Hours after Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, the fundraising appeals from Florida’s two major candidates for U.S. Senate – incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and GOP Gov. Rick Scott – started flooding inboxes.
Scott’s campaign pleaded for “emergency” donations because Nelson must not be allowed “to derail a conservative nominee.”
Nelson’s campaign warned donors that if Scott wins in November, “Republicans will keep their grip on the Senate – and we’ll have no chance to stop any extreme nominees.”
President Trump has already announced his nominee, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is insisting the Senate confirm the nominee this fall, a move analysts say could occur well before the Nov. 6 election.
Even so, the vacancy is ratcheting up the tension and importance of the November elections, especially in nationally watched races that could decide who controls the Senate next year and, in turn, control the confirmation of future nominees to federal courts. Republicans hold a 51-49 margin in the Senate.
Incendiary issues such as immigration, gun control and abortion already are convincing donors to dig deeper into their pockets and pushing more people to political activism. But the prospect of a Supreme Court vacancy(ies) will spike turnout even more in the fall elections, said Susan MacManus, a retired political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
“The courts do get both sides of the aisle charged up,” she said, especially in a mid-term congressional election such as this year’s “when the predominance of turnout is activists and longtime party members.”
The just-completed term has reminded voters of the court’s importance as the ultimate referees on some of the most polarizing issues dividing Americans.
From President Donald Trump’s immigration travel ban to workers’ rights, voting rights and religious rights, the nation’s highest court handed conservatives a nearly unbroken string of victories in rulings that were often 5-4 with Kennedy as the swing vote on the prevailing side.
A recent poll suggests Democrats might benefit from Kennedy’s retirement because it could energize many voters who don’t want to see the GOP, which already controls the Oval Office and both houses of Congress, increase its hold on power by making the Supreme Court more conservative.
Acording to the NBC News/Marist poll, nearly 50% said they are voting for more Democrats “to be a check and balance” on Trump compared with 40% who say their vote “will send a message that more Republicans are needed to help Trump pass his administration’s agenda.”
Nelson wants the confirmation process to take place after the election, presumably with the hope Democrats can retake the Senate and force Trump to pick a moderate nominee closer to Kennedy’s philosophy.
“I believe the American people should be given the opportunity to express their view in the upcoming election, and then have the Senate exercise its constitutional duties,” he said in a statement following the announcement of Kennedy’s retirement.
During the last Supreme Court vacancy in 2016, Nelson wanted the Senate to move on Merrick Garland’s nomination before the presidential election. President Barack Obama had nominated Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia.
But McConnell wouldn’t budge on the nomination, Trump won the White House, and the Republican Senate confirmed conservative Neil Gorsuch last year.
MacManus believes the Scalia vacancy increased turnout in 2016 because it gave dissatisfied voters who thought about sitting out the election a reason to go to the polls.
Democrats are hoping to ride that same momentum to the victory in November. Too bad, back in 2016, they couldn’t make their voters see the troubling possibilities a Republican in the White House might have with an obviously older Supreme Court in place.