Senate Democrats are preparing a national pressure campaign aimed at blunting Republicans’ stubborn opposition to Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, aiming to keep the issue red-hot as senators scatter across the country for a 17-day recess.
The Democratic strategy, described by the party’s chief message man Sen. Chuck Schumer and sources on and off Capitol Hill, takes aim at Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and other senators up for reelection. If they start feeling the heat, Democrats say, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may be forced to ease his blockade. But those Republicans have deep-pocketed allies, so Democrats are hoping to flex their national organizational ties to liberal groups and score earned media by garnering coverage back home.
“Usually the Republicans come up with three words and we’re struggling,” Schumer said in an interview with POLITICO on Thursday, referring to the GOP’s perky “The Senate is Working” message that exasperated Democrats for months.
But now Democrats say they have a slogan that will sting the GOP: “Do your job.”
“We have it,” Schumer said. “And wherever Republican senators go, there are people … with ‘do your job’ signs.”
Outside groups are already on the move. To kick off recess, the conservative Judicial Crisis Network is planning $2 million in ads attacking Garland and backing GOP leaders. Meanwhile liberals will begin confronting incumbent GOP senators at events back home and take the Democrats’ “Do your job” message across the country.
The two parties are now battling on two fronts: Senators are focused purely on the principle of taking up a nominee, while the White House and outside groups will make the cases for and against Garland’s merits.
But in the immediate future, Democratic leaders have to achieve a more tactical goal to make real progress: A confirmation hearing. While GOP senators in increasing numbers are agreeing to meet with Garland, none of them have backed away from their pledge to deny him a hearing and vote. And even though some have agreed to take courtesy meetings with Garland, GOP senators have largely stuck to their message that the vacancy will be left for the voters.
“Everybody’s on board. They know that the only way we lose on this is if we start dividing on it, which is why Schumer [and others] keep pitching that we are, even when we aren’t,” said a top Republican aide.
People in both parties are convinced McConnell simply will not budge — unless, perhaps, he can be convinced by his colleagues to loosen his position. So Democrats are driving hard to further splinter the GOP’s position and get Garland a hearing.
“They’re losing on the Constitution. They’re losing on the substance. They’re losing on the politics,” Schumer said. “The hearings are sort of magical. And when people get to see the nominee they think: ‘Oh this person’s pretty good, this person doesn’t have horns, this person’s not the devil incarnate.’”
Republicans insist they are unmoved, citing how strong the opposition is within their party base. Sure, individual senators may break off and meet with the nominee — some may even call for hearings in time.
But the GOP contends that main engines of their opposition will not break: McConnell and Grassley.
“Every senator’s a free agent and they can make their own decisions, and some will make decisions like, for example, the decision to meet with the nominee even though he won’t be confirmed,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. “The ones that will determine what happens to the nomination are the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the majority leader.”
Still, vulnerable GOP senators seem destined to face some awkward moments at town halls and even more critical headlines in home-state papers. Grassley and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) will be greeted by liberal activists at home state events, and teachers in Ohio will protest Sen. Rob Portman. On Monday, MoveOn.org will launch upwards of 50 events outside Senate offices demanding the GOP hold hearings and votes.
“It’s important to put pressure on them in their own backyards, because their constituents deserve to know that these Senators have chosen their party over their constitutional duty,” said Amy Brundage, a former White House deputy communications director now at SKDKnickerbocker working to coordinate pro-Garland communications among Democrats and their allies.
The ultimate goal is to chip off more senators like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who on Wednesday said he hadn’t thought about meeting with Garland but by Thursday had told local media he would be open to huddling with the nominee.
But Democrats will need much more to get to a hearing, which Schumer contends will essentially clinch the nomination. That means confronting Republicans with a stark choice: Take the more moderate Garland or risk either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump making the pick. Already some Republicans have suggested Garland is likely more palatable than a hypothetical, more liberal Clinton nominee.
“It’s three choices according to their rules: Trump, Merrick Garland, or someone Hillary chooses,” Schumer said. “What are they going to say is the best choice?”
Republicans and their allies are doing everything they can to hold the line as the GOP scatters across the country. On Thursday, 21 GOP attorneys general wrote to Grassley and McConnell to “applaud” their unyielding stance to deny Garland hearings.
“We are committed to acting with the same unity the GOP Senate has demonstrated,” the officials said in their letter.
The Judicial Crisis Network will launch ads critical of Garland in states represented by moderate Democrats on Monday, with companion spots bolstering Grassley and McConnell. Those will run for the entire recess while the GOP is back home to the tune of $2 million. And what Schumer calls cracks in the GOP’s strategic foundation is “not something that worries us,” said JCN chief counsel Carrie Severino.
“That’s absolutely wishful thinking,” Severino said of the Democrats’ strategy.
On Thursday, the last day before the two-week recess, Senate Democrats began to lay the groundwork for their recess strategy.
More than a dozen Senate Democrats stood outside of the Supreme Court midday Thursday, railing against Republicans on their refusal to proceed with the confirmation process. Later, Garland made his first trip to the Capitol as a Supreme Court nominee, meeting privately with both Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
“I don’t know how my counterpart Mitch McConnell could come up with this,” Reid said of McConnell’s blockade. “If I asked my caucus to go to the edge of the cliff and leap over it, they wouldn’t do it. And rightly so. They would toss me over first. But that’s what’s happening.”
Meanwhile, Garland continued to make quiet overtures to Senate Republicans. He called Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who voted in favor of his confirmation to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997. That followed phone conversations with both McConnell and Grassley.
“The conversation was: ‘Under no circumstances are we going to confirm you and if you understand that, we can talk,’” Inhofe said. “I said, ‘let there be no doubt in your mind, there’s not going to be a confirmation, you or anybody else.’ He said, ’I understand.’”
The entire conflict hinges on what senators from battleground states do. Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen insisted that New Hampshire constituents of GOP New Hampshire colleague Kelly Ayotte are “very concerned about the failure of the Senate to do its job.” Local activists from the liberal group People for the American Way and other progressive organizations are planning a protest outside of Ayotte’s Nashua, N.H. office on Monday.
Yet Ayotte dismissed any notion that a recess campaign in New Hampshire would change her mind. After previously insisting she would not meet with a hypothetical nominee, Ayotte has said she would be willing to meet with Garland, but it would end right there.
“I’ve already stated my view,” she said Thursday.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, also said his vulnerable members would not be harmed by sticking firm to the GOP blockade. Other senators including Rob Portman of Ohio, Johnson, Ayotte and Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk have said they are open to meeting.
“I think voters, when it comes down to it, are going to be OK with letting the American people speak on this issue,” Wicker said.
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