WASHINGTON — Senate Democratic leaders are focused on securing a bipartisan majority to block President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, but it could be members of their own party who sink their chances.
Red-state Democrats up for re-election in November are under intense pressure to consider Brett Kavanaugh, even as progressive activists call on Democrats to do everything they can to oppose his Senate confirmation.
Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Manchin of West Virginia are among Democrats from Trump states whose votes will be closely watched, and they aren’t revealing much about how they’re leaning.
“Is it about the Supreme Court nominee?” McCaskill asked when approached by a reporter Wednesday. “I got nothing.”
McCaskill, along with several others, has said she wants to study his record. Manchin, meanwhile, in a Wednesday radio interview, said Kavanaugh has “all the right qualities,” though he wants to hear from West Virginians.
Democrats can’t afford defections. Republicans control the Senate by a narrow 51-49 majority, which means Democrats will need Republicans to join them if they’re going to defeat Kavanaugh. And Manchin, Heitkamp and Donnelly defected last year on the confirmation of another conservative Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch.
Rally the base
Democrats are focusing on messaging they believe will help unify their party, arguing that Kavanaugh would help unravel the Affordable Care Act and protections for those with pre-existing conditions. And to rally the base, they’re talking about how he would threaten abortion rights by helping overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade case. Those issues have drawn support in the past from Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, both GOP moderates.
They’re requesting reams of documents which they believe will help elevate these issues.
“If we can convince the American people that this nominee will undo health care and pre-existing conditions and undo Roe, we’ll get a majority of the Senate,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on Wednesday.
Kavanaugh, a U.S. appeals court judge, said during his 2006 confirmation hearing that he would follow Roe v. Wade, but he dissented last year in a ruling allowing an undocumented teen in federal custody to get an abortion. When his court upheld Obamacare, he dissented, though he said he would have blocked it on procedural grounds.
At a news conference, Democrats said Trump’s pick of Kavanaugh is his latest attempt to undermine the Affordable Care Act and bring America back to the days when insurers could discriminate against those with pre-existing conditions. A woman described how Obamacare’s pre-existing condition protections helped her 6-year-old daughter, Charlie, after she was born premature and with complex medical needs.
“What kind of country is this that I have to beg for my baby’s future?” asked Rebecca Wood as Charlie drew on sheet of paper.
As part of their strategy, Schumer said Americans would hear more about the “Charlies of the world.” A new legal effort to invalidate the law could make it to the Supreme Court.
Focus on health care
Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, said he expects and hopes red state Democrats will focus on health care as a reason to object to Kavanaugh.
“It is the most dramatic and powerful issue in every special election we’ve held,” he said. “The American people are tuned in to the failure of the Republicans to come up with an alternative to Obamacare and they understand that the Republicans and the administration are sabotaging health care in this country.”
Health care is a less polarizing issue in some red states than abortion. Before Kavanaugh was nominated, McCaskill and Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said they were concerned Trump would choose a nominee who would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade. McCaskill told Politico she was “not optimistic” Trump would appoint someone she could support.
But Donnelly opposes abortion rights, except in cases of rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. Manchin is against abortion and has voted with Republicans on the issue.
“I’ve noticed that they seem to have switched from a focus on Roe to health care in an attempt, I assume, to unify their caucus,” Collins said of Democrats.
Democrats came together last year against Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare, and they have already made access to health care the priority issue in their campaigns. In his statement on Kavanaugh, Manchin said he is interested in the judge’s position on protecting West Virginians with pre-existing conditions.
“This issue, probably first among all the others, is the one that they can look to and the one in the end that they can justify a ‘no’ vote on,” said Brad Woodhouse, campaign director for Protect Our Care. “All of these members are running on health care already.”
Woodhouse said his organization will focus attention on Maine and Alaska, the homes of Collins and Murkowski, but will also be “raising the stakes” in red-states with Democratic senators.
The liberal group Demand Justice, as part of a $5 million campaign to defeat Kavanaugh, will launch ads urging Heitkamp, Manchin and Donnelly "to stay strong" in this fight and praising their past support for protecting the ACA, said Brian Fallon, the group's executive director.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said grassroots groups have an "implicit deal" right now with Senate Democratic leadership.
"If they keep their caucus united in at least doing no harm, grassroots groups can focus our firepower on Republicans like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski," Green said. "But the second that any Senate Democrat actively marches in the wrong direction and starts implying they would or are inclined to vote for Trump’s extreme pick, that necessarily means that outside groups need to refocus our energy."
Meanwhile, red-state Democrats are getting hammered at home with ads from the opposing side. And their opponents are making it a key issue.
McCaskill’s GOP opponent, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, focused on the Supreme Court in his first TV ad.
And in West Virginia, Manchin’s opponent, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, held a news conference to call on Manchin to support Kavanaugh, saying this nomination is one reason why West Virginians supported Trump.
“I fully expect Senator Joe Manchin to support Brett Kavanaugh, and here is why: Because at the end of the day, this is about his political survival,” Morrissey said.
Contributing: Eliza Collins, Deirdre Shesgreen and Richard Wolf