JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – News of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s impending retirement rocked the political world last week, with the long-standing swing vote of the U.S. Supreme Court departing at the end of July.
For the nation, it means a new justice will be appointed by President Donald Trump, which would need the confirmation of the U.S. Senate. What it could mean is a conservative court that could dictate judicial precedent and decisions in favor of Republican agendas for years to come.
But it could also have other effects, particularly in the Show-Me State’s race for U.S. Senate.
The Supreme Court issues over the next few months could very well dictate who is declared the victor in the November 2018 general election, deciding whether Democratic incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill is destined for a third term.
If the Democratic senator were to vote against whomever President Trump picks, which is expected to be named around July 9th, then McCaskill could very well find herself in a tight spot in the November vote, several experts say.
“It’s a difficult situation for her simply because she’s going to get a lot of pressure from the Democratic base to resist any nomination, and at the same time she can’t really portray herself as an obstructionist because she is trying to move to the political middle,” University of Missouri-Columbia political scientist Peverill Squire told the Associated Press.
McCaskill, who describes herself as a moderate, voted against Trump’s last pick to the Supreme Court, and now will find herself in the same situation. So far, she has not made any comments or discussed the nominee, other than to say it would be premature to discuss anything until the pick is made.
Republicans, however, are hoping that the pick will give a boost to their endeavors to unseat McCaskill, as Missouri has, in recent years, proven to be a strong red seat at the polls.
They expect that, if McCaskill votes against Trump’s pick, the voters that elected Trump with a 19-point-margin will most likely swing in her opponent’s favor.
Republican candidate and Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is playing his hand on that possibility, challenging McCaskill to a debate over the Supreme Court nominee and other issues related to the court.
Gregg Keller, principal of Atlas Strategy Group, says it’s just another item in a long line of bad news for McCaskill, and that a Kennedy retirement is a nightmare scenario for her, particularly as she runs for reelection in the state where the President won by 19 points, where the GOP holds a supermajority in both the state House and Senate, as well as nearly every statewide office.
“From a policy perspective, given how radical she is on the abortion issue, getting a new conservative member on the Supreme Court is a big policy concern,” he said. “However, it’s an even bigger problem for her and her reelection campaign.
“The Democratic base is going to be very fired up to turn out for these midterm elections, which is going to be good for McCaskill,” he continued. “The problem now is that what this election is largely going to be about is going to be this Supreme Court nomination, immigration, and what’s going on in the court, both of which are terrible issues for her and both of which motivate the Republican base like no two other issues.”
He says that the Hawley campaign believes McCaskill to be weak on the issues of the Supreme Court nomination and immigration, and they are now on the attack. Keller says that he also expects that both Republicans and Democrats will be just as motivated to vote on Election Day.
Jeremy LaFaver, a former state representative and current government and public affairs consultant says that Democrats have to be a little disappointed with the scenario, particularly with how the last Supreme Court nomination went.
“Obviously folks on the left are very disappointed. They put up a Supreme Court nominee who was immensely qualified, and it took Republicans over 200 days to hold a hearing for that nominee, and I think justifiably the left is upset,” he said on a recent This Week in Missouri Politics episode. “If there are lessons here to be learned, there are political consequences that come back because the political pendulum swings back and forth.”
But Jack Cardetti of Tightline Strategies says that the Supreme Court nomination will sharpen the issues on both sides of the aisle.
“For Josh Hawley, it’s going to highlight issues that he’s involved in as Attorney General,” Cardetti said. “For instance, the vacancy on the court could rule on Hawley’s lawsuit trying to get rid of interest coverage for pre-existing conditions. That’s a huge issue that millions and millions of Missourians are dealing with it, and Hawley has put his name on a lawsuit that’s making its way through the courts. So a vacancy on the Supreme Court will certainly highlight issues like that.”
But as to whether the Supreme Court nomination will really affect how people vote in November, Cardetti says the real answer lies with how Missourians have always voted.
“People’s pocketbooks and the health of their families will always be the leading issues,” he said. “This will be a motivating factor for both sides, but I don’t believe it will be the leading issue.
He says that this may generate more voter turnout than expected, as well as more spending in the race, but, in the end, it will still be a decision based on who Missourians feel will best represent them on the issues that matter most to them.
“Voters always vote in their self-interest. Voters cast votes with their pocketbooks. They vote based on the health and security of their families, and it’s been that way in Missouri for generations, and I expect it will be this year.”
Benjamin Peters was a reporter for The Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine and also produced the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined The Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield.