U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and House Speaker Sara Gideon agree on something in one of the biggest 2020 campaigns in the country: the Republican-led Senate should not confirm a new Supreme Court justice at least until the presidential election is settled.
But President Donald Trump and his party look poised to advance a nominee in a process that could roil races on Nov. 3. The timing is bad for Collins, a Republican who won a landslide in 2014 but has now trailed her Democratic challenger in all independent public polls in 2020. Collins’ 2018 vote for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh turned it into a major race.
Collins is one of only two Republican senators to break with her party to urge a slower process, while Gideon has turned the spotlight to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. Both candidates are somewhat coy about their next steps on the vacancy created by the Friday death of liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg amid tricky politics.
On Saturday, Collins said no nominee should be confirmed before the Nov. 3 election between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and that the winner should pick the ultimate nominee. She was rebuked by Trump for that stance on Monday, but Collins has not said whether she would oppose a Republican nominee offered before Election Day.
At the same time, Gideon has said she would evaluate judges based on qualifications, temperament and respect for precedent. A spokesperson declined to say on Monday whether she would support court-packing initiatives floated by some Democrats if they win control of the Senate and Republicans moved to fill Ginsburg’s seat prior to inauguration.
These moves make sense under Maine’s political landscape. Voters still seem to like Collins more than McConnell, who has promised a new justice sometime in 2020. In a New York Times/Siena College poll published Friday, 53 percent of voters said they would prefer a Democratic-led Senate in 2021 to 41 percent for Republicans.
Gideon, who led Collins by 5 points in that survey and whose lead has hovered around that mark for most of 2020, has linked Collins to McConnell since Ginsburg’s death. The Republican senator’s campaign has done the same with Gideon and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, during their campaign, noting her openness to eliminating the filibuster.
“We have to change the people who make him majority leader,” Gideon said in an ad released Saturday about judicial nominations. “That includes Sen. Susan Collins.”
Collins’ campaign declined to answer whether she would continue to support McConnell as majority leader, but highlighted her track record of independence and her vote to preserve the Affordable Care Act in 2017 against her party’s wishes.
“There is no member of the Senate who has voted against their party more often than Senator Collins, and no one knows that better than Mitch McConnell,” spokesperson Annie Clark said in a statement.
Progressive groups crowdfunded $4 million for Collins’ eventual opponent after she voted to confirm Kavanaugh, while McConnell said on Fox News after Kavanaugh’s confirmation that Collins would be “well-funded.” There has been more than $80 million in fundraising and outside spending in the race, which also features independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn.
That vote led Collins, a moderate Republican, to win back support from conservatives who have criticized her in the past, including on the Affordable Care Act, an issue on which Trump notably spared her from criticism before hitting her on the court in a Monday interview with Fox News.
In Maine on Monday, social conservatives who have long fought for a majority on the high court looked ready to give her time to consider her position. Carroll Conley, the executive director of the evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine, said he was not sure whether it would be better politically for Republicans to fill the vacancy now or after the election.
Do it before and they risk a political backlash that could lead Democrats to win the Senate and put more justices on the court. If Republicans lose the Senate and the presidency and then confirm a justice in a lame-duck session, they could look more opportunistic.
“I believe what [conservative Texas Sen. Ted] Cruz is pushing right now is a defensible position; I believe that what Sen. Collins is pushing is a defensible position,” he said. “It is going to be an enormous, incredibly entertaining debate over the next six to 10 days.”
Collins has voted for every Supreme Court justice who has come before the Senate during her tenure. She has voted for about the same percentage of Trump’s judicial nominees as she has under other presidents. Her critics, including Gideon, argue that more of Trump’s nominees were unqualified for the job, citing ratings from the American Bar Association.
It is not yet clear whether other Republicans will join Collins — at least two more would have to get on board to block a judicial nominee before the election. But McConnell controls what legislation comes up for a vote in the upper chamber and Democrats frustrated by McConnell see ousting Collins as essential to removing him from his powerful post.
For progressive groups, the choice is clear — a conservative-led court could roll back protections on voting rights, environmental regulations and abortion rights. Nicole Clegg, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, noted the court is set to hear a massive health care case in November with abortion cases coming through the system.
“It’s hard to imagine the many ways that our lives can be impacted,” she said.