SCOTUS: The Effect of Replacing Late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg On The 35 Senate Races

By Jim Ellis

Late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Sept. 22, 2020 — A secondary question surrounding the replacement process for the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is how will the confirmation fight over the next judicial nominee resonate in the 35 Senate races?

In the 18 campaigns that appear non-competitive (9D; 8R) – for example, in Illinois (Sen. Dick Durbin-D), Rhode Island (Sen. Jack Reed-D), Arkansas (Sen. Tom Cotton-R), and Idaho (Sen. Jim Risch-R) to name a representative quartet – the Supreme Court battle will have little influence over the Senate outcome since those situations are virtually decided.

If the individual campaigns play the issue correctly, however, the Supreme Court vacancy development could be a boon to most competitive Republican incumbents and candidates in traditionally conservative states that are moving closer to the political center.

Democratic challengers in the more conservative states could have trouble because the issue matrix likely to be discussed through the nomination and confirmation process should activate the more conservative voting base. This is likely the case in the key competitive southern domains (AL, GA, NC), and in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, particularly in Iowa, the Kansas open seat, and for the Montana duel, in addition to the far west campaign in Alaska.

Perhaps the senator in the worst confirmation question situation, and one who can ill afford to be embroiled in such a predicament, is Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R). Already trailing in polling to state House Speaker Sara Gideon, Sen. Collins’ immediate call to postpone the process, and what will likely lead to a vote against the motion to proceed, will likely cost her conservative votes that she badly needs.

Her position to postpone has likely angered many who comprise the conservative base and gained her nothing with the Independents and soft Democrats that she desperately needs to close the gap between she and Gideon.

A candidate likely to benefit from the SCOTUS confirmation issue is Alabama challenger Tommy Tuberville (R). Sen. Doug Jones (D), already trailing in his quest for a full six-year term after winning a special election in 2017, again finds himself in a difficult position. He’s already voted against Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and for President Trump’s impeachment, both unpopular in the state. Another negative vote, which is likely, could seal his fate. Should Collins lose and Tuberville win, the GOP majority advantage remains at 53-47.

If the individual Republican campaigns in the southern, Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions tie the Supreme Court selection to the gun control/2nd Amendment issue, they could experience a vote bump due to more energy coming from the conservative base. It has been proven that the 2nd Amendment issue is one of the top motivators for right-of-center voters.

In particular, Sens. Thom Tillis (R-NC), Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Steve Daines (R-MT), all should benefit. Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) has already come out strongly for moving forward and confirming a nominee. Substantially trailing her opponent, retired astronaut Mark Kelly (D), Sen. McSally needs a game-changer to alter the current race trend. She will use the Supreme Court confirmation issue to motivate her coalition. Whether this battle is enough to bring her back into close contention remains to be seen.

At least two races would likely see mixed results from the confirmation polarization. Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) would probably benefit from increased turnout and motivation in the Detroit area and the surrounding suburbs, while the 2nd Amendment issue, in particular, would increase right-of-center turnout to challenger John James’ (R) benefit in the areas outside the Detroit metropolitan area.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R), already trailing former governor and presidential candidate John Hickenlooper (D) in all polls, would also get a bump in the rural and western slope regions of Colorado, but will likely suffer further in the Denver metropolitan area.

The argument that Democrats would benefit because their areas experienced the greatest turnout boost in 2018 and the Supreme Court issue will motivate voters in these regions more does not hold as much water in the Senate races because the most competitive Democratic conversion targets are in conservative or right-leaning states.

Therefore, overall, Republican Senate candidates should benefit more than their Democratic counterparts. That, however, almost solely depends upon how the individual campaigns handle the Supreme Court confirmation controversy and other related issues in the closing weeks of the campaign. It is certain, however, that the SCOTUS issue has the potential of influencing virtually every competitive Senate race.

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