U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill will be closely watched as the Senate weighs a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Kennedy was considered the high court’s swing vote throughout his three-decade tenure on the court, and the debate over his replacement promises to galvanize voters across the political spectrum.
McCaskill’s likely GOP opponent, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, signaled Wednesday that he intends to make the issue his new focus in the campaign.
McCaskill voted against President Donald Trump’s previous nominee to the Supreme Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch. The Missouri Democrat said Wednesday that she will wait to discuss the criteria she’ll use to vet Kennedy’s replacement until after Trump makes a nomination.
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"I thank Justice Kennedy for his long and dedicated service to our country, and I believe it's premature to discuss his replacement until one has been nominated,” McCaskill said in a statement.
McCaskill joined other Democrats in filibustering Gorsuch’s nomination last year. He was confirmed to the court after Republicans changed Senate rules, a move that was referred to as the nuclear option.
Hawley has repeatedly hammered McCaskill on the campaign trail for that vote. He seized on the issue of judicial nominees Wednesday afternoon.
“There is no issue for our country more important than the United States Supreme Court. I know. I’ve worked there. I’ve litigated there. But Claire McCaskill has never once voted in line with Missouri’s wishes on a Supreme Court nominee, and that’s why she must be replaced,” said Hawley, who previously worked as a clerk for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
“The great issues of our day are decided at the Supreme Court: immigration, religious liberty, the right to bear arms, the right to speak freely. And they are at stake now. I am proud that President Trump chose Neil Gorsuch for the Court last year. Senator McCaskill ignored her constituents and voted against him. I look forward to another nominee who will defend the Constitution and our way of life.”
Hawley challenged McCaskill to a debate about the Supreme Court Thursday. Republican candidate Austin Petersen called Hawley's challenge to McCaskill ironic, noting in a statement that the attorney general has not agreed to any debates with his primary opponents.
McCaskill did not immediately weigh in on whether a vote on Trump’s nominee should take place before the mid-term election.
Republicans successfully blocked a vote on Judge Merrick Garland, who was nominated during the final year of President Barack Obama’s presidency, enabling Trump to select Gorsuch early last year.
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday that Republicans should wait until voting on a nominee until after the election. He said it would be the “absolute height of hypocrisy” for Republicans to force a vote in an election year.
Kennedy's retirement comes after recent rulings that highlighted the significance of Gorsuch's seat, including Tuesday's 5-4 decision to uphold Trump's travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries.
The debate over Kennedy's replacement could cause McCaskill “a lot of difficulties,” said Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Missouri.
“For Hawley, it gives him something important to Republicans to talk about, something that’s really substantive. … It’s a good issue to rally Republican support.”
However, Squire also said that if Trump selects a nominee who appears likely to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, which established the right to abortion, then it might provide McCaskill with an issue that will mobilize Democratic voters.
McCaskill's campaign did not comment on the political ramifications of Kennedy's resignation.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., praised Kennedy in a statement but avoided delving into the details he’ll weigh in considering Kennedy’s replacement.
“I’m grateful for Justice Kennedy’s four decades of service as a federal judge. His wide-ranging knowledge and interests, along with his commitment to his family, are likely to make for a great next chapter after leaving the court. I appreciate his friendship, and wish him and Mrs. Kennedy well,” Blunt said.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said in a statement that Kennedy “dedicated his life to public service.”
“As with any judicial nomination, my mandate is to confirm a nominee who will uphold the Constitution, period,” Roberts said.