Supreme Court fight jolts battle for the Senate

Money pours into Democratic campaigns after Ginsburg’s death

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s role as chairman of the Judiciary Committee will put him in the center of the political battle over confirming a replacement for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, while he faces a tough reelection campaign. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s role as chairman of the Judiciary Committee will put him in the center of the political battle over confirming a replacement for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, while he faces a tough reelection campaign. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 21, 2020 at 1:57pm

The battle over replacing the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court is infusing Senate candidates with a new burst of energy, with voters already casting ballots and Election Day just six weeks away. 

Democrats channeled their grief and anger after Ginsburg’s death Friday into donations to candidates working to defeat Senate Republicans and take control of the chamber.

Some Republicans, however, expect a partisan fight over a high court vacancy to energize their base, boosting vulnerable senators in GOP-leaning states. 

Judicial nominations have long motivated Republican voters, particularly those who oppose abortion rights, but the record fundraising numbers reported over the weekend suggest Democrats are tapping into frustration over Supreme Court fights that have rocked the past two election cycles. 

Democrats have been reeling since 2016, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a hearing or vote on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, leaving the seat vacant until after Donald Trump was inaugurated. Democratic furor intensified in 2018, when Brett M. Kavanaugh was confirmed to the high court amid accusations of sexual assault, which Kavanaugh denied. 

Opening their wallets  

After Ginsburg’s death, campaigns and outside groups were quick to blast out fundraising emails, stressing a new sense of urgency.

“The Senate is a toss-up, our Supreme Court is on the line, and GOP megadonors are POURING money into attacks against every Democrat who threatens McConnell's majority,” read a fundraising pitch Monday morning from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Crooked Media’s “Get Mitch or Die Trying Fund,” which splits contributions among 14 Democratic Senate candidates, saw $18 million come in after Ginsburg’s death through Monday morning. That’s more than five times what the effort had previously raised since it launched in July 2019, and included nearly 185,000 donors who gave for the first time. 

“It was the only thing that made me feel good that night, to know that it wasn’t just a group of people who work at a progressive media company who were feeling this anxiousness and need to do something,” said Shaniqua McClendon, political director of Crooked Media, a company founded by former Obama staffers. “The numbers just would not stop moving.”

ActBlue, the Democratic fundraising platform, said over the weekend that small-dollar donors had given a record $100 million through the site as of Sunday morning. ActBlue did not offer details about whether any of the contributors were first-time donors or repeat donors newly energized to give again.

Cooper Teboe, a Democratic fundraiser, said that two days before Ginsburg died, he sent out an analysis to his network of Silicon Valley donors about which races against GOP Senate incumbents they should prioritize.

He said the most crucial races were in Iowa, where real estate executive Theresa Greenfield is taking on Sen. Joni Ernst; Montana, where Gov. Steve Bullock is challenging Sen. Steve Daines; South Carolina, where Jaime Harrison is running against Sen. Lindsey Graham; and North Carolina, where former state Sen. Cal Cunningham faces Sen. Thom Tillis. The pitch brought in about $30,000 for each of those campaigns, Teboe said. 

Then, Friday night, after the news of Ginsburg’s death, three to four times that amount started pouring in from those donors, he calculated.  

Doug Heye, a former House GOP leadership aide, acknowledged that most of the fundraising news has shown a boost for Democrats. 

“Where it will have an impact … is fundraising,” he said. “I’ve seen more on the Democratic side than Republican side, but I know the [Republican National Committee] and Trump campaign have been sending out fundraising notices as well on this.”

Spokespersons for the GOP fundraising platform WinRed did not respond to requests for comment.

Some campaigns have also seen an increase in interest and volunteers since Ginsburg’s death. 

Raphael Warnock, a DSCC-backed candidate running in Georgia’s special Senate election, saw his campaign website traffic quadruple on Saturday and the number of volunteer sign-ups more than triple compared with the previous week, according to people close to the Warnock campaign. 

Campaign strategists said more volunteers and more donations are helpful even with just six weeks to go until Election Day. 

A true shake-up?  

Heye was skeptical the Supreme Court fight would truly alter the dynamics in competitive Senate races. 

“Every poll that we see shows that voters’ minds are pretty much made up,” he said. 

Two notable exceptions, though, were South Carolina and Maine, Heye said. 

In Maine, GOP Sen. Susan Collins said this weekend she wanted to hold off on voting on a nominee until after the election. Such a move is unlikely to woo any of the voters who were already supporting her Democratic opponent, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, but it could cost her votes with Trump supporters whom she needs to come out in droves to support her. Much of the opposition to Collins, who was reelected in 2014 by more than 30 points, stems from her support for Kavanaugh two years ago.

In South Carolina, Graham has a central role in the Supreme Court nominee debate as Senate Judiciary chairman. Graham said he would support quickly confirming Trump’s nominee, despite previously saying he would wait until after the election if a vacancy occurred in the last year of Trump’s term. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales on Monday shifted the South Carolina race rating from Likely Republican to Lean Republican.

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One GOP official noted that the Supreme Court fight means there will be an even greater “uphill battle” for Republicans in Democratic-leaning states. Collins and Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado are the two Republicans running for reelection in states Trump lost in 2016. During a Saturday debate, Gardner did not directly answer whether he would support the Senate moving to confirm Trump’s nominee. 

The GOP official also suggested the vacancy “limits what Democrats can do in more traditionally conservative states,” such as Montana, Iowa, Georgia and Kansas, where Democrats also need to win over some Republicans to win statewide. 

The Supreme Court battle could help consolidate both parties’ bases, which could be a boost for Republicans who were running behind Trump in the polls up to this point, such as Tillis in North Carolina and Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona. Both senators supported McConnell’s pledge to have a Senate vote on Trump’s nominee.

Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network, which backs conservative court nominees, said she expected the issue to motivate GOP voters in pivotal Senate contests, as it did in 2018 when Democrats in Republican-leaning states who voted against Kavanaugh’s nomination lost. 

“This is a very salient issue amongst conservative voters,” she said. 

Teboe, the Democratic fundraiser, said the Supreme Court vacancy may convince progressives skeptical of Joe Biden to vote for the Democratic presidential ticket, as well as the party’s Senate candidates, even if they’d been flirting with the idea of voting third-party, or staying home.

Democrats still believe health care remains voters’ top concern, especially as the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is poised to soon cross 200,000. 

After Ginsburg’s death, Democrats were quick to note that shortly after the election, the Supreme Court is set to consider a lawsuit supported by the Trump administration that would undo much of the 2010 health care law, including protections for people with preexisting health conditions. 

Izzie Levy, a spokesperson for Greenfield in Iowa, wrote in a Sunday email to CQ Roll Call: “The Supreme Court vacancy is yet another reminder for Iowans across party lines that access to health care and protections for pre-existing conditions are on the ballot this November because Senator Ernst put them at risk.”

It’s unclear how much the Supreme Court fight could sway undecided or independent voters. An open Supreme Court seat helped push skeptical Republicans into Trump’s corner in 2016. But a Democratic strategist did not think the dynamic would repeat itself in 2020 and hurt Democratic Senate candidates, since most voters have made up their minds about Trump.

“They’ve gotten to live through four years of Trump as president,” the strategist said. “At this point, you’re either with him or you’re not.”

Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.