As we face the possibility of filling two Supreme Court vacancies this summer, it is time Republicans consider how best to reinforce a message that has won them Senate seats in midterm elections.
Senate Republicans are not able to mount an abusive “Democratic” filibuster of the next Supreme Court nominee, nor should they want to. Politically speaking, they do not need to. What Senate Republicans need is to learn the lessons of 2006. They, and the McCain campaign, did not evidence any such learning in 2008.
Most frontline conservatives know what GOP operatives and Senate leaders in Washington do not: there is no better opportunity to show sometime-voters and Catholic swing voters that Senate elections matter than Supreme Court confirmation hearings and floor debate. No issue serves better than judicial nominations as a surrogate for so many others that standing alone may scare the horses.
By failing to invest greater Senate time and effort on judicial nominations after the Alito confirmation in January 2006 or Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation last year, Senate Republicans ignored the political lesson of the Harriet Miers debacle: that supporters are forgiving on every issue so long as Republicans are solid on judges. That’s the kind of love GOP candidates need come Election Day. In 2008, the McCain campaign also misunderstood the Miers lesson.
The Miers lesson corresponds to getting out the vote; supporters may be upset on other issues, or may be otherwise unmoved, but they will come out and vote over the judge fight — if the issue is pressed. It does not traduce into large numbers, though it could with a candidate’s greater effort, but it can deliver the small margin of victory.
Prior to the 2004 election, polling showed that efforts to spotlight Democrat obstruction on judges, culminating in a 40-hour Senate debate in November 2003 had significantly grown public support for Republicans, 2 to 1. One study concluded that “a determined effort on the part of congressional leadership can shape public opinion” and that it was “possible for Republicans to use the permanently stalled, half-dozen judicial nominations to impress voters that Democrats are, at best, interested mostly in obstructing.”