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Essential Politics: The domino effect of Ginsburg’s death

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Col.) with supporters during his 2014 Senate campaign.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), shown during his 2014 campaign, is up for reelection as his party presses to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, despite public opposition to doing so before the election.
(Associated Press)

Good morning and welcome to our newest edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. I’m Laura Blasey, an editor on the newsletters team, and I’m writing to you from The Times’ Washington bureau.

Each Wednesday, we’ll bring you the best work from The Times’ state, national politics and election teams, stories that will take you beyond breaking news. Don’t worry — we’ll continue to send you smart analyses from our Sacramento and Washington bureau chiefs on Mondays and Fridays. This new edition will offer another angle, so you won’t miss a thing on the road to November and beyond.

This week’s big story: The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday has opened a new front in an already contentious presidential election and a new conflict between congressional Republicans and Democrats. President Trump and Joe Biden aren’t the only ones vying for a win in November. Nor is the only question which man should be the one to name her replacement. Times reporters Janet Hook and Jennifer Haberkorn write that, like a chain of dominoes, the showdown over the vacancy could have ramifications that ripple and reshape Senate races as partisan lines harden among voters. Let’s get started.

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A court vacancy’s fallout

By November, voters will choose a president and which party controls the Senate. Republicans now hold 53 seats, while Democrats have 45, plus two seats held by independents who caucus with them. With 35 seats up for grabs, most of them held by Republicans, the majority is very much at stake.

The outcome remains unpredictable and tied to Trump’s fate: Many Republicans will prevail or fall with him. In politically polarized times, fewer voters than ever are inclined to pick a president from one party and a senator from another. And few issues could be more polarizing than a debate over replacing a Supreme Court justice, especially when early voting for the next president has begun.

“It’s another wild card,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a member of the Senate Republican leadership, told The Times. “It certainly is something that our candidates — and the candidates on both sides, for that matter — are going to have to manage, because both sides are going to be heavily invested in the outcome of this decision.”

Hook and Haberkorn write about how the Republicans’ at-risk senators are maneuvering in the wake of Ginsburg’s passing. Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado must woo centrist and independent voters in states that lean to the left, a delicate task that had them focusing on less divisive local issues until this week. Meanwhile, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Joni Ernst of Iowa, among others, are locked in tight races in states where Trump remains popular; they need to energize their states’ voters on the right. There’s also Doug Jones, the lone Democrat up for reelection in a conservative state, Alabama, now more endangered than before.

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Another issue is at play in the court battle: healthcare, a core part of the Democratic platform, especially amid the pandemic. The court is due to take up a case pivotal to the future of the Affordable Care Act just a week after the election.

Still, even among those in tough reelection fights, Republicans see far more to be gained by sticking with the president and supporting his bid to fill the court seat as soon as possible. If they back away from him, they fear, they will lose conservative voters without picking up many liberal ones, Hook and Haberkorn wrote. Collins is the only Republican up for reelection who has said Trump should not pick a nominee before the election; the second party defector, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, is not on the ballot.

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The view from the Supreme Court

— President Trump said Monday he is likely to name a replacement for Ginsburg on Saturday. Senate Republicans appear increasingly likely to have the votes needed to confirm his choice, barring some revelation, Haberkorn writes. On Tuesday, Trump critic Mitt Romney joined his party colleagues in saying he is willing to consider Trump’s nominee, regardless of the looming election.

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— In 2016, nine full months before that year’s presidential election, Republicans argued that a vote on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee would deprive Americans of the chance to have a say in who should fill the seat. Arit John compared their statements then and now and found that when it comes to being consistent, several Senate Republicans are not.

— Biden, having served in the Senate for decades, knows the thorny politics of Supreme Court nominations perhaps better than anyone, writes Melanie Mason. He not only helped shepherd Ginsburg’s nomination in 1993, he was involved in at least 14 others.

— ICYMI: Del Quentin Wilber took a look at Trump’s likely finalists, Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa. Both would push the court further to the right.

From The Times archives

The Los Angeles Times on June 15, 1993, with the headline "Clinton Picks Moderate Judge Ruth Ginsburg for High Court."
The front page of the Los Angeles Times on June 15, 1993.
(Los Angeles Times)
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The battle to replace Ginsburg stands in stark contrast to her nomination and confirmation. In June 1993, the political climate surrounding the court was less charged, and Ginsburg’s reputation was as a centrist judge, not the liberal icon she became. The Times announced her nomination with the headline “Clinton Picks Moderate Judge Ruth Ginsburg for High Court.” The Times’ David Savage wrote in his analysis that Ginsburg was considered “an articulate moderate jurist.” She came with support from Justice Antonin Scalia, who reportedly quipped that if he had to spend the rest of his life on a desert island with a liberal, he’d choose her.

Weeks later, on Aug. 4, The Times reported she’d been approved “swiftly and with remarkably little dissension” by a Senate vote of 96-3 — “the most agreeable Supreme Court confirmation process in recent history.” Three Republicans voted against her over her pro-abortion-rights stance.

The latest from the campaign trail

— Unlike most states, Maine and Nebraska can split their electoral votes, awarding a vote to the winner in each House district. That has made one rural congressional district in Maine into a tiny battleground for the Biden and Trump campaigns, Janet Hook writes.

— From 2020 reporters Evan Halper and Seema Mehta: With the help of lots of cash from Californians, including past Republican donors, Joe Biden is eclipsing President Trump in fundraising as they head into the final stretch.

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Cindy McCain has endorsed Biden for president. It’s a stunning rebuke of President Trump by the widow of the Republican Party’s 2008 nominee.

— The first debate is Tuesday. White House reporters Eli Stokols and Noah Bierman report that Trump and Biden are taking very different approaches to preparing.

The view from California

— Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday defended his efforts to fix an outdated state unemployment benefits system that has delayed payments to tens of thousands of Californians who have lost their jobs since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

— L.A. County’s Project Roomkey, a $100-million-plus program to repurpose hotels and motels emptied by the coronavirus as safe havens for homeless people, is ending after months of mixed performance. An official said the program is being squeezed by uncertain funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which pays about 75% of its cost.

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