Vulnerable Republican senators were expecting a barrage of criticism from Democrats over the Supreme Court standoff, but now they could also face a backlash on the right for agreeing to meet with President Barack Obama’s nominee.
The conservative group FreedomWorks blasted strongly worded statements targeting two Republicans who met with the nominee , Judge Merrick Garland, this week. And the senators facing tough re-election races who are meeting with Garland this week could face the same criticism.
“It depends on what they say after the meeting,” said FreedomWorks spokesman Jason Pye. “We’ll look at it and look at their statements and see if they’re consistent with what we believe.”
Even sitting down with the nominee, Pye explained, can have consequences.
“We think meetings lead to hearings and there’s always the potential that hearings lead to votes,” he said.
Of the nine Republican senators facing the toughest re-election bids , five have agreed to meet with Garland. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., will meet with Garland Tuesday, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., is sitting down with Garland Wednesday and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, will meet with him on Thursday.
The Rothenberg-Gonzalez Political Report/Roll Call rates all three of their races as Tilts Republican . All three have hewed to the GOP line, saying that though they are meeting with Garland, they intend to reiterate their position that he should not be granted a hearing or a vote.
The vast majority of the GOP caucus, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, say the next president should choose the replacement for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February. Replacing him with the centrist Garland would change the political balance on the high court.
On April 2, FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon said GOP senators who agree to meet with Garland are “playing with fire, and they can’t blame the conservative grassroots when they get burned.”
Pye elaborated that agreeing to meet with the judge, even if they haven’t shifted their position on hearings and votes, is still cause for concern.
FreedomWorks has not issued a statement condemning Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who was the first Republican to meet with Garland and sent a memo encouraging his GOP colleagues to do the same. He has also called for a hearing and a vote on Garland, who is now chief judge on the Court of Appeals for D.C.
Pye said there was no particular reason his group has ignored Kirk, but said FreedomWorks is not pleased with his position.
The fact that these vulnerable incumbents are also fending off attacks from the left over the Supreme Court, does not give FreedomWorks any pause in criticizing them on the right.
“I think Republican senators who are having meetings with the nominee may think it puts them in a better position for re-election,” Pye said. “If that’s what they believe, I think they’re wrong. I think it’s going to send the wrong message to the conservatives in their states.”
Several senators said they were not concerned about conservative backlash to their meeting with Garland, arguing their meeting was simply a courtesy.
“I mean I meet with people all the time,” said Portman. “I don’t know that many federal judges have asked to meet with me, but I don’t think I would ever say no. So I think it’s a courtesy that should be extended.”
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who also faces a tough re-election bid, said his meeting hasn’t been scheduled yet, but he plans to sit down with the judge. Asked if he was concerned about conservative backlash, Johnson shook his head and raised his hands in exasperation, and responded, “I meet with all kinds of folks.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who is also up for re-election in November and is meeting with Garland on Tuesday, also said, “No, I’m not concerned.”
“I suppose there’s some people [who are] quite critical,” He later added, “The bottom line of it is that the White House likes to have this show that there’s some sort of a crack. There isn’t any crack at all.”
Grassley did garner praise from FreedomWorks’ CEO Brandon, who said in a Friday statement that Grassley “has shown tremendous resolve in this fight.”
The senator in charge of ensuring Republicans maintain their majority in the Senate said he wasn’t surprised when conservatives criticized some
“I appreciate advocacy groups agreeing with our widely held position,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss. “That position is that this issue is not about the personality or qualifications of a single judge. This matter is strictly about filling a pivotal seat in the Supreme Court when the voters are about to have an opportunity to express an opinion about the way the court should lean.”
But Pye said his group would continue to push Republicans not to change their position, particularly as more GOP senators agree to meet with Garland.
“To some degree we are trusting them, but at the same time we have to make sure they follow through,” said Pye. “We want to keep the pressure up.”
As of April 5, the group had organized its network to send 1.5 million emails to senators regarding the Supreme Court vacancy. The vulnerable GOP incumbents who have agreed to meet with Garland have been getting the message as well.
Offices for three senators — Kirk, Portman and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey — have received more than 34,000 emails each, and Ayotte and Johnson’s emails have both received more than 24,000 emails from FreedomWorks’ supporters on the subject, according to Pye.