If Senate Republicans Learn This Lesson, Catholics Will Respond
By Manuel Miranda
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.”
And Republicans did just that, converting the judicial fight into a sweep of the South in 2004 and the defeat in South Dakota of Senator Tom Daschle. But even absent such effort, the “judges voter” can mean the margin of difference by which Republican senators win tough mid-term races. That is, if voters are reminded what’s at stake.
In 2002, Republicans won three new Senate seats by the barest margins, giving them control of the Senate. The voter plurality that in 2004 would rank 1st and be called the “moral issues voter” ranked nationwide in 2002 only 4th. In Georgia, Missouri, and Minnesota that year, however, in a midterm election where the President campaigned chiefly on taxes and terror, something unusual happened: self-identified single issue, pro-life voters came out to vote in a non-presidential year, who normally do not.
The margin of their vote was larger than the margin of Republican victory. How? After Democrats blocked a then-obscure judge from Mississippi, Charles Pickering, Senator Rick Santorum (R, PA.) began polling over the judge issue.
He discovered that it impacted poorly on the Democrats’ image. He and the White House then found ways to expose the increasing obstruction, finishing, just two weeks before the 2002 election, with the ultimate spotlight: an East Room speech by the President.
The outcry invited voters to connect Democrat judicial histrionics with other issues over which values voters cared most. And they did. In 2004, they did it again.
In 2006, Republicans failed. Instead of pressing Democrats in debate on blocked judges, Republicans chose to design a Senate “messaging” agenda that appealed to the suburban middle-class voter: to focus on national security, to show that Republicans, better than Democrats, keep us safe, and on health care and the economy. Unfortunately, they locked on this plan early in 2006, when they thought that they would, at most, lose only two Senate seats.
So what happened in 2006 that helps us understand the failings of Senate leadership now?
First, GOP leaders failed to understand that the politics of judicial confirmations had changed; that it was no longer just another wedge issue framed by mind-numbing statistics. Republicans thought they could punch the card by pointing to the confirmation of two Bush Supreme Court justices. Past accomplishment, however, is a poor reminder of what’s still at stake.
Ironically, they did not point to the other two accomplishments for which “judge voters” would have given them credit.
By threatening the “nuclear option” in 2005, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R, TN) removed Democrats’ filibuster threat from President Bush’s consideration in choosing his Supreme Court picks. In Senate terms, it was a major investment of time and credibility.
Although conservative voters saw the back room machinations that resulted in the “Gang of 14” deal as a surrender of principle and a failure of leadership, as Republican Gang members Dewine and Chafee would learn the hard way that year in Ohio and Rhode Island, Senate leaders did not think that the effort would reward them in the polls.
And, for understandable reasons, Republicans in 2006 did not tout their greatest single accomplishment: that moment in 2005 when GOP Senators, one by one, examined their constitutional duty and forcefully advised a president of their own party to withdraw an untested nominee to the Supreme Court.
Second, Senate leaders ignored the advice of editorial boards, just about every conservative pundit and columnist, colleagues like John Thune (R-SD), and every conservative grass top leader…everywhere; each of whom warned that Republicans should do more to debate nominations in light of the coming election.
Showing the disconnect between Senate leadership and campaign front-liners, just weeks before the election, GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman listed the judge fight as one of the three reasons he expected voters would vote for Republicans in 2006. Instead, some Senate Republicans thought that the election was all about “jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Senate GOP leaders in 2006 took all the wrong counsel. They placated centrist colleagues who told them that they were tired of the judge issue. They followed conservatives, from red states, who win elections with large margins. They bowed to Northeastern liberals who hear talk about a “base” like most of us hear talk about Mongolians. They heard colleagues who had last run for the Senate in 2000 when the conventional wisdom was still that the nominations were somewhere under campaign finance reform in the voter’s hearts.
And perhaps worst of all, they took counsel from inside-the-box-thinking Senate leadership staff, for whom the judge issue is just a nuisance that takes up time from the work that the “Chamber-right” lobbyists want out of them.
So Republicans, even in the three close Senate races of 2006, failed to remind voters of the judge issue, even while Chuck Schumer (D, NY) guaranteed Democrat supporters that Democrat challengers, like Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey would vote with liberals on Bush judges. .
In last year’s Sotomayor confirmation process Senate GOP leaders got lucky that the National Rifle Association broke their historic silence and not only came out against the nomination, much earlier than thought possible, and scored the Senate confirmation vote, guaranteeing that most Republican Senators rallied to vote against the nomination. But as one high ranking aide put it, “there is nothing we did in the Senate that made it all end well.”
In this summer’s expected Supreme Court confirmation debates, Senate Republicans should not leave the result to luck. While there is always the possibility that a White House will overreach or fail to vet a nominee (several presidents have done each), it is more likely that President Obama’s second and third nominees will get confirmed.
For Republicans, what matters is whether they spotlight the debate to the voters, and the issues at stake in a Senate election. In the past four elections, Republicans did just that when they won, and failed to when they lost Senate seats.
Manuel Miranda is chairman of the Third Branch Conference, a coalition of libertarian and conservative leaders interested in judicial nominations, and previously served as nominations counsel to Majority Leader Bill Frist. In 2006, he received the Ronald Reagan Award for his work on judicial nominations.