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Judiciary Committee to collide with campaign trail for Supreme Court fight

Sen. Kamala Harris and four vulnerable Republicans on panel

The Senate Judiciary hearing room will become an extension of the 2020 campaign trail next month — and not just because the committee features the Democratic vice presidential nominee. 

As the panel considers President Donald Trump’s nomination of federal appellate Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, much of the attention may focus on Sen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s running mate, who has been known for her sharp questioning.

“I am definitely going to be involved in the hearings and performing my role and responsibility on the Senate Judiciary Committee,” the California Democrat told pool reporters Monday during a campaign stop in North Carolina.

Senate Judiciary members also include four Republicans who are facing competitive races in November, among them Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.  

“It’s an exposure bonanza for a Republican who is up for election this year,” Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker, author of several books on the Senate, said of the upcoming Judiciary hearings. 

“Especially when there’s no state fair to go to, no steak fries to attend, the opportunity to get that kind of exposure is worth its weight in gold,” Baker added.  

Besides Graham, Iowa’s Joni Ernst and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis are also locked in competitive races, both rated Toss-ups by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. While Texas Sen. John Cornyn has led in recent polling, some Democrats believe the Supreme Court fight could make his race more competitive

Stuck in D.C.

Graham announced Saturday that Barrett’s confirmation hearings will begin Oct. 12, meaning that these vulnerable senators may be stuck in the nation’s capital just three weeks before the election. 

Sitting in the hearing room instead of on the campaign trail might not be a problem though, with much of the electoral politicking going virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Most of what I’m doing is by Zoom anyway,” Cornyn said last week when asked if he was concerned the hearings would keep him in D.C.

But Democrats could use their roles on the committee against the vulnerable senators who will be questioning Barrett. On Monday, some Democrats already started accusing these Republicans of playing politics.

“The fact that these Senate Republicans have refused to pass a new bipartisan relief package for months but are now rushing to rubber stamp a new Supreme Court justice who will rip away health care protections for people with pre-existing conditions underscores how wrong their priorities are during this crisis,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Stewart Boss said in a statement. 

Robert Howard, a spokesman for the North Carolina Democratic Party, made a similar comment Monday, writing in an email that Tillis is prioritizing the Supreme Court fight over “urgently needed COVID relief.” Texas Democratic Party spokesman Billy Begala accused Cornyn of following the will of his “D.C. political bosses” who “want to rush a lifetime appointment onto the court.”

Like other Democratic challengers, Ernst’s opponent, real estate executive Theresa Greenfield, plans to keep the focus squarely on health care even as Ernst may be in the national spotlight as a member of the Judiciary Committee.   

“It doesn’t matter where Senator Ernst is,” Greenfield spokeswoman Izzi Levy said in a statement. “She can’t run from her disastrous record of gutting protections for pre-existing conditions and dismantling Medicaid expansion.” 

(Ernest pledged at a Monday debate to “do her duty” as a Judiciary member. “We will vet the nominee,” she said.”)

In South Carolina, recent polls have shown Democrat Jaime Harrison and Graham in a neck-and-neck race, but Harrison needs to appeal to independent voters and moderate Republicans to win in the conservative state. That gives him little incentive to make a forceful statement on the nomination. 

Graham’s campaign on Monday knocked Harrison’s silence about the Supreme Court as an “unfortunate trend.”

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“Watching Lindsey Graham stand up for this impressive conservative woman scares Democrats,” Graham campaign spokesman TW Arrington said in a statement. “It’s been [Harrison’s] playbook all race: hide from hard questions about his liberal views, and run attack ads.”

Later on Monday, Harrison made his first public statement on the high court vacancy, telling Charleston ABC affiliate WCIV that he doesn’t think the appointment should be rushed before the election and, as senator, he would “give every president’s nominee fair and thorough consideration.” 

In the spotlight

The shift to the high-stakes confirmation hearings from the campaign trail may boost vulnerable Republicans who have lagged their challengers in fundraising. Graham sounded the alarm recently on Fox News, noting that Harrison was outspending him, but he won’t have to pay anything for all the media attention his chairmanship will provide next month. 

“Being on the Senate Judiciary Committee can really help these senators in tight races with lots of local media coverage, increased fundraising and higher enthusiasm with voters back home as long as they approach the confirmation process in a thoughtful and serious manner,” said Ron Bonjean, a former Senate GOP staffer who served as the communications strategist for Justice Neil M. Gorsuch’s confirmation in 2017 and is now a partner at the firm ROKK Solutions.

It’s not just Republicans who see an advantage for their party’s most vulnerable candidates. 

“Scheduling this confirmation during peak campaign season might normally be a detriment, but I think it is giving an aura of legitimacy to some folks that are struggling to find exactly that, right now, like Sen. Graham, who used the earned media opportunity on Fox to literally cry and beg for money,” said Cristina Antelo, a Democratic strategist and founder of the lobbying firm Ferox Strategies.

Even as Democrats have raised millions of campaign dollars since Gingburg’s death, GOP operatives still say they embrace the fight over Barrett’s nomination. That’s the case even for vulnerable Senate Republicans who don’t sit on Judiciary, such as Montana’s Steve Daines. 

One Republican senator up for reelection, Maine’s Susan Collins, said she did not favor having the Supreme Court fight before the election. But she was an outlier on that in her party. 

And Republicans on Senate Judiciary will likely stay on message during the committee hearings. 

“This is literally a made-for-screen event, and so the entire thing will be orchestrated — it’ll be just about the sound bites,” said Mark Keam, a former Democratic counsel on Senate Judiciary who is now a member of Virginia House of Delegates.

He said he believed the media spotlight would give a boost to Graham in his competitive reelection race. “As a Democrat, unfortunately, I think it’ll help Lindsey,” said Keam, who was chief counsel on the panel for Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. 

For Harris, he added, she’ll have to tread carefully not to get “ahead of Biden on anything” but also work to be in good standing with the progressive side of her party for the sake of her own potential presidential ambitions. 

Herb Jackson and Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.

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