Neil Gorsuch will have the support of all 52 Senate Republicans for confirmation to the Supreme Court. He also could win the votes of a half-dozen or so Democrats, and therein lies a problem for that party.
Unlike President Donald Trump’s budget or the Republican health-care plan, which are so flawed that it’s easy for all Democrats to oppose them, backing Gorsuch may have some political appeal for Democrats from conservative states. That has inflamed left-wing activists, who have threatened to oppose any Senate Democrat who supports Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
That category might include several incumbent senators who face competitive re-election races next year, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin or North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp.
They will be painted by Republican opponents next year as obstructionists. To counter that charge, it may be useful to be able to say that they voted for a Republican nominee who Democrats can’t defeat anyway and who wouldn’t change the ideological balance of the Supreme Court. Gorsuch would replace the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
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But energized liberal activists, still smarting over the way Republicans blocked President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, are threatening primary challenges next year against Democrats who don’t oppose Gorsuch. Michael Moore, the left-wing filmmaker, warned Senate Democrats on Twitter that if they did not “filibuster and block” the Gorsuch nomination, “we will find a true progressive and primary u in next election.”
Similar messages are being sent elsewhere: In Seattle, for example, a liberal blog this week called for pressuring Sen. Maria Cantwell to oppose Gorsuch in every way. Abortion-rights advocates and some labor unions that have stopped short of threats have still cast the vote as a loyalty test.
The liberal wing wants party leaders to filibuster the Gorsuch nomination, which would put even more pressure on Democratic senators from conservative states. Much as the leaders would like to avoid what would probably be a futile gambit anyway — Republicans could eliminate the filibuster if they didn’t have 60 votes for confirmation — urging from the left will make it hard to do.
For the leaders, disheartened after the drubbing they took in November, the outpouring of anti-Trump activism has been encouraging. Many of them consider it a mirror image of the tea party uprising eight years ago that energized a Republican comeback.
But they also remember that right-wing activists cost Republicans some Senate seats. In Delaware, for example, the self-described anti-masturbation activist Christine O’Donnell won a 2010 primary upset over a popular mainstream Republican and then lost the general election to Democrat Chris Coons. Republicans thus lost a golden opportunity to take the Senate seat vacated by Joe Biden. Similar right-wing primary victories hurt Republican prospects in Missouri and Indiana.
Some Democratic leaders, who are counting on retaining their Senate incumbents next year in an anti-Trump electoral wave, hope to be able to deflect anger over a Gorsuch confirmation vote. First, they can argue that it’s not a key vote because it would be subsequent high court nominations that would tilt the balance.
They also want to focus attention on the administration’s proposed budget, which is unfriendly to voters in a number of conservative states where Trump did well and Democratic incumbent senators are up for re-election. It’s these issues, more than the Gorsuch vote, that they hope activists will focus on when lawmakers go home during recess next month.