Less than 24 hours after the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear that Republicans wouldn't participate in confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nominee put forward by President Obama, the news leaked that the White House is vetting Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval for the opening.
"Sandoval is increasingly viewed by some key Democrats as perhaps the only nominee President Obama could select who would be able to break a Republican blockade in the Senate," write WaPo's Mike DeBonis and Juliet Eilperin. "A person familiar with the conversation said that while Sandoval told [Harry] Reid he had not made a final decision on whether he would accept a Supreme Court nomination, he would allow the vetting process to move forward. Another person in Nevada familiar with the process confirmed that the process is underway."
So, on Tuesday, McConnell makes clear there is no nominee who will even be granted a confirmation hearing. That same day Reid, the most powerful Democrat in the Senate and a Nevadan, meets with Sandoval. The next day -- aka today -- we learn that Sandoval, a Republican, is in the mix to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
Hmmmm. Coincidences don't exist in politics. And especially when Harry Reid, the single most political person in the Senate -- with apologies to McConnell, who is number 2 -- is intimately involved. "How delicious for [Reid] in his legacy year to get a Nevadan appointed to the high court by putting the Republicans in the position of trying to deny it to one of their own, and a Hispanic to boot?" writes Jon Ralston in the Reno Gazette Journal of the Sandoval trial balloon. (Reid has announced his retirement this year after five terms in the Senate.)
I don't doubt that Sandoval is being vetted by the White House. And that he would have to think very seriously about taking it -- he would have to take it, right? -- if the job was offered. What I doubt is that he will actually be offered the job. And why, if he was going to be offered it, that it would leak just a day after Sandoval and Reid huddled.
What if Reid and the White House decided to float Sandoval's name publicly to troll McConnell and the other Senate Republicans who have, to date, kept a largely united front when it comes to their unwillingness to consider an Obama nominee to the court? And, while you are pondering that, remember that White House press secretary Josh Earnest has made very clear that Obama has no short list of potential nominees for the court yet.
Sandoval's name out in the ether -- a Hispanic Republican who is widely liked within his state and the broader GOP -- makes it very hard for Republicans up in 2016 in blue/swing-y states to hold the line. For people like Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Rob Portman (Ohio), there is real electoral danger in being seen as part of a too-radical or too-obstructionist Republican party in Washington. By floating a pick from Republican ranks, Obama/Reid back these GOP senators into a rhetorical corner. Trying to explain why you are flatly rejecting the possibility of a sitting Republican governor being appointed to the Supreme Court by a Democratic president is not any easy thing for even the most adept politician.
Republican strategists I spoke with, to a person, tipped their hat at the strategy but insisted Sandoval wouldn't wind up on the bench. "I have to believe it is a troll," said one high-level GOP consultant. "Obama and the Democrats want to hold out for that guaranteed fifth liberal vote. By floating Governor Sandoval, they are probably trying to generate more newspaper editorials, blog posts and tweets. The odds of it happening have to be lower than the odds of RGIII being the Washington football team’s starting quarterback next season."
I think that's right. Reid is a master strategist. And for him, this looks like a win-win. If Sandoval were to be nominated by Obama, it would amount to a final feather in Reid's cap as Ralston notes above. If not, then Reid and his fellow Senate Democrats can use the Republican obstruction on the Supreme Court pick to bash vulnerable 2016 GOPers as beholden to their party's extreme right flank -- and maybe even retake control of the world's greatest deliberative body in November.
Somewhere, Reid is smiling this afternoon. Widely.