come Election Day to offset that deficit,” said Robert Blizzard, a veteran Republican pollster.
Republicans tossed around other scenarios late Friday: that Trump could nominate a woman, helping help him make up lost ground among female suburbanites. Or that a Republican push to replace Ginsburg with a staunch conservative might help Biden with progressives who’ve been less than jazzed about him as the nominee.
It’s also possible the pick won’t make much of a difference at all. Some Democrats on Friday were betting that voters would still be more concerned about dangers around the pandemic or when schools would reopen.
Also, both bases are dug in and energized, and polls show few remaining undecided voters remain to be swayed.
Brandon Scholz, a former executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, warned that Trump’s aides would have to try their best to keep the president on message with regard to the pick.
“He still has the possibility to screw things up and say something dumb. Who knows tomorrow what he’ll say and do and just let all the air out of the balloon,” Scholz said. “His campaign needs this. He needs this. It’s a game changer. There aren’t too many game changers like this around.”
Read more: politico.com