Democrats are betting they do — especially when they can tie the confirmation blockade to Trump. The Harry Reid-affiliated Senate Majority PAC is testing that theory out this week in New Hampshire. They're spending $220,000 on a week-long TV ad buy targeting Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R), who is in a highly competitive reelection bid against popular Gov. Maggie Hassan (D).
"Donald Trump wants the Senate to delay filling the Supreme Court vacancy so he can choose the nominee next year," the ad says. "And Senator Kelly Ayotte is right there to help."
(Ayotte's campaign fired back this is another example of outside spending that Ayotte has signed a pledge to try to curb and pressuring Hassan to as well.)
Senate Republicans seem to be betting voters will react very differently to the Supreme Court drama. Their blockade-at-all-costs strategy indicates they think the Supreme Court battle won't rile up enough Americans to toss their most vulnerable members out of office. Plus, there are potentially major political payoffs years down the line if they can hold strong and make this work.
Like Ayotte, most vulnerable Senate incumbents have sided with Senate Republican leaders and said they think the Senate should vote on the next president's nominee, not this one's. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans this election, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who is perhaps the second-most-vulnerable, are the exceptions.
Public opinion polls indicate that a majority of Americans think Republicans should vote on Obama's to-be-determined nominee. But those polls also show that Americans tend to break down along partisan lines. A February NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken in the days after Justice Antonin Scalia's sudden death showed 81 percent of Democrats think the Senate should consider Obama's nominee, and 81 percent of Republicans don't think so.
Senate Democrats are hoping the Supreme Court blockade will hurt Republicans in blue-leaning states with blue-leaning independents — especially when they can pair their attacks with a Trump double-whammy. (Republicans' positions on whether to support Trump if he's the nominee are murky; most say they would, but plenty would rather not talk about it.)
But perhaps the nomination process is really just another vehicle for Senate Democrats to pound Republicans on Trump, who is very unpopular among the general electorate at large. The New Hampshire ad comes on the heels of a digital ad that ran in in Arizona, where Sen. John McCain's (R) likely challenger Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) spliced some of Trump's more controversial comments with McCain saying, repeatedly, he'll support his party's nominee.
Ads aren't the only indication of how hopeful Senate Democrats are that the confirmation battle will resonate with voters. They've found a serious candidate, former Iowa lieutenant governor Patty Judge, to challenge the once-unchangeable Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who in his role as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee is taking most of the heat for blocking Obama's nominee. And progressive judicial groups are holding protests outside some Senate Republicans' offices, hoping their argument will stick.
Whom Obama actually chooses as his nominee could change everyone's calculations. The White House recent vetted a Republican, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, but Senate Republicans refused to budge in their blockade. (Sandoval pulled his name out of consideration less than 24 hours later.) Now, Obama appears to be considering judges with relatively little experience or partisan leaning one way or the other. Refusing to even meet with a fairly moderate, noncontroversial nominee could make Senate Republicans look unreasonably political, the reasoning goes.
Of course, this confirmation battle is all politics. And whether Senate Democrats' attacks fashioned around it start to move numbers in states like New Hampshire may begin to answer the question both sides are betting control of the Senate on: Does the Supreme Court confirmation battle matter to voters?