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Tamara Keith and Amy Walter on Supreme Court vacancy’s political significance

NPR’s Tamara Keith and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report join Judy Woodruff to discuss the latest political news, including the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, how it affects the presidential race and the power dynamics at play in the Senate around the battle for her replacement.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg has not only left the country in mourning. It has shaken up the presidential campaign with just six weeks left until Election Day.

    To explore the new dynamic, we turn to our Politics Monday duo. That's Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and host of public radio's "Politics With Amy Walter" and Tamara Keith of NPR. She also co-hosts the "NPR Politics Podcast."

    So, before I turn to you for comments, two things I want to let our audience know.

    Number one, it is reported that, reliably, the president met with Amy Coney Barrett, the appellate court judge, who is one of the people he's considering for appointment to the Supreme Court.

    And, separately, Lisa Desjardins wanted me to say to everyone that what she wanted to say was that there could be a Senate vote by the end of the month of October. So, that's out there.

    And, with that, I'm going to turn to you, Tam, and ask you, how has what's gone on with Justice Ginsburg, the fact that the president says he's going to nominate somebody right away, they're pushing for a vote, how is this changing, affecting the presidential campaign?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Well, certainly, it is affecting the oxygen level in the political universe, because Supreme Court fights — and this will be a fight, as the past couple have been — Supreme Court nominating fights take all of the oxygen.

    They block the sun. Pick your analogy. They are big, huge political events. And you can see that already happening. I mean, this is a day when coronavirus has killed 200,000 Americans. We have hit this grim milestone, or are very near it, and it is not the top story, because there is a Supreme Court vacancy, though Joe Biden today did try to turn the focus back to coronavirus and other campaign issues.

    But the reality is that this is going to be a huge focus right up until the election, because the process is going to take that long.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amy, how do you see this changing the presidential race?

  • Amy Walter:

    So, Judy, since the beginning of January, we have had an impeachment. We are still in the middle of a health crisis pandemic. We have had an economic collapse.

    We have now the potential for a Supreme Court fight right before the election. Donald Trump's approval ratings at the beginning of January were about 42 percent, 43 percent. Today, they're 42 percent, 43 percent.

    And the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in January of 2020 had Joe Biden up over Donald Trump 50 to 40 percent. This weekend, they put out a new poll. This is pre — the poll was in the field before Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, but had the race at 51-43.

    In other words, it seems as if, Judy, at any moment, one of these one-in-a-lifetime events is going to upend the trajectory of this race, opinions of the president, and it simply doesn't.

    I think we have an electorate that is already supercharged, super engaged. These people are going to show and up vote across the country no matter what. I do agree with Tam that it definitely puts focus on the Supreme Court. So, it moves it off other issues.

    But, honestly, in watching you speak with Senator Hassan and hearing the former vice president today on the campaign trail, I don't know if it is such a great idea for the president and for Republicans to have to talk about health care going into the final stretches of this campaign.

    Remember, health care was the issue Democrats used to really beat them successfully in 2018. And there are no signs that health care is better for Democrats — I'm sorry — better for Republicans this time around.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

    And, Tam, I think a lot of the — some of the assumption going in was that Republicans would want to make this about reproductive rights, about abortion.

    Just quickly, the reporting is that Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who has been chairman of the Judiciary Committee, a major figure on that committee for many years, is saying he now is favor of going ahead with a vote. There was some question about what he would do.

    But, Tam, how much does it affect the election whether this vote, they try to rush a vote and get it done before the election, vs. waiting until after?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Yes, I'm not sure what difference it will make.

    Certainly, in 2016, the idea of a court vacancy hanging out there and the election deciding who would fill it was a very important part of the election for President Trump. He put out that list of nominees back — or potential nominees back in 2016, and it helped him shore up the court among evangelical voters.

    But what happens this time, I'm not really sure, and whether it happens on the front end or the back end of the election, if Republicans are determined and have the votes to get it done, it may not matter who wins in November in terms of this particular seat.

    I will just say, though, that Democrats are energized. In the about 30 hours after Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death, ActBlue, which is a fund-raising platform used by Democratic candidates and causes, raised $100 million. That is a stunning amount of money. It's more than double their largest single day before that.

    So, money sometimes indicates where energy is. There's a lot of energy on the Democratic side, and you can use that money. You can use that money to compete up and down the ballot.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot of money being put on the Democratic side right now.

    But, Amy, what about this question, just quickly, of before the election, a vote before or after the election, and then the Senate races, a number of Republican incumbents who are in tough races this year?

  • Amy Walter:

    Right.

    We have a lot of Senate Republicans who already know that they are tied to President Trump's fate. If he loses their state, they are unlikely to win. So, the better he looks, the better their chances, which is why you're seeing most of those Republicans who are up this year getting behind — or — yes — that are up this year getting behind the president.

    One person who's come out against this, of course, is Susan Collins in Maine, but she's always in that pickle, where she's going — no matter what she says or does, folks who support Trump in that state think she's wishy-washy.

    Folks who have supported her in the past, especially independent voters in Maine, now, because of her vote for Kavanaugh, say, even if she holds off for supporting it before the election, or even if she says she won't support it during the lame-duck, we don't know that we trust her enough — I saw a voter quoted as saying that — trust her enough to think that she will follow through on that.

    So, she's the one who's really caught most in that vice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And there are several other Republican senators we're waiting to hear from, Tam, certainly Mitt Romney of Utah, Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska.

    It's expected, as Amy said, they will back the president. But we don't know. We don't know.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Yes. And the magic number is four.

    If four Republicans break off from the president, then this nomination — and it's in the abstract right now as to who it would be — the nomination could be sunk.

    We also don't know what will happen in the hearings. It may not matter what will happen in the confirmation hearings. But there have, at times, been confirmation hearings that changed the course or the trajectory. I will just say that, in 2018, a number of moderate Republicans learned that there's no badge of courage that you get for separating yourself from President Trump.

    Democratic voters aren't going to support you and give you a cookie for straying from the president. You still have an R next to your name. And if you lose the president, he will tweet against you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

    So — and just quickly, Amy, we have seen Cory Gardner in a tough race in Colorado, Joni Ernst. One of you may have mentioned her, both of them sounding like they're going to be with the president.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, absolutely, and Thom Tillis us in North Carolina as well.

    And, again, all of the — what all of those senators have in common, Judy, they came in, in 2014. And so they don't have as much of an identity that's separate from the political environment. As I said, how they do is tied very much to how the president does. And they want to make sure that, if his voters are excited, and they get out and vote, well, they're going to remember to vote for the Republican down-ballot too.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Many political calculi, or whatever the plural of calculus is.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I will let you guys straighten me out on the math.

    Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, thank you both. We appreciate it.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

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