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Worries Abound on Garland Nomination and ‘Obama Coalition’

Some Dems worry court pick won't fire up minority voters

Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland (right) talks with Senate Judiciary Ranking Member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland (right) talks with Senate Judiciary Ranking Member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Some Democrats are concerned President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court will fail to drive the liberal and minority voters who helped him win twice to the polls in November.  

When the country’s first black president selected a white male as his third and likely final high court pick, some liberals instantly responded with concerns that he missed an opportunity to fire up the so-called “Obama coalition.”  

Among this groups are some African-American lawmakers and advocates, who say sending the Senate the first black female nominee would have done more to motivate the political base that carried Obama to a pair of national election victories. “I was hoping that he would pick an African-American woman,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a longtime civil rights leader. “My recommendation publicly was [Attorney General] Loretta Lynch.  

“She’s an outstanding jurist,” Lewis said in a brief interview. “Plus, African-American women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. “They’re the ones who vote. … I think that that would have been a good rallying point to keep the coalition together — no doubt about it.”  

Lynch removed her name from consideration to focus on her job at the Justice Department.  

Charles Chamberlain, political director for Democracy for America, a progressive political action committee founded by former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, said “the Garland nomination hasn’t excited the Democratic base much at all.”  

“People in the coalition just aren’t that driven by the thought of, ‘Let’s get another 60-something-year-old white dude on the court,’” said Chamberlain.  

Data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau and one left-leaning think tank show African-American voters were a big factor in Obama’s electoral college and popular vote victories in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.  

African-American voter turnout rates climbed by 13 percentage points between 1996 and 2012, according to the Census Bureau. But a closer look at that increase shows the sharpest increases occurring between 2004 and 2008, then again between 2008 and 2012. “Notably, among all race groups and Hispanics, only Blacks showed a significant increase between 2008 and the most recent election in 2012,” the bureau noted in a report titled “The Diversifying Electorate .”  

And the Center for American Progress noted that in 2012, “unlike Democratic victories of the past … President Obama was also able to achieve victory with a historically low percentage of the white vote.” He won 93 percent of black voters, scored in the low 70s with both Latinos and Asian-Americans but was supported by just 39 percent of white voters, according to exit poll data compiled by CAP.  

Selecting a white judge for the Supreme Court “is quite disturbing because an African-American or minority would [have] put the Senate in a very unique paradox,” said Barbara Arnwine, president of the Transformative Justice Coalition and a longtime law professor. “How would they tell these very qualified African-American nominees they’re not going to give them a [confirmation] hearing or even a meeting?”  

“This could have been a paradigmatic shift” because “the president’s party has never treated the Supreme Court like the Republicans have,” Arnwine said. By nominating a left-leaning, white moderate, “it weakens advocacy — why would anyone fight for a moderate?” she asked.  

The Garland pick also has exposed fissures within Democratic circles.  

Some doubt the nomination will prevent the “Obama coalition” from turning out to support Hillary Clinton, who is moving closer to securing the party’s presidential nomination, and its senatorial candidates.  

“It’s difficult to point to one thing that will fire up the ‘Obama coalition,’” said Donna Brazile, a former interim National Chair of the Democratic National Committee and a longtime political strategist. “I do believe there will be multiple reasons for those voters to turn out: to protect and expand President Obama’s legacy, and not just as it relates to the Supreme Court.”  

She also pointed to issues such as the safeguarding the health care overhaul, as well as continuing Obama’s economic policies and foreign policy approach.  

“There are plenty of reasons for those who turned out in ‘08 and ‘12 to come out in November,” she said. “There’s a case to made that in those states that have Senate races … there will be such intensity. … And added to that mixture in this already hot campaign season will be this vacancy.”  

For his part, Chamberlain said he sees many of the same issues driving the 2008 and 2012 coalition to go vote in big numbers. “I do see both sides of this,” he said.  

Another Georgia Democrat, Rep. Hank Johnson, said “people of my persuasion should rest comfortably knowing this nominee will be a drastic change from the man who he’d be replacing.” He was referring to staunch conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February.  

“I think he will make an excellent justice on the Supreme Court. From what I’ve seen of his background, [Garland] is a Democrat,” Johnson said. “I don’t think the president wanted to tender the nomination of someone just because of the color of their skin or their sex, and have them disqualified by those in power. I don’t think he wanted to waste this selection. I think he honestly wants to get this person confirmed.”  

Contact Bennett at Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.

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