President Donald Trump was interrupted twice during an Ohio rally this week by sign-waving supporters chanting, “Fill that seat!”
“I will fill that seat,” Trump responded before launching into an extended riff on his plans to quickly nominate a successor to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “They say it’s the most important thing a president can do.”
During a swing through Wisconsin a few hours earlier, there were no big crowds for Democrat Joe Biden, whose campaign is strictly following protocols to combat the coronavirus. The battle over the future of the Supreme Court was largely missing, too, with Biden far more eager to talk about the pandemic, health care and the economy.
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Since Ginsburg's death on Friday sparked a battle over the future of the Supreme Court, Trump and Biden have fought to define the lens through which voters view the 2020 contest. Biden wants the election to be a referendum on Trump and his failure to control a pandemic that has killed 200,000 Americans or address the nation's larger health care issues. Trump wants to focus on the court fight to unite the party and energize the GOP's base.
Biden openly acknowledged his reluctance to focus on the Supreme Court during an interview with WBAY, a local Green Bay, Wisconsin, news station, when asked whether he’d support liberal proposals to add seats to the high court.
“It’s a legitimate question, but let me tell you why I’m not going to answer that question — because it will shift the focus. That’s what he wants. He never wants to talk about the issue at hand, and he always tries to change the subject,” Biden said of Trump.
He insisted discussion should be about why Trump “is moving in a direction that’s totally inconsistent with what (the) founders wanted.”
Each candidate's strategy carries risk.
Biden's measured approach risks alienating his party's left wing, which desperately wants to stop Trump from giving conservatives a larger majority on the nation's high court. Not only has Biden been reluctant to embrace the topic, he also broke from his more liberal primary rivals earlier in the year by opposing calls to add seats to “pack” the Supreme Court.
Biden, who ran a relatively centrist primary campaign and spent 36 years in the Senate, is concerned that such a move would worsen divisions during a particularly polarized moment in American history.
And Trump, by leaning into the issue, risks alienating swing voters in key states who don't see the court debate anywhere near as important as issues related to the immediate threat of the pandemic and the sluggish economic recovery.
There is little polling data so soon after Ginsburg's death, but Republican and Democratic pollsters believe that the Supreme Court is not an animating issue for persuadable voters. Those close to the Trump campaign privately acknowledge it's helpful mostly because it shifts the conversation away from Trump's divisive leadership. And Democrats believe the court simply isn't a top-of-mind issue for the working-class voters they're trying to reach.
“I don’t know that swing voters are motivated by it,” said Ron Harris, who chairs the Democratic National Committee's Midwestern Caucus. “It's a motivating issue for the base.”
Harris noted that Biden is not completely ignoring the court fight, but “he’s trying to get back on the turf we’ve been winning: the economy, health care, the pandemic.”
Still, the timing of the Supreme Court confirmation process will ensure it's a significant part of the conversation during the closing weeks of the election. Trump said he would announce his nominee Saturday, and Senate Republicans appear to be giving him enough support to move forward with the nomination, which will require a committee hearing and subsequent vote by the full Senate before it's finalized.
There is growing internal pressure on Trump and Senate Republicans to finish the confirmation process before the Nov. 3 election.
Biden's messenger on the issue could become his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris. She won’t be able to avoid questions on the subject as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she’ll be one of the Democrats questioning Trump’s nominee.
Harris elevated her national profile in 2018 with an aggressive role in Brett Kavanaugh's contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing, and she faces the prospect of an even bigger spotlight as Biden’s counterpart on Capitol Hill moving forward.
Biden’s team wouldn't predict whether the Democrat's closing message might change. One aide speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations said the campaign hasn't ruled out running ads around the Supreme Court vacancy, though a final decision has yet to be made. The aide said Biden himself would like to pay his respects at Ginsburg’s services this week, but even those plans haven’t yet been set in stone.
Trump, meanwhile, is relishing the debate, at least for now. His next Supreme Court nomination would be his third.
“A lot of presidents get none; we’ve had three,” Trump told his cheering supporters. “It’s blowing their minds, it’s blowing their minds, but for the people of Ohio, this is what you want.”