McConnell’s Long Game and the Fight for the Supreme Court

“Winners make policy and losers go home,” declares Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in his memoir, The Long Game. This quote gives insight into the formulation of McConnell’s political strategy focused on advancing the conservative agenda. The strategy entails making strong decisions – even when unpopular – to benefit election outcomes and the future of conservative policy. With the passing of liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, McConnell and the Republican Party are presented with what President Trump once called, “the ultimate long game”: an opportunity to transform the Court and usher in a more conservative era for the judiciary. 

On September 26th of this year, Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a federal judge and Notre Dame law professor, to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat. What follows is an effort to further energize conservative voters for both the Presidential and Senate elections, and ultimately creating a conservative-dominated Supreme Court. This effort doesn’t come without its challenges; as an unintended consequence, Republicans are potentially furthering the momentum of Democrats more so than their own party with a possible blue wave threatening to flip Republican seats in Congress. Thus, Republicans must ask themselves this: is McConnell’s “Long Game” mentality actually a winning strategy? 

The Presidential Election

In an already tumultuous election year, the vacant Supreme Court seat offers not only another opportunity for both parties to rally their bases, but also to appeal to the moderate undecided voters. Regarding the presidential election, results of a new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll show Biden ahead by 8 points among registered voters, 51 percent to 43 percent. While these numbers don’t look great for Trump, the poll also finds that 11 percent of all voters are still “up for grabs”, which is greater than Biden’s current advantage over Trump. 

There are a couple of routes that the two candidates could pursue in capitalizing on the seat vacancy for their campaigns. One option is to use it to energize their current bases over hot button issues, like abortion, that the Court could substantially impact. It seems that both candidates have pursued this path in some manner. In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump emphasized the importance of conservative justices, boldly speculating that “If you have a radical left group of judges, religion, I think, will be almost wiped out in America. If you look at it, pro-life will be absolutely wiped out.” Biden has brought up the issue of a Trump Supreme Court Justice playing a part in potentially overturning of Roe vs. Wade, the case decided by the Court in 1973 protecting abortion. Biden has also taken the approach of appealing to the more moderate voter population. In a statement released after the nomination, Biden brought up Barrett’s opposition to abortion in an effort to appeal to his more liberal base. The former Vice-President also talked about healthcare, stating that Judge Barrett, “has a written track record of disagreeing with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Affordable Care Act.” The ACA, or “Obamacare” as it is often called, is supported by a majority of independents, as recent polling shows. Whether or not this approach to appeal to undecided voters will actually work is hard to predict, but it is clear that this brings even more tension to the Presidential Election.

The Senate Elections

The U.S. Senate election also has the potential to be impacted by Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court. In the Senate, Republicans currently hold a 53-47 majority. In this election, they are defending 23 seats, while Democrats defend 12, and even some usually safe incumbents have been lagging in the polls. McConnell is one of the 23 Republican Senators up for re-election, but recent polling suggests he doesn’t have too much to worry about in his election, as he leads his opponent Amy McGrath by 12 percentage points, 53% to 41%, among likely voters. As the Senate Majority Leader, though, one of his main concerns is to keep that majority in the Senate, so what is the reasoning behind his strategy in regards to the Supreme Court appointment and the various Senate election races? 

Looking at several prominent polls asking about whether or not Ginsburg’s seat should be filled before the election, it was found on average that 52 percent of Americans have said to wait, while only 39 percent have said Trump should fill the seat now. From this it’s clear that appointing a new justice isn’t exactly the most popular decision, but McConnell seems to be undeterred by this. Months before Ginsburg died, McConnell was asked in May what he would do about a Court vacancy during an election year, and he responded, “I would fill it” – making a reversal from 2016, when he prevented President Barack Obama from trying to fill a Supreme Court vacancy during an election year. McConnell’s reasoning behind going forward with a vote on a new justice could be that it could help certain Republican senate candidates by giving them an issue to latch on to and make a stronger appeal to their conservative base – but even if this has little to no impact on the standing of certain candidates, in the end, McConnell is still likely to be successful in establishing a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. It is likely that two Republican seats (Arizona and Colorado) will flip Democrat and one Democratic seat (Alabama) will flip Republican, and the Supreme Court vacancy probably won’t change much there. There are, however, at least five Republican Senate seats that are simply toss-ups, that being Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Montana, and North Carolina.

The End Game of the Long Game

So, where do we go from here? Republicans have made their decision to go forth with the Court nomination and hearings, so now they’ll have to wait and see what results will follow. McConnell knows the risks, but he also recognizes the great rewards. The potential of advancing conservative policy by establishing a conservative-dominated Supreme Court, as well as helping Republican candidates who are currently struggling in the polls is too great of an opportunity to ignore. The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to meet for Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings on October 12th and the 2020 Election is on November 3rd. McConnell knows that this election could end up not going his way, but he also knows that elections consist of short-term wins and losses. “Everything else changes”, McConnell once said, but the appointment of judges “can’t be undone”. It is with this long game strategy that McConnell is determined to find a win for the party no matter what, and it seems he might just be able to pull that off.

Published by Alex Reynolds

Alex Reynolds is an undergraduate student at the University of Louisville studying Political Science and Economics. Alex has served as an intern for the Mayor of Florence, KY, the Kentucky Republican Party, and Congressman Thomas Massie's D.C. Office.

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