PHILADELPHIA — Watching the fight unfold between President Barack Obama and Senate Republicans over who should choose the next Supreme Court justice, Michael A. Bowden got angry at what he saw at the latest affront to the first black president.
And then his thoughts turned from Washington to his own state.
Obama won’t be on the ballot this fall, but Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey will – and Bowden has made defeating him in November a priority.
“This kind of thing really burns me to the core,” said Bowden, a 56-year-old Air Force veteran from Philadelphia. “I’ve already started planting the seed in people’s heads that Sen. Toomey is one of those people in lockstep with the Republicans. This could give him a wake-up call that he could be vulnerable as well.”
Democrats are pressuring senators in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire, Illinois and Wisconsin to back down from their refusal to confirm or even consider Obama’s nominee to succeed the late Antonin Scalia or face the consequences in November. In some states, they may get help from African-Americans who see the court battle as the latest GOP snub of Obama – one rooted in racism, which could galvanize a crucial component of the Democratic voting bloc.
“The Obama presidency has been mobilizing for African-Americans,” said Daniel Hopkins, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research focuses on racial and ethnic American politics. “The Supreme Court nomination is part of a much broader story of deeply polarized and sometimes racialized hostility between Obama and his political opponents. It’s potentially quite a potent issue in a state that has backed Obama twice.”
Many African-Americans trace what they see as similar insults back to Obama’s historic election in 2008, when questions were raised about his U.S. citizenship and family in Kenya. In the days after Scalia’s Feb. 13 death, Republicans quickly signaled their opposition to Obama nominating a successor, saying they would refuse to hold hearings on a nominee and calling for the conservative justice’s replacement to be chosen by the next president.
Toomey, running for a second term after narrowly winning in 2010, echoed those sentiments.
In a recent Associated Press interview, Toomey said: “The president intends to change the balance of the court and I am not going to support him changing the balance of the court with nine months before an election, I’m not going to do that.”
The Democrats looking to challenge Toomey in the fall say he should do his job.
Among voters, Donnell Regusters of Yeadon said the issue could be an opportunity for Democrats this year. The 40-year-old videographer voted and campaigned for Joe Sestak in 2010 against Toomey and is considering supporting the former congressman again.
“It’s something I hadn’t thought about, honestly,” Regusters said. “I just kind of thought it was out of his way to win, but this could be an opportunity. … Right now would be a perfect time to use that whole Supreme Court fight.”
Toomey’s re-election bid will hardly hinge on support from black voters, but their opposition could hurt.
Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for Katie McGinty – among the four Democrats in the Senate primary – said the candidate has heard from African-Americans who are frustrated with Republicans like Toomey “disrespecting President Obama and attempting to delegitimize his presidency.”
“Republican obstructionism as related to the Supreme Court vacancy and other issues will be real motivating factors to turn out African-American voters in Pennsylvania,” Singh said in a statement.
A recent Pew Research Center poll shows 56 percent of Americans think the Senate should hold hearings and vote on Obama’s nominee. Toomey scored his highest unfavorable rating since August 2009 – 21 percent of respondents – in a Franklin and Marshall College poll released Thursday and conducted the week after Scalia’s death.
In the presidential campaign this past week, Democrat Hillary Clinton called on black women at an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority alumnae event in South Carolina to “see if we can’t find a handful of Republicans who understand and will do their duty, who believe they are called by the Constitution to do just that.”
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College poll, said it’s still unclear to what extent the Supreme Court fight will be an issue in the fall.
“It won’t be that Toomey will change his mind, but Democrats can use this to energize their voters. Will it work? We don’t know,” Madonna said.
For black voters like Mecca Bey, if Toomey wins, it won’t be for lack of trying on her part.
“I will make sure I motive my friends to get rid of him,” said Bey, 40, of Landsdowne. “I’ve been educating people on what he’s actually doing right now so they don’t forget in the fall what he’s involved in.”