The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservative groups threaten Moran with reprisals after he calls for Supreme Court hearings

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan). (Susan Walsh/AP)

Updated with new statement from Moran

Sen. Jerry Moran learned this week that what happens in a west-Kansas Rotary Club meeting doesn’t necessarily stay in a west-Kansas Rotary Club meeting.

After the Kansas Republican’s comments supporting a Senate hearing on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland garnered national attention Thursday, conservative activist groups responded with reactions ranging from disappointment to overt threats.

“I think we have the responsibility to have a hearing, to have the conversation and to make a determination on the merit,” said Moran, who is seeking election to a second Senate term this year. The quote was reported by the Dodge City Daily Globe.

Jerry Moran is third Republican senator to favor Supreme Court hearings

That won this reaction Friday from Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the best-organized grass-roots conservative activist groups: “We hope Sen. Moran will reconsider and stand with Kansans and the American people, rather than President Obama and his liberal allies,” she said in a statement, adding that activists were “furious” with Moran. “It’s this kind of outrageous behavior that leads Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund activists and supporters to think seriously about encouraging Dr. Milton Wolf to run against Sen. Moran in the August GOP primary.”

Wolf is a radiologist who ran against Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) in 2014, coming within 20,000 votes of ousting Roberts in the Republican primary. He has remained active in politics and retains a following among tea-party-oriented voters. Wolf tweeted Thursday that Moran “folded like a lawn chair” on the Supreme Court fight.

Moran, a former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has been considered a safe bet for reelection. But a challenge from the right in the state’s Senate primary in August could complicate his path to a second term.

It is unclear, though, just how much political damage his stance on hearings might have done. Moran made clear, according to press reports, that he would be unwilling to vote to confirm Garland. “I can’t imagine this president is going to nominate someone I find acceptable,” he told the Rotary Club in Dodge City, according to the news report.

He expanded on that message in a new statement released Friday: “I am opposed to President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee and this administration’s attempt to put another liberal judge on the Supreme Court. As I have said since the vacancy was created, I believe I have a duty to ask tough questions and demand answers. I am certain a thorough investigation would expose Judge Garland’s record and judicial philosophy, and disqualify him in the eyes of Kansans and Americans.”

Several recent polls have shown that while most Republicans oppose action on Garland, there is a significant GOP minority that believes the Senate should move forward with the process. Among voters of all political orientations, about two-thirds favor consideration of Garland’s nomination, according to polls released in recent days by Quinnipiac University, Bloomberg, Monmouth University and CNN.

But Moran’s support for hearings remains a significant break with the strategy that was laid out by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the hours after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and that has since been embraced by conservative activists.

Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network, which has led the conservative response to the Scalia vacancy, said in a statement Thursday that Moran “owes it to the voters of Kansas to let them decide who the next Supreme Court Justice is through their votes for president this November.”

“Caving into President Obama, who wants to create a liberal-dominated Supreme Court as part of his legacy, is not serving the people of Kansas,” she said, promising “a robust, multi-faceted TV, digital, and grassroots campaign designed to remind Senator Moran that he represents the people of Kansas and neither President Obama nor the Democratic Party.”

And Billy Valentine, director of government affairs for the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List, gave a gentler rebuke to Moran in a Friday statement: “Senator Moran is a steadfast defender of the unborn which is why he must understand the stakes in this fight. . . . We hope that Senator Moran, who represents one of the most prolife states in the nation, will stand with his colleagues and not those trying to ram through Obama’s nominee during his final months in office during a contentious presidential election season.”