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Supreme Court battle follows Republican senators to their home states

Whether he wants to talk about it or not, Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey’s refusal to consider President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court is following him home for spring break.

Even before Toomey pulled up for a breakfast meeting with business leaders in State College, Pa., on Monday, protesters were picketing on the street. By lunchtime, another gaggle was braving the windy cold outside his office in Harrisburg. By week’s end they are expected to hit Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The barrage — being replicated on the home turfs of several other swing-state Republican senators at risk of losing reelection this fall — signaled the beginning of what promises to be a long and orchestrated campaign to reverse the GOP’s blockade of Judge Merrick Garland, Obama’s choice for the high court.

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Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Hampshire all became staging grounds Monday for the largest mobilization over a Supreme Court pick seen in years.

A broad coalition of activists organized by Obama administration alums with MoveOn.org and Americans United for Change hopes strong public pressure will force GOP senators to abandon Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s insistence that no nominee be considered until a new president takes office in 2017.

“I’m just so upset at this obstructionist attitude in Congress, the Senate in particular,” said Susan Wooley, a retired librarian who joined the Harrisburg protest, where a small plane with an anti-Toomey banner flew over the state Capitol. “They think they have the right not to do their job.”

It remains unclear whether such protests over the coming two-week break will cause Republican senators to waver.

Even though national polls show most Americans — and a majority of Republicans — disapprove of the refusal to hold a Senate hearing on the nomination, attitudes in individual states can vary.

Several Republican senators have softened their tone in recent days, saying they would hold courtesy meetings with Garland, the 63-year-old chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

But only Sen. Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois has joined Sen. Susan Collins of Maine in calling for colleagues to hold a vote. Kirk said his Republican colleagues should “man up” and consider the nomination.

Most of the senators are trying to distance themselves from the judicial battle by focusing on issues important at home.

That means jobs, the economy and — for Toomey and many of the senators in economically distressed states — the opioid and heroin epidemic. Traditionally such issues weigh heavily on suburban voters who often decide swing-state elections, and some polling shows the court battle is a low priority.

Republican senators could also face a greater risk of infuriating voters on their right flank if they appear to be giving in to Obama on a court confirmation, said one GOP campaign strategist, granted anonymity to discuss the situation.

Backup for the Republican senators is coming from conservative groups, including a $2-million ad campaign launched by the Judicial Crisis Network, doubling the amount it has spent on the issue.

The ads warn against allowing Obama to appoint “another liberal.” The group is shoring up Republicans like Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who has been criticized for refusing to hold a hearing, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who faces a tough reelection. It is also pressuring Democrats, targeting Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado, another swing state with a potentially tight election.

Other conservative groups and tea party organizations are gearing up to join the fight.

“We don't care if they hold hearings or not,” said Jack Mozloom, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, which is publicly opposing a court nominee for the first time in the small-business association’s 73-year history.

He said the group, which fought Obama’s healthcare law, is worried Garland will be unfair in deciding labor and regulatory cases in which the association is a plaintiff.

“The Supreme Court is increasingly the place where big economic policies are being made,” he said, “and our members are acutely aware of how important one justice can be.”

Toomey, who is seeking a second term, has so far held firm against confirming Obama’s nominee.

“With the U.S. Supreme Court’s balance at stake, and with the presidential election fewer than eight months away, it is wise to give the American people a more direct voice in the selection and confirmation of the next justice,” Toomey said last week on Twitter.

“Should Merrick Garland be nominated again by the next president, I would be happy to carefully consider his nomination as I have with dozens of judges submitted by President Obama.”

His office said Monday that it welcomed the input from Pennsylvanians at the rallies being held across the state.

“That's really the whole point of Sen. Toomey's position on the Supreme Court nomination. He believes all Pennsylvanians should have a voice in whether to change the balance of the court, and they will have that voice in less than eight months at the ballot box,” said his spokeswoman, E.R. Anderson.

Several voters interviewed Monday panned the decision to wait until 2017.

“I don’t think that was the best approach,” said Jeff Stokes, a Harrisburg lawyer who still plans to vote for Toomey and doubts the court battle will resonate in the fall, when economic concerns are more dominant. “There are so many other issues.”

Paul Makurath, a retired state insurance regulator hoisting a “Senator Do Your Job” sign in the protest outside Toomey’s Harrisburg office, said the people already decided, having voted for Obama “for four years, not three years, not three and a half years.” The Republicans, he said, are “showing Trumpian discourtesy and incivility.”

Democrats are so sure in their strategy that Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told Garland in their meeting last week that he would become a Supreme Court justice.

“I don't know why McConnell has done this to his senators,” Reid said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “He's marching these men, women over a cliff. I don't think they're going to go.”

Two more Democratic senators — including Pennsylvania's other senator, Bob Casey — are meeting with Garland on Tuesday in Washington.

But as November approaches, the Republican senators could also become more resolute, emboldened in their position that the next White House should make the pick.

“We're not giving a lifetime appointment to this president on the way out the door to change the Supreme Court for the next 25 or 30 years,” McConnell said on “Meet the Press.”

That calculation, though, becomes more complicated for some senators if voters become restless over the gridlock — and if Republican Donald Trump or a Democrat, likely Hillary Clinton, wins the White House.

The potential for a less appealing choice than Garland, who by many measures is considered a centrist, has left some senators to hedge their positions, suggesting that they could consider him once the election is over and Congress begins a lame-duck session.

McConnell, though, shut the door on that idea in his Sunday comments. “We're not going to be confirming a judge to the Supreme Court under this president,” he said.

For the latest from Congress and the 2016 campaign, follow @LisaMascaro.

For more, go to www.latimes.com/politics.

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