Polls also suggest that soaring inflation and the economy top the list of voter concerns above all else, making it hard for other issues to register. In the recent Virginia off-year elections, a focus on abortion rights failed to power Democrats to victory — even after the Supreme Court allowed a Texas law banning abortion after six weeks of pregnancy to take effect.
“I think it’s going to disappoint a lot of the train-wreck watchers,” said Republican strategist Dave Carney, noting that replacing a liberal with a liberal won’t impact the court’s makeup — or create a bloody confirmation fight that would provide Democrats with a rallying cry come November. “Unless the president appoints some whacked-out woke person with a long paper trail of horrible things, I don’t anticipate there being the drama we’ve seen in the recent past.”
The Supreme Court vacancy will undoubtedly galvanize activists on both sides and provide a needed rush of money and momentum for a Democratic base seeking to draw attention to the high-stakes fight for reproductive rights.
A midterm court confirmation — particularly one that will prove historic, as Biden has reaffirmed his commitment to nominate a Black woman — is still a bright spot for Democrats fearful of being dragged down by Biden’s low approval ratings and their unsuccessful attempts to pass key components of his legislative agenda.
Martha McKenna, a Democratic strategist and ad maker, said the nomination will be particularly motivating for the base because “African American women are the absolute backbone of the Democratic Party.”
“There are lots of voters in this country motivated by change, and who want to see more African American women in leadership positions, in business, in elected government, in law,” she said. “I think people who downplay that are wrong. It’s going to be a monumental push forward.”
The backdrop for the new Supreme Court vacancy is a decision the court is expected to make this summer on a restrictive Mississippi abortion law, a ruling that could have implications on abortion rights nationwide. McKenna said it’s likely that women, including those who aren’t Democratic voters, will respond at the ballot box in November if the ruling rolls back access to abortion.
Carney, who is serving as general consultant for New Hampshire Republican Senate candidate Chuck Morse, acknowledged that discussions surrounding the Supreme Court will continue to fuel the abortion conversation. But he doubts it will spell the kind of trouble for Republicans that Democrats suggest.
“It’s going to be an issue. I’m not going to discount it. It’s a great elite argument, but it’s not a bread and butter argument that people talk about,” Carney said. “The Democrats are fixated on this like it’s meth.”
Whether the confirmation process leads to a heightened focus on abortion rights or not, few strategists in either party envisioned a scenario resembling the bitter nomination battle surrounding Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 — a fight that post-mortems on both sides acknowledged had a significant effect on a number of Senate contests.
The Kavanaugh fight took place in fall 2018, with the contentious vote occurring just weeks before Election Day. Republicans were able to fire up their base in response to attacks on Kavanaugh that stemmed from an allegation of sexual assault in high school.
Four incumbent Senate Democrats that November lost their seats in an otherwise strong Democratic year — all of whom voted against Kavanaugh. National Democratic operatives reported seeing substantial shifts in polling as the Kavanaugh fight played out. Competitive races where, for months, Democrats saw they could appeal to crossover voters quickly became hyper-partisan.
Among the Democrats who lost that fall was former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a strong candidate whom Democrats believed could flip an open red-state Senate seat that year.
“It was unquestionably the most important inflection point in the race,” said Dave Cooley, a longtime adviser to Bredesen, a Democrat who throughout the campaign had resonated with moderate Republicans and independent voters. “I think it was the moment where you saw voters go to their corners, and things were never really the same.”
Some Republicans have already signaled their intention to move toward a Kavanaugh-style war footing — Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, quickly released a statement Wednesday predicting that Biden will nominate a “radical liberal with extremist views,” and that party leadership will “force all Democrats to obey and walk the plank in support” of Biden’s nominee.
The Republican National Committee on Thursday issued similar remarks, vowing to “do everything in our power to expose Biden’s Supreme Court nominee and hold Senate Democrats accountable in November for their votes.”
Other Republicans contended that, regardless of Biden’s selection as Breyer’s replacement, the underlying political and economic conditions would play a dominant role.
“It’s not possible to dislodge inflation and empty shelves from the minds of voters,” said John Ashbrook, a Republican strategist who works with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The economy is everything in this election, and the environment will stay terrible for them because of it.”