Ginsburg’s Death Further Polarizes Voters Just Weeks Before Election
WASHINGTON — The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg adds a volatile and unexpected element to a presidential campaign that for months had focused on President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead of an election overwhelmingly seen as a referendum on Mr. Trump and his handling of the virus, interviews with dozens of voters in 10 states indicate that it is now also being seen through the lens of how the president and Senate Republicans handle replacing Justice Ginsburg.
Voters inclined to support former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. seethed over Republicans’ rush to advance a replacement for Justice Ginsburg after they blocked former President Barack Obama from replacing Justice Antonin Scalia after he died early in an election year, in February 2016. Mr. Trump’s hard-core supporters demanded he move quickly to install a new justice.
In a polarized nation with a dwindling number of undecided voters, the decision serves as a binary choice that is extraordinary both for the stakes — a potentially generations-long conservative majority on the Supreme Court — and the proximity to the Nov. 3 election, which is just 45 days away.
The risk for Republicans in pushing through an appointment before the election is that it may scarcely lift turnout on the right, where enthusiasm for Mr. Trump is undimmed, while energizing less politically engaged voters who had been undecided or even uncertain about voting before the issue of abortion rights was effectively on the ballot.
People like Rachel Harris.
In an interview at a clothing store in Bemidji, Minn., where she was working on the afternoon of Mr. Trump’s arrival on Friday for a rally, Ms. Harris indicated she was undecided about who to vote for in November.
But after hearing the news about Ms. Ginsburg, Ms. Harris emailed to say she had made up her mind. “I will be voting for Biden,” she wrote. “I care about my rights, and they will be taken away if Trump continues to be president.”
Mr. Trump’s core supporters viewed the court vacancy as his to fill.
“I do think the president has the right and the responsibility to replace her, and he should do it as quickly as possible,” said Jeff Solper, a 63-year-old electronic supplies salesman from Brookfield, Wis. “If you can’t tell, I’m a Trumper.”
Judicial politics have energized a generation of Republican voters, and the Scalia vacancy in 2016 is widely credited with consolidating social conservative support behind Mr. Trump. Only in the last four years, since Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, blocked hearings and a vote for Judge Merrick B. Garland, whom Mr. Obama appointed to replace Justice Scalia, have Democrats seen a similar focus on the courts.
“Democrats are decades behind Republicans but this packs a uniquely powerful emotional punch for them, which may help make up the difference,” said Adam Jentleson, a longtime Senate Democratic staffer. “We could lose the battle here and win the war, because it could radicalize Democrats to make the structural reforms to rebalance our democracy.”
Voters in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll of Arizona, North Carolina and Maine — states in which critical Senate races will take place this fall — that was taken before Justice Ginsburg’s death, said they trusted Mr. Biden more than Mr. Trump to fill a Supreme Court seat.
In Maine, voters trusted Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump 59 percent to 37 percent; in Arizona 53 percent to 43 percent; and in North Carolina, by a narrower margin of 47 percent to 44 percent.
But what’s not known is whether liberals can match the intensity the right has long developed to vote for officials who promise to appoint conservative judges. One sentiment repeated by several voters on Saturday was that it would be simply unfair for Senate Republicans to swiftly confirm a Trump-appointed justice in the final weeks before an election after refusing to consider Judge Garland four years ago.
Independent voters and wayward Republicans interviewed Saturday saw some nuance in the court decision. Several said the nomination and confirmation should be put on hold until after the election.
“It would be completely dishonest” for Mr. McConnell to try to rush through a Supreme Court nominee given what he said four years ago, said Bryce Wargin, a 31-year-old statistician from Durham, N.C., who voted for the third-party conservative Evan McMullin in 2016.
Brendan Tanner, 23, an independent voter from Peoria, Ariz., said he is leaning toward voting for Mr. Trump but is considering sitting out the election because he sees deep flaws in both Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden. Mr. Tanner said it wouldn’t be “fair” to “sneak” in a Supreme Court pick with less than two months to go before the election.
“When you’re talking about a Supreme Court justice who is going to serve until they want to quit or until the end of their life, that’s a huge decision that’s going to affect generations — and that’s something that needs to be considered very carefully,” he said. “I think it should wait.”
And Ed Dannels, a Republican voter from North Cornwall Township, Pa., said a replacement for Justice Ginsburg should be nominated by the winner of the presidential election.
“Trump should look to see who he wants to have, and wait until after the election, and if he wins the election he just pushes forward,” said Mr. Dannels, a 72-year-old retired insurance executive.
Democratic voters viewed the prospect of Mr. Trump and the Republican Senate replacing Justice Ginsburg as an existential crisis. Some echoed calls from the party’s progressive wing for Mr. Biden and Senate Democrats to add more justices to the court if Democrats win the presidency and the Senate.
“The Democrats should just try to do anything they can,” said Dan Schley, a 62-year-old real estate appraiser from Milwaukee. “They have a very weak position, because everything’s in the Senate. It’s a scary time.”
Mr. Schley and other progressives interviewed Saturday bemoaned what they viewed as the disintegration of American political comity. Trump-backed Republicans vying to win power at any cost, including with the court appointment, they said, threatens the entire American experiment.
“I wish those who support Trump could understand that the real issue at stake is democracy for all,” said Marillene Allen, 78, of Edina, Minn. “It’s never a vote for one issue, like stopping abortion or lower taxes, or more fracking. A vote for Trump is a vote for the whole package and Trump threatens democracy itself. There is always a tipping point and it is very close.”
Mr. Trump’s supporters found little to be gained from waiting. His 2016 victory and the Republican majority in the Senate, they said, amounts to a use-it-or-lose-it proposition, with the party’s political power set to expire after the Nov. 3 election.
Ken Licari, a 53-year-old Republican from the Detroit suburb of Chesterfield Township, Mich., said he sees the inherent hypocrisy in the proposition of Mr. McConnell advancing a vote on Justice Ginsburg’s replacement. But that’s OK with Mr. Licari, a Macomb County man who works in logistics for the Department of Defense.
“Absolutely, it’s hypocritical,” he said. “But it will be good for the Republican Party and good for America.”
Kenneth Devers, 56, a retired contractor from Hardin, Mont., said Mr. Trump and Republicans might as well try to appoint another justice to the court. He reasoned that the partisan divide is already so sharp and that Democrats already so deeply dislike the president that nothing Republicans and Mr. Trump do is likely to cause additional political damage.
“We might as well just add this to the list of things that make them cry and whine and make snowflake tears fall,” he said of Democrats. “We might as well try to get a justice in there to give us a little more advantage.”
And, waiting for shuttle buses outside Mr. Trump’s Bemidji rally Friday night, Trump supporters overwhelmingly said he should act quickly to claim a signal victory. Laurie Christianson, who drove two hours from her home in Moorhead, Minn., offered simple and pointed advice for Mr. Trump and Senate Republicans: “Do it now.”
Reid J. Epstein reported from Washington and Matt Stevens reported from New York. Jonathan Martin contributed reporting from Bemidji, Minn., Jon Hurdle from Philadelphia, Hank Stephenson from Tucson, Ariz., Kathleen Gray from Lake Orion, Mich., Matt Furber from Minneapolis, Kay Nolan from Brookfield, Wis., and Tom Kertscher from Wauwatosa, Wis.
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