All we have to do is look back at the sequence of events these past 419 days. That's how long this ninth Supreme Court seat has been open since Justice Antonin Scalia died.
A lot of unprecedented things have happened with regard to the Senate's role in approving a president's Supreme Court nominee, and yet there was not a commensurate amount of political upheaval. It suggests that except for a small slice of hardcore voters on either side, the Supreme Court just isn't that big of a deal to American voters.
From Scalia's February 2016 death to a Thursday vote to get rid of the filibuster for Supreme Court justices so that Trump's replacement pick Judge Neil Gorsuch can be confirmed Friday, here are the pertinent events:
- Senate Republicans decided not to hold any hearings for President Obama's pick to fill the seat.
- Indignant Democrats and liberal groups launched an all-out attack on vulnerable Senate Republicans for holding up the nomination.
- Most Americans told pollsters they didn't like it that Republicans weren't considering Obama's nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.
- Most Americans also told pollsters they really didn't know who Garland was.
- A 4-to-4 ideologically split Supreme Court deadlocked on some big decisions, such as Obama's protections for illegal immigrants and the power of teachers unions. Because of the ways the lower courts had ruled in those cases, the deadlock had the effect of handing victories to both sides.
- Republicans kept control of the Senate.
- Oh, and they also won the White House.
- A week after being inaugurated, President Trump nominated Gorsuch, who despite being blocked Thursday by a successful filibuster from Senate Democrats, is one vote away from replacing Scalia on the court. (Now that Republicans got rid of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, that vote is expected to happen Friday.)
In short: Republicans didn't pay a political price for holding up Obama's nominee for some nine months — in fact, you could argue they even came out on top by winning the White House, too.
Network exit polls found that about 2 in 10 voters said appointments to the Supreme Court were the most important factor in their presidential vote.
Among those who said it was the most important factor, 56 percent voted for Trump, compared with 41 percent who voted for Hillary Clinton. That's commensurate with what we understand about which side's base gets more riled up about the Supreme Court — conservatives.
Using the past to predict the future has become an increasingly fraught thing to do in this no-rules political world (see: Nov. 8, 2016). But in addition to what happened to Garland, here are two more things that allow us to believe that Thursday's Senate drama won't make much difference in the 2018 midterm elections:
1. Most Americans still aren't that familiar with the court and the process by which justices are chosen for it. A March C-SPAN poll found 57 percent of people can't name a single current member of the Supreme Court.
It's also safe to assume even fewer Americans are familiar with what Republicans just did to the filibuster. In 2010, Pew Research Center asked Americans how many senators it takes to break a filibuster — just 26 percent correctly chose 60. With regard to this particular process Republicans used to undo the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, I follow politics for a living, and at times I was confused.
“I think that everybody banks on the American people not really following this very closely,” said University of Virginia Law professor Carl Tobias. “It's incredibly arcane, and so why would they?”
2. Even if voters did care about the Supreme Court, the 2018 Senate map isn't one that will be easily swayed. Republicans control the Senate by two seats (actually, three if you count Vice President Pence, who can cast a tiebreaking vote). That's not enough to break a Democratic filibuster on legislation, but in the next election, Republicans are in a position to gain more seats, not lose them.
Midterms are normally kind to the party not in power, but this map shows serious headwinds for Democrats.
Republicans are defending two potentially vulnerable seats — Sens. Dean Heller in Nevada and Jeff Flake in Arizona. Democrats are defending at least 10 seats in states that Trump won — some by double-digit points. (In West Virginia, where Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) is up for reelection, Trump won by 42 points.)
Both sides will try to make the case that what happened Thursday should be reason to kick out those incumbent senators. Republicans are arguing that Democrats like Sens. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) or Bill Nelson (Fla.) who voted to filibuster Gorsuch did a 180 when they demanded Republicans vote on Garland.
Democrats, meanwhile, will try to argue that Republicans are so intent on giving Trump what he wants that they broke a 25o-year-old rule to do it.
Is the filibuster-Supreme Court drama a piece of the puzzle in the political battle for the Senate? Sure, to the extent everything that happens in Washington could motivate someone to vote one way or the other. But this major change to Senate procedure doesn't look like it will be a major political factor in 2018.