‘This is why we wanted this guy’: Conservatives push Trump to fill Supreme Court seat quickly

‘The future of the Supreme Court for a generation is on the ballot,’ says right-wing strategist

Jeremy W. Peters
Sunday 20 September 2020 11:14 BST
Trump supporters chant 'fill that seat' in North Carolina

Support truly
independent journalism

Our mission is to deliver unbiased, fact-based reporting that holds power to account and exposes the truth.

Whether $5 or $50, every contribution counts.

Support us to deliver journalism without an agenda.

Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Social conservatives and evangelical Christian activists began mobilising over the weekend to push for the speedy confirmation of the person Donald Trump ultimately nominates to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sensing that their long-denied goal of shifting the Supreme Court decisively to the right was finally within reach.

A major focus of their efforts will be Senate Republicans, who as a group remain far from united around a plan and a timeline for considering a nominee. In interviews, these activists made it clear that they would pressure senators to move as soon as possible, with some pushing for a vote before 3 November election because they believe any delay could demoralise religious and conservative voters who want to see the party take a swift and forceful approach.

The campaign for the president’s eventual nominee will involve a coalition of well-financed political groups and religiously affiliated organisations with networks across the country. And in some cases, the work has already begun.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition, led by longtime social conservative strategist Ralph Reed, held events over the weekend featuring two Senate Republicans facing tough reelection fights, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Thom Tillis of North Carolina — both members of the Judiciary Committee, which holds Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Speaking to a gathering in North Carolina on Saturday, Mr Reed said: “Not only is the presidency on the ballot, but the future of the Supreme Court for a generation is on the ballot.”

The Judicial Crisis Network, which spent millions on advertising supporting the president’s two previous nominees to the court, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, was completing plans and a budget for its latest rollout of ads. Strategists with knowledge of the group’s work said they expected it to release details of its campaign imminently.

The confirmation of a justice who would give conservatives a sixth vote — solidifying a right-leaning majority on a court that has split 5:4 in many of the most contentious cases involving social issues like abortion rights and same-sex marriage — would represent the fulfilment of a goal that has eluded activists for more than a generation.

It would also be the most consequential victory to stem from the religious right’s unlikely partnership with the president and would serve as validation that the bargain between the thrice-married Manhattan billionaire and his flock of religious followers from the heartland has paid off far beyond expectations.

The bitterness of old disappointments still lingers for many conservatives, who believe the Republican Party was not vigilant enough in keeping liberal judges off the federal courts over the years. Although news of Ginsburg’s death was just hours old, activists urged the party to act immediately, before any momentum was lost.

“In the genuine grief that you have as a nation over the death of a Supreme Court justice, you have to plan quickly,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B Anthony List, an anti-abortion group with activists on the ground in several swing states.

Ms Dannenfelser said that while she would defer to Mr Trump and senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, on the question of timing, she believed that action before Election Day — six weeks from now — would more clearly define the choice before voters between Mr Trump and Joe Biden.

The prospect of a rushed confirmation, however, is unnerving to some Republicans, who fear it would endanger senators in tight races, like Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado. But Ms Dannenfelser said that considerations over individual campaigns should be set aside in pursuit of the larger and more important goal of seating Mr Trump’s nominee.

“It doesn’t matter — any of the political calculations — none of that matters,” she said. “What matters is the direction of the nation. And that’s why we expect the president and the Senate to move quickly.”

Mr Trump appears to understand the urgency with which his base views the matter. The importance he places on keeping his word to his followers — especially when it comes to the Supreme Court — is underscored in a campaign slogan he repeats often: “Promises made, promises kept.”

He said on Saturday that he expected to make a nomination in the next week and that his pick would be a woman.

Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, said that many conservative voters would lose faith if they saw Senate Republicans dragging their feet. “The frustration often with Congress and government institutions by people in the real world,” Ms Nance said, “is: ‘Why is this so hard? Why is this so complicated? Just get it done.’”

“Say what you’re going to do and then go do it,” she added. “Real America has expectations that they expect will be met.”

The battle over a nominee to replace Ginsburg, who died on Friday, could be a galvanising moment that helps reaffirm for many of the president’s supporters why they took a gamble on him four years ago.

“Probably Trump wouldn’t have been the president had McConnell not decided to delay the vote on Merrick Garland,” said Frank Cannon, a veteran social conservative strategist, referring to the majority leader’s decision to block Barack Obama’s nominee after Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016, saying that the vacancy should be filled by the next president.

“This is why we wanted this guy,” Mr Cannon said, referring to Mr Trump, who won overwhelmingly with voters who said Supreme Court appointments were the most important issue.

Mr Cannon added that Mr McConnell most likely views the next confirmation as equally consequential and will do whatever he can to hold a vote soon, even if the exact timing is still unclear. “This is what he sees as his legacy and his contribution to history,” he said.

The transformation of groups like the Susan B Anthony List from opponents of Mr Trump’s early in the 2016 campaign into proud and unwavering backers of his presidency illustrates how intertwined the conservative movement has become with the president — and how much they need each other to survive politically.

Ms Dannenfelser was one of several socially conservative women who signed a letter in January 2016 urging Iowans to vote for anyone else in the state’s caucuses, saying that they were “disgusted” by Mr Trump’s treatment of women and that they believed “he cannot be trusted” on the issue of abortion.

To win the favor of anti-abortion conservatives, Mr Trump committed himself to their agenda in a way no previous Republican presidential nominee had. He put out a list of specific candidates he was considering for the Supreme Court, including some who had expressed doubts about abortion rights. And two months before the election, when the Susan B Anthony List asked him to sign a commitment that he would nominate only anti-abortion justices and slash funding for Planned Parenthood, Mr Trump agreed.

Filling Ginsburg’s seat, Ms Dannenfelser said, “is the fulfillment of his No. 1 obligation”.

In evangelical and social conservative circles, an early consensus was emerging that Mr Trump’s nominee would have to be a woman whose conservative convictions were equal to Ginsburg’s devotion to liberal jurisprudence. Privately, the first name immediately floated among some conservative activists who are close to the White House was Amy Coney Barrett, a judge on the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

But given Ms Barrett’s conservative Roman Catholic beliefs, which Democrats pressed her on during her confirmation in 2017, and the concern she has expressed about abortion, her nomination could fail to win votes from some moderate Republican senators — not to mention the fierce resistance it would draw from Democrats and liberal outside groups that have vowed multimillion-dollar campaigns of their own.

While it is impossible to say whether Mr Trump or Mr Biden would benefit more from a raging national debate over the future of the Supreme Court, Democrats are showing a growing interest in the issue that party leaders said was encouraging. “I think we are highly motivated about just making sure that vacancy is protected and preserved for the next president,” representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said in an interview on Saturday.

The prospect of a fight with Democrats over a nominee whom social conservatives view as one of their own — and someone they believe was unfairly targeted for her faith during her confirmation — is something that conservative activists said would energise their voters. But any delay by Republicans, or the selection of a different nominee who is not seen as conservative enough, could deflate that enthusiasm, said Terry Schilling, executive director of the American Principles Project, a group that opposes abortion and gay and transgender rights.

“The Republican base will be really upset if they don’t nominate someone and try to replace Ginsburg with the conservative equivalent,” he said, naming Ms Barrett as a choice that would satisfy the right. Trump, he added, may not have any other option. “The consequences of losing this election and not filling this seat, I think your hand is forced.”

New York Times

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in