As they start a Supreme Court battle with control of the Senate on the line, Democrats want to talk about Obamacare. And Roe v. Wade. And the special counsel’s investigation into President Donald Trump.
That’s not to mention Democratic concerns about how Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh would rule on guns, unions, voting rights and more. While the GOP is promoting Trump’s pick with a singular message — touting Kavanaugh’s ample qualifications — Democrats are offering multiple arguments against him that each speak to multiple parts of their base and the electorate.Story Continued Below
The multi-part strategy reflects a perennial challenge for a party that has struggled to succinctly communicate its agenda to voters.
“We have a long history of making simple arguments overly complicated, and we have a long history of thinking that we need to compartmentalize our messages for different groups,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We need to get over both of those addictions if we are going to defeat Brett Kavanaugh.”
Interviews with more than a dozen Democratic senators on Wednesday indicated that, while some in the caucus see the multiple Supreme Court messages as a potential political risk, others are shrugging and going their own way on Kavanaugh.
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Democrats zeroed in on health care and abortion rights as their primary two topics for the Supreme Court fight even before Kavanaugh was nominated. But Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Wednesday that the nominee’s past writing on investigations into sitting presidents compelled the addition of another central issue: how Kavanaugh would rule on issues related to Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and potential obstruction of justice by Trump.
“So there are many issues,” Schumer said, “but we’re going to be focusing on these three.”
Not every Democrat is embracing all three anti-Kavanaugh messages, however.
“People can talk about whatever they want,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said. “I think we should keep talking about health care every day from now until the election.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), however, disputed the notion that safeguarding Obamacare is the primary Democratic case against Kavanaugh. “I mean, pre-existing conditions is a central issue for us, but not necessarily the central issue in the Supreme Court [fight],” she said.
Democrats view their messaging balancing act on Kavanaugh as somewhat necessary, given the sheer number of constituencies affected by Supreme Court rulings. Making the fight purely about blocking Trump’s nominee might fire up the party’s base as keenly as abortion or Obamacare, but it likely would alienate the vulnerable red-state Democratic senators who are battling to hold onto their seats in November’s midterm elections.
In fact, the party is poised to embrace a diverse set of arguments in the coming weeks. A Senate Democratic aide said that the caucus and allied groups are preparing behind the scenes for a week-by-week Supreme Court messaging effort that will highlight specific issues of keen importance to their voters — including but not necessarily limited to civil and voting rights, the environment, LGBTQ rights and labor.
“I think that all of us are trying to make people aware that this is going to affect your life, from net neutrality to the pre-existing conditions,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said, adding that “the American public has the bandwidth to understand the gravity” of Kavanaugh’s potential influence on the high court.
The inclusive messaging strategy isn’t without risk. By hopping from one argument against Kavanaugh to another, particularly in the frenetic news cycle of the Trump era, Democrats risk losing the attention of the very voters they hope to keep mobilized throughout a months-long confirmation fight.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) acknowledged that the lack of a singular argument from his party against Trump’s pick “could be” perilous. The former Democratic vice-presidential nominee added that “it will take a little while for the dust to settle, and we might see it get a little more in focus. We’re just still two days into it.”
The question of how best to combat Republicans — with a single talking point made over and over, or several messages tailored to appeal to various wings of the party — has driven internal Democratic debate since the beginning of the Trump administration.
Democrats were able to successfully thwart multiple GOP attempts to repeal Obamacare by keeping all members of the party united, largely sticking to a singular message to gin up public outrage and pressure vulnerable Republicans into opposing the effort.
The government shutdown earlier this year was a different story. As some Democrats got nervous that the shutdown centered on efforts to shield young undocumented immigrants from deportation, they started pushing other talking points about the opioid epidemic, pensions and veterans funding. The result was a diluted message that appeared to get lost with the public — was the shutdown about Dreamers or not? — as well as an angry base and acrimony between House and Senate Democrats.
Democrats are confident that they can avoid that outcome on the Supreme Court, even as they acknowledge the difficulty in keeping the caucus together and then peeling off a Republican vote to sink the nomination.
Multiple Democratic senators defended the wisdom of a multi-issue approach to the Supreme Court, saying Kavanaugh’s decade-plus tenure on the D.C. Circuit gives them a wealth of opposition research to wade through.
“I think it’s understandable that as we begin to delve into this, that we would be looking at a lot of different things,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). “Over time, we may reduce, home more carefully on just a handful. But at this particular time, we’re just getting into it.”
Democrats have already moved away from their first approach — taken in the immediate aftermath of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement — of urging Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to delay any Supreme Court confirmation until after the midterm elections considering his blockade of Merrick Garland, Barack Obama’s nominee in 2016. That push was almost certainly doomed from the start, but some Democrats say that they’re still getting pressure from their base to somehow outfox McConnell and grind Kavanaugh’s confirmation to a halt.
“They’re frustrated, and they’re upset with the 51-49 split, and I understand it,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, adding that “we have to deal with” the procedural realities of the Senate. Republicans can confirm Kavanaugh with a simple majority, after killing the filibuster on Supreme Court nominee last year to confirm Neil Gorsuch.
Still, Democrats’ evolving strategy hasn’t been lost on some top GOP targets in their push to thwart Kavanaugh.
“I’ve noticed that they seemed to have switched from a focus on Roe to health care — in an attempt, I assume, to unify their caucus,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said to reporters Tuesday.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn dryly noted that Democrats have taken three principal arguments against Kavanaugh “so far,” but described that political jockeying as part and parcel of any Supreme Court nomination.
“I think it’s incumbent on us to explain why the criticism is not justified,” Cornyn told reporters. “And that’s been part of every confirmation battle I’ve been part of.”
For the handful of red-state Democrats who hold the key to party unity on Kavanaugh, however, any edict from leadership may not matter.
“Here’s the thing: Are we getting a good person that’s well-educated, well accomplished? Getting a person that’s experienced, good moral values, good family person?” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said. “You look at all that and you look at the 300 cases he ruled on.”
Asked whether he will listen to Democratic messaging on Kavanaugh, Manchin replied: “No. I’m going to do my own thing.”
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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