Republican Party’s Low Polls Give Obama an Edge in Court Fight

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President Barack Obama speaks at the White House on April 5, 2016, in Washington.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images
  • Obama to urge Senate to end impasse, hear Garland nomination
  • Republicans exposed to obstruction charges as popularity slips

President Barack Obama may make Republicans bleed at the ballot box over their refusal to consider his Supreme Court nominee, but he is unlikely to do enough political damage to break their blockade of a vote to put Merrick Garland on the court before the elections.

Polling data show the Republican Party is at a low ebb in popularity, leaving it vulnerable to charges of obstruction as Obama travels on Thursday to the University of Chicago to publicly argue the case for a confirmation hearing for Garland. The remarks, where Obama once taught constitutional law, are part of a White House campaign to bring political pressure to bear on Senate Republicans.

So far, the administration’s efforts have had little effect. Two Republican senators who previously supported a hearing recanted last week under pressure from conservative groups.

The struggle over Garland’s nomination threatens to tie incumbent Republican senators more closely to their party and all of its political ballast. Senate Republican leaders’ obstruction provides a cause around which Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for the presidency, can unify her party and rally more ideological supporters of her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, should she secure the nomination, said Geoff Garin, a pollster who works for Senate Democrats and a super-PAC supporting Clinton.

‘Voters’ Minds’

"The issue for voters here is not only the court and this specific seat," Garin said. "This is being litigated in the voters’ minds with the backdrop of incredible frustration with gridlock, obstruction and partisanship out of control."

Public perceptions of the Republican Party have plummeted, with 60 percent of Americans holding an unfavorable view of it, according to the most recent Bloomberg poll. That is the party’s lowest standing in the poll’s seven-year history. By comparison, 49 percent held a negative view of Republicans at the same point in the 2012 election cycle.

Obama’s job approval rose to 50 percent in March, up from 44 percent in November and his best showing since February 2013, at the start of his second term.

Activists’ Demands

Former Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, who was the chamber’s second-ranking Republican leader until leaving office in early 2013, said it was "doubtful" the administration could prevail, given demands by Republican activists. But he cautioned that the conflict is so unusual that the outcome is difficult to forecast.

"This is new and different and it’s big and there’s a whole lot riding on it," Kyl said in an interview.

The controversy provides rich soil for the White House’s 2016 political strategy. Well before Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February, the administration had two priorities: to energize the president’s core supporters and raise public unease over a coarsening and polarization of U.S. politics that Obama has mostly blamed on Republicans.

Even so, rapid backtracking by Republican Senators Jerry Moran of Kansas and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska after they initially backed a hearing for Garland illustrates a powerful competing political imperative. Stopping an Obama court nominee is highly important to Republican party activists and donors whose enthusiasm is critical in elections.

One activist group, FreedomWorks, as of Tuesday tracked more than 35,000 e-mails its members sent to Moran’s office demanding he withhold action on any Obama nominee.

Base Turnout

Only one Republican senator facing re-election this year supports a hearing for Garland: Mark Kirk of Illinois, who is considered his party’s most vulnerable incumbent. The other Republican senator who still supports a hearing, Susan Collins of Maine, is a political moderate who doesn’t face re-election for four years.

Republicans "need the base to turn out," said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst who follows Senate elections for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "This is a big voting issue for the base."

That will be even more important if Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, heads the party’s ticket, given some social conservatives’ distrust of his commitment to issues such as opposition to abortion rights.

"With the potential of Trump being the nominee, they want to make sure Republicans have reason to turn out," Duffy said.

Rank-and-file Republicans back Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s strategy to block Garland’s nomination by 55 percent to 35 percent, according to a Bloomberg national poll taken March 19-22. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Insufficient Pain

McConnell’s strategy isn’t popular with the rest of the country. Sixty-two percent of all those surveyed and 66 percent of political independents say it is "wrong" for the Kentucky Republican to deny Garland a hearing, according to the Bloomberg poll. But other issues are more important to most Americans, including unemployment, stagnant wages, health care and terrorism.

Given the political equation for Republican senators, Duffy said, "I don’t see enough pain to make them move."

At least 16 Republican senators have said they will grant Garland courtesy meetings, visits that the White House is using to maintain media coverage of the fight over his nomination. The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa, will meet next week with Garland, who currently serves as chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

"I think it’s safe to say that there will not be hearings or votes," McConnell said on Tuesday. "I think it’s also safe to say, the next president, whoever that may be, is going to be the person who chooses the next Supreme Court justice."

Obama aides point to commitments to meet with Garland as a sign of momentum for his nomination. And Democrats see potential to broaden fallout from the fight in ways that increase the political cost for Republican incumbents. Garin said that constant news coverage of the nomination dispute, which shows no sign of abating before the elections, will make it more difficult for Republican incumbents in competitive contests to persuade voters of their independence from their party.

Still, most of the Republicans who have agreed to meetings have taken pains to maintain they do not support a hearing or vote on Garland’s nomination.

"I conveyed to Judge Garland my position, which is that the next president should fill the vacancy," Senator John Boozman of Arkansas, the third Republican to meet with Garland, said in a statement after the visit. "My position is firm. That means I will not advocate for hearings or a vote, nor will I support filling the vacancy with President Obama’s pick after the election.”

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