Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made the riskiest decision of his political career in 2016: to block a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court.
McConnell’s decision not to allow a vote on Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia's seat meant that the Senate leader would be responsible for leaving a vacancy on the Supreme Court for more than a year. The new president should be the one to fill the vacancy, he argued. Democrats hammered him on it. Legal experts said it was unprecedented in modern history.
All McConnell could do after making his decision was cross his fingers that Republicans would hold on to the Senate and win the presidency and get to fill the seat themselves. If not, he'd just risk losing the Senate, the presidency and the conservative balance of the Supreme Court.
That risky decision paid off, so well in fact that today, McConnell is basically bragging about it.
“You’ve heard me say before,” he told the Kentucky Today editorial board Tuesday, “that I thought the decision I made not to fill the Supreme Court vacancy when Justice Scalia died was the most consequential decision I’ve ever made in my entire public career.”
Whether you call it prescience or a good bet, it’s true that so far, everything McConnell hoped would happen after Scalia’s death did happen. And the success could keep paying off with the upcoming midterms by giving his party something to campaign on.
Republicans kept the Senate. Donald Trump won the presidency. A few months later, President Trump nominated what mainstream conservatives considered a fantastic choice, conservative Judge Neil M. Gorsuch.
McConnell’s hard work on the nominee was just the beginning. McConnell had to blow up the last remaining filibuster in the Senate for judicial nominations to get Gorsuch on the court, something the longtime student of Senate history and rules was loath to do. But he did it.
Today, McConnell can reasonably claim he’s singularly responsible for keeping the Supreme Court with a 5-4 conservative balance.
As McConnell suggested to Kentucky Today, all of that is no small feat. What he did could reverberate across generations. Gorsuch could be a tie-breaking vote on whether to dramatically shrink unions’ power. The court is also deciding whether political gerrymandering is unconstitutional, a decision that could impact a number of Republican-controlled states.
“They won’t change these judges for a generation,” McConnell said.
As McConnell is quick to tell anyone who asks, the Supreme Court isn’t the only place he’s used Republican-controlled Washington to make lasting conservative changes.
He’s also been responsible for approving a number of conservative judges to federal courts across the nation. Approving the president's judicial nominees is one of the Senate’s primary constitutional jobs.
At one point, he even tried to get Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, off the D.C. Court of Appeals by recommending he lead the FBI. That would have given McConnell a chance to essentially replace Garland twice on two different powerful courts.
At a moment this fall when his relationship with Trump was at its lowest, McConnell got Trump in front of the cameras to brag about Republicans’ rapid pace of judicial nominations.
More immediately, McConnell’s work on the courts could help bolster his party in a tough midterm election.
In addition to all the other electoral components shaping up against them, Republicans running for reelection to Congress don’t have a ton to brag about. They failed to make good on a nearly decade-long campaign promise to repeal Obamacare. They rewrote the tax code for the first time in 30 years, but Trump’s tariffs plan risks undermining any economic benefit voters might feel from the tax bill. They did manage to undo a dozen or so Obama-era regulations, but those efforts have since stalled, and deregulation isn’t the sexiest thing to campaign on.
The Supreme Court is still one of those things that lights a fire under conservative activists. McConnell can remind those base voters that Senate Republicans took a big risk to shape the court for a generation.
Actually, reminding voters of that is exactly what McConnell is doing right now.