The fight over filling a Supreme Court vacancy will be waged on the floor of the U.S. Senate, but the impact will be felt in New Hampshire politics. The question dividing N.H. politicos is which side gains more from the battle over Ginsburg’s seat — Democrats or Republicans?
The traditional argument is Republicans care more about SCOTUS issues than Democrats, but this year may be an exception. In addition to the personal connection some Democrats feel toward Justice Ginsburg, polls show Democrats say they’re more focused on the court than GOP voters, though by a narrow margin.
Still, Republicans do rank the Supreme Court as one of their top issues, and during court battles they tend to rally around their party. In 2018, that resulted in several incumbent Democrats losing their U.S. Senate seats in Missouri, Indiana and North Dakota.
“The Court fight will force both sides back to their bases,” says GOP political strategist Patrick Griffin. “That will bring Republicans back to Trump.”
That’s more important for the Trump campaign in New Hampshire than for Joe Biden, because polls show Biden’s already solidified his Democratic support above 90 percent. Team Trump hasn’t.
In August, the UNH Survey Center found Biden led Trump by 94 percent among Democrats, but Trump had only a 78 percent lead among Republicans. And last week’s NYTimes/Sienna poll found Biden supported by 94 percent of NH Democrats while Trump had just 84 percent of the NHGOP vote. That poll had the race within the margin of error: Biden 45, Trump 42. A GOP surge could put him over the top.
Still, the pollsters and political pros NHJournal talked to see it as a close call, as opposed to a clear win for either side.
“I’ve struggled with that question,” said veteran NHGOP strategist Mike Dennehy. “I have a hard time believing it will fire up the liberals more than they are already, but I do think it will help solidify the Trump vote among Republicans at 93 to 95 percent.”
Dennehy sees another advantage for Trump: “The front page news is almost always anti-Trump. The Supreme Court is an issue that’s good for Trump.”
But there’s also a potential upside for Democrats, too. And it revolves around abortion.
“Social issues historically divide Republicans and unite Democrats in New Hampshire,” UNH political science professor Dante Scala told NHJournal. “So to the extent that abortion rises in prominence over the next six weeks because of the Court nomination, it’s a small plus to the Democrats.
“I say a small plus because I strongly suspect pro-choice Democratic women in New Hampshire are already dialed to 11 on a 10-point scale for November’s election.”
Mara Dolan, a Democratic activist across the border in Massachusetts, agrees — sort of. “I think we were pretty much at 11, but if anything could push us harder, it would be the prospect of another Trump appointment to the Supreme Court,” she said.
Another sign Granite State Democrats believe the abortion issue is a political winner came on Monday when gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Dan Feltes held an event with Rep. Annie Kuster, state Senate President Donna Soucy and other Democratic women, announcing his pledge that all of his judicial nominees would be pro-choice.
“For me, it’s a threshold question,” Feltes said.
Gov. Chris Sununu calls himself pro-choice and his campaign is pushing back hard on Democrats’ attacks, confirming they believe it’s an issue that makes an impact.
“No matter how much they lie, the fact remains that Chris Sununu supports a women’s right to choose and would oppose any attempt at the state level to overturn or repeal Roe v Wade. End of story,” Sununu spox Ben Vihstadt said.
It could be that, in a purple state that has only backed one Republican for POTUS in 32 years and where Trump has trailed in the polls for two years, the SCOTUS issue is a wash. But it’s also true that when you’re in the spot Trump is in New Hampshire, anything that kicks over the table and resets the board is good news.
NHGOP Chair Steve Stepanek certainly thinks so. “Look, Democrats are about as fired up as they’re going to get, they’ve maxed out on Trump hate. For swing voters and ‘Kasich Republicans’ who maybe aren’t big fans of President Trump, the Supreme Court makes them say, “Oh! He’s got to stay in office whether I like him or not, this is just too important.”
Stepanek also says he sees enthusiasm for Trump surging. “Our base is fired up. Remember what it was like in 2016? When I kept telling people they were underestimating Trump’s support? Well, I’m seeing that on steroids.”
At the same time, Democratic activist and former congressional candidate Maura Sullivan of Portsmouth says she sees intense enthusiasm on her side of the aisle as well.
“The president and national Republicans dragged their feet on help for more than 13 million unemployed Americans and hundreds of thousands of families suffering from COVID, but they are rushing to confirm a new [Supreme Court] justice because they believe they can overturn the Affordable Care Act,” said Sullivan, a former Marine officer and Iraq veteran who served as Assistant Secretary at the VA and senior Pentagon official in the Obama Administration.
Asked which side is getting a bigger boost, Sullivan said Democrats she’s talking to are energized. “The energy is palpable,” she said. “The Democratic Party is united, and we’re getting support from a lot of independents, some of whom have never voted for a Democrat, but they are now because of the disgraceful failure of leadership from the president and the threat of what could happen to the court.”