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For Mitch McConnell, Keeping His Senate Majority Matters More Than the Supreme Court

For Mitch McConnell, Keeping His Senate Majority Matters More Than the Supreme Court
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As the Democrats weigh their options about how to stop Mitch McConnell from filling Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat, one tactic that they should forget about immediately is arguing that it would be hypocritical of McConnell to jam in a new Justice so close to an election. Obviously, it nakedly is, given that Ginsburg died forty-five days before the 2020 election, and this was McConnell’s rationale for blocking Barack Obama’s nominee two hundred and sixty-nine days before the 2016 election. But anyone familiar with the Republican senator from Kentucky’s long political career knows he couldn’t care less about hypocrisy; like President Trump, he is immune to shame.

“McConnell will do anything that serves his interests. We know that,” Norman Ornstein told me, shortly after learning of Ginsburg’s death. Ornstein, a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute whose expertise is Congress, has known every Senate Majority Leader during the past fifty years—including McConnell, quite well. The question now, though, is how McConnell will define his self-interest.

As I reported in April, behind closed doors McConnell has been raising money from big conservative donors for months by promising that no matter how close it might be to the election, he would install Trump’s Supreme Court pick. As a former Trump White House official told me, “McConnell’s been telling our donors that when R.B.G. meets her reward, even if it’s October, we’re getting our judge. He’s saying it’s our October surprise.”

But now that the moment is here, the calculation isn’t quite so simple. On Friday night, McConnell released a statement vowing that a Trump nominee “will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.” While McConnell’s obstruction of Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, made him the bane of liberals, he has regarded it with pride as the single “most important decision I’ve made in my political career.” He and many others believe it handed Trump his victory by motivating the politically powerful evangelical bloc to vote for Trump, despite their doubts about him, because he promised to fill the Court vacancy with a social conservative. It’s entirely possible that the same scenario will play out again this November, with Trump and McConnell offering another enticing gift to evangelicals.

But McConnell is also what Ornstein calls “a ruthless pragmatist,” whose No. 1 goal has always been to remain Majority Leader of the Senate. He’s made the conservative makeover of the federal court system his pet project, but if he faces a choice between another right-wing Justice and losing his control of the Senate, no one who knows him well thinks he’d hesitate for a moment to do whatever is necessary to stay in power. In fact, back in the summer of 2016, when it looked like Trump would lose to Hillary Clinton, far from being distressed at his party’s dim prospects, McConnell was savoring the probability of being the single most powerful Republican in the country, according to a confidant who spoke with him then.

The problem for McConnell now is that it may be impossible for him to both confirm a new Justice and hold onto his personal power as Majority Leader. A power grab for the Court that is too brutish may provoke so much outrage among Democrats and independents that it could undermine Republican Senate candidates in November. As he knows better than anyone, polls show that Republican hopes of holding the Senate are very much in doubt. If Joe Biden is elected, enabling a Democratic Vice-President to cast the deciding vote in the Senate, Democrats need only to pick up three seats to win a majority. And, at the moment, according to recent polls, Democratic challengers stand good chances against Republican incumbents in Maine, Arizona, and Colorado. Democrats also have shots at capturing seats in South Carolina and Iowa.

No one knows for sure how the politics of the Ginsburg seat will play out in close Senate races. But the issue likely puts some of the most endangered Republican candidates in very tough spots. In Maine, for instance, Susan Collins can’t afford to either alienate the Trump base by voting against a conservative Court pick or to alienate moderate Republican women, who don’t want a radically right-wing judiciary. Late on Saturday afternoon, Collins contradicted McConnell’s line, saying in a statement, “In fairness to the American people, who will either be re-electing the president or selecting a new one, the decision on a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court should be made by the president who is elected on November 3rd.” Hours before the news of Ginsburg’s death on Friday, Lisa Murkowski, an independent-minded Republican senator from Alaska, said that she thought it was too late for a confirmation vote, telling a public-radio interviewer that “I would not vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee.”

Given those complications, Ornstein predicts, McConnell may “use some elements of delay.” McConnell conspicuously laid out no timetable when promising a Senate vote for Trump’s nominee. Ornstein speculates that he may hold off on a vote until after the election to provide cover for his members but, meanwhile, obtain private pledges of support from them. It would mean he’d have the votes to ram a confirmation through the Senate during the lame-duck period after the election, regardless of who has won the White House.

Senate watchers suggest that the first thing that McConnell probably did after learning of Ginsburg’s death was to call every member of his caucus, in order to make an assessment about whether it would help or hurt his members to force a Supreme Court confirmation vote. On Friday night, he also issued a thinly veiled warning to his caucus members to shut up, or, as he put it, “be cautious and keep your powder dry.” According to the Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the McConnell letter, he warned, “For those of you who are unsure how to answer, or for those inclined to oppose giving a nominee a vote . . . this is not the time to prematurely lock yourselves into a position you may later regret.”

Keeping the Republican senators in line was also among the top concerns McConnell had when Antonin Scalia unexpectedly died, in February, 2016. McConnell immediately coördinated with Leonard Leo, then the executive vice-president of the powerful conservative legal group the Federalist Society, to plot a path forward that would avoid what Leo reportedly called “a cacophony of voices.” To keep control, they came up with a plan. Although eleven months remained in the President’s second term, McConnell immediately announced he would block a vote for any Obama nominee because it was an election year, and so he argued, “the American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.” The speciousness was breathtaking. Since the nation’s founding, the Senate had confirmed seventeen Supreme Court nominees in election years. Moreover, the “American people” had made a choice—they had elected Obama. But, despite declaring themselves as conservatives who respect precedent, McConnell, in consultation with Leo, simply invented a new rule to cover their radical defiance of past precedents and accepted norms.



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