John Bresnahan and Burgess Everett
The Barrett confirmation drive has been made more controversial than a typical Supreme Court fight by Trump and Mitch McConnell’s precedent-breaking move to act weeks before Election Day. Senators on both sides of the dais have launched into long partisan speeches haranguing their colleagues over hot-button issues, sometimes not even asking questions of Barrett.
In fact, the hearings often look more like a campaign debate than a thorough review of Barrett’s qualifications for a lifetime appointment on the nation’s highest court. But with Barrett’s confirmation all but assured in the polarized Senate, both parties see an opportunity to seize political advantage heading into November. And never has a Supreme Court confirmation collided so neatly with a presidential election and a battle for Senate control.
Graham defended blurring the line between Barrett’s confirmation hearings and his own reelection campaign, noting that Democrats on Monday had raised the issue of how many South Carolinians could lose health care if the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, in an upcoming case.
“It’s pretty appropriate for me to respond to political attacks in a political way,” Graham said Tuesday during a break in the hearings. “If you didn’t catch it, all day yesterday was attacks on the ACA. They mentioned three times South Carolina, what would happen if the ACA is repealed. I thought it was fair for me to say my position is there’s a better way for South Carolina.”
Graham’s response shows how some Republicans now view Barrett’s nomination. Democrats can’t derail her on the merits, so they have to broaden the fight to include abortion, health care, election security and, of course, Trump.
“Arguing ‘We want to race her through so she can rule against the Affordable Care Act’ is not a great argument,” scoffed Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a Judiciary Committee member. “I don’t know why this is good for them.”
But with their Senate majority imperiled and Trump threatening to drag them down, Republicans see one last chance to activate the conservative voters who pushed their party over the top in 2016 amid a GOP blockade of a Supreme Court vacancy. Four at-risk Republican senators might be stuck in D.C. for Barrett’s confirmation hearings — including Graham — but the GOP sees a chance to save its majority with a victorious confirmation vote right before the election.
Republicans reason that being seen fighting for Barrett on national TV is perhaps the best way to boost the hopes of Graham and GOP Sens. Thom Tillis (N.C.), Joni Ernst (Iowa) and John Cornyn (Texas) — especially during a pandemic that’s limited traditional campaigning to Zoom sessions and small events. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said that politically, this week’s hearings are “a lot more important than attending yet another rubber chicken dinner on the campaign trail.”
Cornyn spent his opportunity for questions ripping Democrats’ presumption of how Barrett would rule as “propaganda in order to make a political point.” He also predicted afterward to reporters “it will be a fundraising bonanza” for his Democratic opponent MJ Hegar.
“Obviously this is the worst kept secret in the world, so there’s nothing to do but embrace it,” Cornyn said of the potential benefit to him of the Barrett confirmation fight. “I have every confidence that this is a positive in my state.”
Yet for Democrats, the hearing has become a high-profile venue to litigate their broader message: Republicans want to get rid of the Affordable Care Act and the Supreme Court is the only way they can do it. Since 2018, when Democrats took back the House, the party’s focus on health care has been at times single-minded, and it’s a message only heightened by the coronavirus pandemic.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) framed the GOP strategy this way: “They want the Supreme Court to be the issue, not the pandemic. It’s pretty simple.” Officials at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee argued that the two can’t be separated.
“Senators Graham, Ernst, Tillis, and Cornyn just reminded the entire country that Republicans still want to overturn the Affordable Care Act and gut coverage protections for pre-existing conditions,” said DSCC spokeswoman Helen Kalla. “Poll after poll shows voters are rejecting Republicans’ priorities during this public health crisis.”
Though Barrett won’t be confirmed for a couple weeks, Republicans in tough races have not yet seen the big polling bump in red-leaning states that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation gave them in 2018. But that hasn’t tamped down vulnerable Republicans’ enthusiasm.
After 10 days of isolating after testing positive for coronavirus and attending Monday’s hearing virtually, Tillis made sure he was there in person on Tuesday for his Q&A session with Barrett. He talked about his plans to donate blood and sympathized with other North Carolinians who had contacted coronavirus.
Tillis also advised Barrett’s family to “treat social media like roadkill” and not look at it; at one point, he read tweets critical of Barrett and entered them into the record. He ended his remarks by attacking liberal Democratic presidential candidates who had supported “Medicare for All, which could be Medicare for none.” The actual Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, prefers expanding Obamacare.
Ernst said there’s nothing strategic to her being in D.C. for the hearing: Skipping it wouldn’t be an option. But she said questioning Barrett helps her in her close race against Democrat Theresa Greenfield regardless — particularly if she can continue trying to work on a new coronavirus relief bill while in Washington.
“It’s important to Iowans who sent me here to do my job,” Ernst said in an interview. “And if we can continue working on virus negotiations, I think it’s helpful.”
Ernst spent her bloc of time hitting Democrats for blocking a $ 300 billion GOP stimulus bill in September, reiterating her own “pro-life” views, and attacking Obama-era regulations that she said hurt Iowa farmers. As she was questioning Barrett, a fundraising email from the National Republican Senatorial Committee hit donors’ inboxes.
The message said the GOP is “closer than ever” to installing a conservative majority on the Supreme Court but contained an urgent plea: “We need YOUR help to get the job done, friend. If we fail to maintain the majority, we cannot confirm conservatives to the courts!”