Republican Senate candidates across the country applauded the nomination yesterday of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, while many Democratic contenders assumed a wait-and-see stance.
The nomination of Alito, regarded by conservative lawmakers as a strict constructionist, is likely to have the greatest political impact in Ohio, Nebraska, Rhode Island and Florida, all of which will host competitive Senate races in 2006.
Contests in West Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Montana also could be shaped by the nomination, which Republicans and Democrats alike said yesterday would spark a costly and emotional debate about abortion, privacy and the nature of the Constitution.
Alito was tapped to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. His nomination came in the wake of former nominee Harriet Miers’s withdrawal Thursday from consideration, after weeks of Republican complaining about her conservative credentials and lack of judicial experience.
“If I were sitting there, that’s what I would want to know: Where does he stand on the issue of privacy?” said Paul Hackett, running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) in 2006.
Hackett conceded that DeWine, a member of the bipartisan “Gang of 14” that brokered a judicial-nominees pact over the summer, has some political cover when it comes to winning support from independents and Democrats.
“He has some insulation from the extreme right, the religious right of his party,” Hackett said. “That’s good. If I were in his shoes, I would not want to be allied with the religious fanatics that have hijacked his party.”
Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), also seeking the Senate nomination, disagreed, saying that DeWine’s participation in the Gang of 14 would not shield him from attack, given that the senator has backed most of the president’s judicial nominees.
Brown voiced disappointment with Bush’s Supreme Court pick. If he were a Judiciary Committee member, like DeWine, Brown said, he would want to know more about Alito’s positions on worker rights and the environment.
A spokesman for DeWine did not return a phone message.
Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) issued a statement saying that, among other issues, Alito’s “respect of precedent and settled law” — regarded as code for supporting the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion — would be “the deciding factors for me on his nomination.”
Most Democratic Senate challengers, including Ford, said they supported the nomination of John Roberts as chief justice of the United States. Sheldon Whitehouse, running for Sen. Lincoln Chafee’s (R-R.I.) seat, said he would have voted to oppose Roberts.
Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.), running for the seat being vacated by Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), called Alito “unquestionably qualified, experienced and articulate” and said he deserves an up-or-down vote by the end of the year.
Kara Borie, a spokeswoman for Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), who is challenging Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), said the congresswoman strongly backs Alito, noting that he won unanimous Senate support when he was nominated in 1990 for the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Nelson, who won his first term in 2000 with 51 percent of the vote, said he is open-minded on Bush’s choice. His comments contrasted with those of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who warned that the nomination would prove divisive and make the court less diverse.
Since last year’s elections, when Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was defeated amid GOP charges of “obstructing” President Bush’s judicial nominees, Republicans have said the courts would prove a formidable issue in 2006.
The Supreme Court is particularly important to many religious conservatives, who date their political activism to 1973, the year the Court decided Roe v. Wade. Since then, “judicial activism” has been a favorite whipping boy — and fundraising tool — of Republicans.
Many liberal groups, from the American Civil Liberties Union to People for the American Way, have similarly railed against what they view as right-wing judicial activism, singling out Justice Antonin Scalia as their chief nemesis.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush called Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas his models for Supreme Court justices. Alito often has been compared to Scalia; one of his nicknames is said to be “Scalito.”
It remains to be seen how the Alito nomination will influence Senate races.
In Michigan, one House Republican aide predicted, it will create a firestorm of attacks and rebuttals, with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), he said, almost certain to oppose Alito and, possibly, support a filibuster of his nomination.
Stabenow’s Republican rivals, including former Detroit City Councilman Keith Butler, will back a Senate rules change blocking a Democratic filibuster — known as the “nuclear option” — and attack Stabenow for being an “obstructionist,” the aide added. Stabenow will respond, he concluded, by labeling the Republicans right-wing extremists.
In New Jersey, however, the nomination is unlikely to figure prominently in the Senate race, a House Democratic aide said, even though Alito hails from the state. The aide pointed out that while Alito did receive the support of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and other Democrats when he was confirmed for the 3rd Circuit, the judge has had 15 years since then to issue many conservative opinions.
Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), running in a tight gubernatorial race next week, issued a statement calling the Alito nomination an attempt to “appease radical conservatives.”
Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.), one of the Democrats who is angling to replace Corzine should the senator become governor, decried the nomination.
“The president has caved in to the right wing by attempting to replace the moderate female voice of Sandra Day O’Connor with a right-wing, white-male ideologue in the tradition of Justice Scalia,” said Pallone, who has touted his ability to win Republican votes.