STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — What does it take to get college kids out of bed before dawn on a chilly Monday morning?
For more than a dozen Penn State students, it took a visit from one unyielding Republican senator.
They were among about 20 picketers bearing signs reading “Do Your Job” and “Hold a Hearing, Take a Vote” who greeted Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) as he arrived at a private breakfast event here. It was one of a series of nationwide protests aimed at forcing Senate consideration of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, scheduled Monday to kick off the two-week Senate recess.
Liberal activist groups including MoveOn.org and Credo Action organized more than three dozen events Monday in states with Republican U.S. senators — including senators such as Toomey who oppose taking up Garland’s nomination and also face tough races for reelection this year.
In five states represented by key GOP senators, planes are set to make lunchtime flights with banners calling on those lawmakers to “Do your job.”
Republicans, confident in their strategy of blockading Garland’s nomination and leaving the next president to fill the vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent death, are brushing off the protests.
“It’s a free country; people can come out and protest as they see fit,” Toomey said as he left the event. But signs and chants, he added, are “not likely to work.”
“For me, this is about the fundamental direction of the most important court in the land for the next generation,” Toomey said. “We have a presidential election that is well underway. It’ll be all finished in about eight months, and I think it’s completely reasonable to let the American people have the maximum say in the direction of this court.”
But Democrats, from the White House down to the grass roots, think steady pressure can turn public opinion against the GOP blockade and force hearings and eventually a confirmation vote on Garland.
“Let’s go. Let’s get it done. Let’s have a vote,” said Ron Simpson, 67, a retired nuclear engineer who protested at the Toomey event alongside the Penn State students Monday.
Later in the day, a plane pulling a “Do your job” banner is set to fly over Toomey’s office in Harrisburg. Similar banners are scheduled to fly over Cleveland and Milwaukee, homes of Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who are up for reelection this year, as well as Des Moines and Austin, homes of key Senate Judiciary Committee members Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.).
“These events will make it crystal clear that senators will be held accountable by their constituents if they continue to shirk their constitutional responsibility and ignore the will of the overwhelming majority of the American people,” said Amy Brundage, one of several former aides to President Obama who is now working with a nonprofit, the Constitutional Responsibility Project, organized to promote Garland’s confirmation.
While Democratic activists lay siege to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who declared the blockade only hours after Scalia’s death was reported, conservatives have stuck to a quieter but equally determined approach.
Carrie Severino, chief counsel for the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative legal group. called Monday’s protests “street theater” that is unlikely to persuade undecided voters.
“The people who are coming out are not the people who are voting for the Republican senators in the first place,” she said.
While GOP-aligned interest groups may not be taking to the streets, they are quietly activating supporters. The Judicial Crisis Network is spending $2 million on a TV, radio and online ad campaign aimed at preventing consideration of an Obama nominee. Lawmakers, including Cornyn and Portman, have penned newspaper op-eds laying out their no-confirmation stance.
Severino said she has focused on making appearances on conservative talk-radio programs in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to help inform Republican voters what is at stake with the Supreme Court vacancy.
McConnell appeared on four talk shows Sunday morning, painting Garland as a strident liberal who would shift the court to the left and stressing the need to leave the vacancy to the next president to fill.
“The American people need to weigh in and decide who’s going to make this decision,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Not this lame-duck president on the way out the door but the next president next year.”
Notably, the protesters who gathered outside the Nittany Lion Inn on Monday morning were mostly supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.
They picketed in support of Garland’s confirmation even though Sanders (Vt.) said last week that he would prefer to nominate a more liberal judge if he is elected.
“We elected Obama,” said Jonathan Gross, a 19-year-old Penn State freshman. “This is his constitutional duty to do this, and now the Senate needs to do its constitutional duty.”
Toomey, elected in the 2010 Republican wave, faces a tough path to reelection in a presidential year, when more Democratic voters typically turn out in Pennsylvania. Unseating Toomey is a key element in Democrats’ plans to regain the Senate majority, and he faces the difficult task of maintaining strong support among conservative voters while not alienating the moderate suburban voters who fueled his 2010 victory.
He has staked out a careful position on the Supreme Court vacancy: “Should Merrick Garland be nominated again by the next president, I would be happy to carefully consider his nomination,” he tweeted last week.
The Democratic field, meanwhile, remains unsettled ahead of the April 26 primary. Katie McGinty, a former top aide to Gov. Tom Wolf, has the backing of the Democratic Party’s national campaign arm, but ex-congressman Joe Sestak, who lost to Toomey by two percentage points in 2010, remains popular with Democratic voters and is running an energetic campaign.
Also running is John Fetterman, mayor of the western Pennsylvania town of Braddock, who has sought to appeal to supporters of Sanders’s presidential campaign.
Severino said senators such as Toomey understand that any independents who might be put off by the blockade are far outnumbered by stalwart conservatives who would abandon Republican senators who take action on a liberal replacement for Obama.
Democrats, she said, “don’t realize how important this issue is in particular to conservatives who have seen time and time again what happens when you have an out-of-control Supreme Court.”
Voters across the conservative spectrum — from supporters of gun rights to pro-business voters to antiabortion activists — “think this is absolutely the right decision by the Republican Senate majority,” Severino added.
“All those other issues ultimately end at the Supreme Court,” she said. “That’s where the buck stops.”