Essential Politics: Supreme Court vacancy scrambles campaign at critical moment

I’m Christina Bellantoni, today’s Essential Politics host.

What started off as a quiet Presidents Day holiday weekend turned out to be anything but.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, simply put, changes everything.

The unexpected vacancy on the court with 338 days until a new president takes the oath of office shines a spotlight on a Senate that wasn’t expected to do much this election year, and has forced the judiciary branch into the conversation on the campaign trail.

The political ramifications are many, Cathleen Decker wrote over the weekend: Democrats and Republicans will have an issue around which to rally voters. President Obama will have a chance to appoint a nominee who could influence political races up and down the ticket by appealing to a specific demographic group, even if the nominee is not ultimately confirmed.

Not to mention that candidates in hot Senate races will be pressed to say how they would vote on Obama's pick, since those elections will determine who controls the nomination process next year. And voters will witness a contemporaneous example of the Washington gridlock that already has inflamed anger on both sides in this presidential campaign.

Obama’s vow to fill the vacancy and the vow by Senate Republicans to block any nominee is providing the president with a powerful incentive to focus on more liberal candidates, David Savage and David Lauter write.

Don’t miss our detailed coverage of Scalia’s life and legacy, and what will be an epic battle to fill his seat. We’ll be all over this story for the days, weeks and, likely, months ahead. Don’t miss a minute: Make sure you are following @latimespolitics.


The short list cobbled before the president has even returned to Washington is the subject of the political class’ second-favorite guessing game, behind only the vice presidential selection process and just slightly ahead of the festival of Cabinet nominations to come with a new administration.

No matter if it’s all conjecture or just filling airtime on cable news (indeed, I’m scheduled to discuss on CNN International tonight), the speculation fervor is strong — and one of California’s most prominent politicians is right in the center.

Phil Willon examines what it means for Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris to have her name being mentioned, and why she’s unlikely to be the one who fills Scalia’s seat.

He’ll be tracking Harris at some events for her Senate campaign Tuesday morning. Keep an eye on on our Essential Politics news feed for the latest.


Sacramento bureau chief John Myers has the details of a so-called perfect storm of political ads and activity. The bottom line: an initiative season in the Golden State that could see total spending of at least $452 million — and perhaps even hitting half a billion dollars — by the time the final votes are cast.


One of those initiatives could be a proposal from the state’s agriculture industry: a November ballot initiative that would grab bond money earmarked for California’s bullet train and use it instead for new water storage projects, as Ralph Vartabedian reports.

The measure faces some high hurdles, starting with the escalating cost of gathering voter signatures in the 2016 initiative frenzy of the next few weeks. Even then, critics will point out that the initiative would fast-track building dams as well as place language in California's constitution to lower the priority of water for environmental needs.

Still, supporters believe it taps two politically powerful sentiments: growing public concern about the state’s future water supply and increasing opposition to the high-speed rail project.


Melanie Mason was in Reno over the weekend tracking Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign ahead of Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada. She focused on the efforts of volunteers, and Kate Linthicum examined his strategy to organize in the Silver State.


Christine Mai-Duc takes a look at the split among prominent black political leaders and celebrities in the presidential race. Even within a grieving family central to the Black Lives Matter movement, the Sanders-Hillary Clinton divide is prominent.


As former President George W. Bush hit the campaign trail again, Republicans are engaging in all-out political warfare ahead of Saturday’s South Carolina primary. Decker notes that could hurt them in November.

To that end, Linthicum rounds up an effort from prominent Latino celebrities and political figures attacking the GOP for anti-immigrant rhetoric.

And on the ground in South Carolina, Lisa Mascaro finds much like the GOP itself, the evangelical movement is going through an identity crisis.


Saturday’s clash of the six Republican candidates left in the race got personal, with them calling one another liars 22 times, and even getting testy in Spanish.

The feisty forum attracted 13.5 million viewers.

(And if you like your analysis in audio form, Decker and I did another politics podcast ahead of the debate, looking at what the candidates need to do from here.)


Howard Blume finds that Scalia’s passing could deal a major blow to a California lawsuit that had been widely expected to weaken the financial muscle of teachers unions across the country.

That’s Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Assn., a case many court watchers had expected would find Scalia delivering the deciding vote against unions, limiting their ability to collect membership dues and other fees. Without Scalia, a 4-4 split is considered likely. That would maintain the status quo — a huge win for unions, at least for now.


Instead of watching Thursday’s debate between the Democrats who want to replace him as it happened, Obama was raising money in Hancock Park that night alongside John Legend.

Who was there? What did Legend sing for guests? Sarah Wire has all the details.

Earlier in the day when fundraising in the Bay Area, Obama offered his first reaction to the Supreme Court’s recent climate decision that has California implications.


While Harris is dodging SCOTUS speculation, her rival Rep. Loretta Sanchez scooped up an endorsement from the Latino Victory Fund, a national PAC supporting Latino candidates.

Though the endorsement doesn’t come as a major surprise, consider that Harris’ sister Maya Harris is one of the board members on the PAC’s parent organization, the Latino Victory Project.


Myers leads a reporter roundtable on this week’s California Politics Podcast through discussions of the suddenly smaller U.S. Senate race among Republicans, the intense debate over leadership of the California Coastal Commission, and the politics of gender equity legislation just introduced at the state Capitol.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes today.


— George Skelton shares reactions from current and retired teachers to his column last week about a growing teacher shortage.

Gov. Jerry Brown may have low-balled the amount of money Prop. 47 saved the state, says a report by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. The report, released Friday, suggests the savings may be as much as $130 million, or about $100 million more than the governor estimated, reports Mai-Duc.

— ICYMI Friday, Mason reports that Brown opposes a $9-billion school bond measure.

— Patrick McGreevy reports on a package of proposals unveiled by female lawmakers that aim to help women in California achieve equitable pay and expand family-leave job protections, as well as earmark more state funds for child care and for helping children on welfare.


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