JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement has presented Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill with a choice that could make or break her chances of being re-elected to a third term.
If McCaskill, a self-described moderate, votes against President Donald Trump’s pick, she could alienate voters who handed him a 19-point victory in Missouri two years ago. But voting for Trump’s nominee could spur backlash from Democrats, and she’s already faced pushback from some black Democrats who feel ignored by her.
Trump said Friday that he will announce his pick on July 9. He said that as many as seven candidates may be interviewed and he is considering two women. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled he wants to have a justice confirmed by October.
“It’s a difficult situation for her simply because she’s going to get a lot of pressure from the Democratic base to resist any nomination, and at the same time she can’t really portray herself as an obstructionist because she is trying to move to the political middle,” University of Missouri-Columbia political scientist Peverill Squire said.
McCaskill was not among the small group o Democratic senators up for election in states won by Trump who met with the president Thursday night at the White House to discuss the Supreme Court vacancy.
So far, she’s taken a wait-and-see attitude on a nominee for Kennedy’s seat, and in a statement said it’s “premature to discuss his replacement until one has been nominated.” Squire said McCaskill will likely hold off on making a decision to see what kind of response Trump’s pick will get.
McCaskill also faced pressure when Trump appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch to the court. McCaskill told attendees at a fundraiser last year before his confirmation vote that if Democrats blocked Gorsuch, it could lead to someone disliked even more by the party to be appointed to the court, according to leaked audio provided to the Kansas City Star by the Missouri Republican Party.
McCaskill ultimately voted against Gorsuch, and explained that his past work showed “a rigid ideology that always puts the little guy under the boot of corporations.”
Missouri Republicans are betting that the latest court vacancy will be a boon for her likely GOP challenger, Attorney General Josh Hawley. Republican political consultant David Barklage called it the “greatest gift Josh Hawley could ever hope to get in an election cycle.”
For GOP candidates across the nation, Kennedy’s departure provided a boost of optimism that a desire to shift the high court to the right could energize Republicans. Peter Kinder, a former Republican Missouri lieutenant governor who has volunteered to help with Hawley’s campaign, said it will “supercharge” Republican turnout in Missouri, particularly with evangelical voters highly motivated about the makeup of the court.
Hawley is seizing on the issue. In a statement, Hawley praised Trump’s pick of Gorsuch and slammed McCaskill for voting against him. Hawley in an emailed fundraising pitch wrote that “we must fight to see that Senator McCaskill doesn’t stop the president from appointing a conservative to replace Kennedy.” And Hawley went so far as to challenge McCaskill to a debate specifically on the nominee and other Supreme Court issues.
The issue could also energize Democratic voters, especially those concerned about the potential consequences for abortion rights.
“Any nominee who appears to imperil Roe v. Wade will probably mobilize Democratic voters and probably have virtually every Democrat in the Senate come out against them,” Squire said.
University of Missouri-Kansas City Political Science Department Chairwoman Beth Vonnahme in an email said Democrats will use the issue to ramp-up interest in the race and said she expects to see fundraising “skyrocket.”
The Missouri primary is Aug. 7. The general election is Nov. 6.
By SUMMER BALLENTINE, Associated Press