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The Trailer: Why conservatives want the court fight to focus on Catholicism

In this edition: The coming Catholic politics of a court fight, the latest ballot warfare in swing states, and the return of Iowa as a swing state.

If you're surprised that Mitt Romney is a conservative, you must have been reading a different newsletter. This is The Trailer.

Conservatives can already tell the story, beat by beat: By Saturday, the president will announce a female, Catholic nominee for the Supreme Court. The favorite is Amy Coney Barrett, who became a conservative star because Democrats set out to criticize the role of her faith in her decisions, and they botched it. Soon, as conservatives see it, Americans will meet the Indiana judge, view her warmly and then recoil as Democrats unleash the most anti-Catholic campaign since the 1920s.

“Oh Lordy! The anti-Catholic bigots are coming out of the woodwork and crawling out from under the rocks now!” wrote Robert P. George, the conservative Catholic academic who founded the American Principles Project, on Monday. “And Amy Coney Barrett hasn't even been nominated (yet).”

Anyone following this election but not steeped in Supreme Court politics might be confused. Didn't Democrats just pick the fourth-ever Catholic nominee for president? Isn't the Democratic speaker of the House a Catholic? Wasn't Barack Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, the first Catholic woman elevated to the bench?

Yes, yes and yes — but Sotomayor, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden are liberals. They support abortion rights and are hostile to religious exemptions that allow businesses or states to deny birth control or reject same-sex marriage. They aren't protested by liberals wearing costumes inspired by “The Handmaid's Tale,” and when they're attacked over their faith, the accusation is that they are straying from it, not holding it too closely.

While Democrats have suggested they want a court fight to focus on the Affordable Care Act and the future of abortion rights, many conservatives are girding for a fight over religious faith and see opportunities if Joe Biden's party can be portrayed as bashing Catholics. Democrats want the court fight to center on health care, voting rights and abortion rights; Republicans are hoping for liberal paranoia about a nominee’s religion to overwhelm it all.

Liberals, having lost the fight against Barrett's 2017 confirmation to a lower court, barely remember how Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that “the dogma lives loudly within” the Notre Dame professor. Conservatives have never forgotten it and believe that Democrats and (far more likely) liberal pundits will become so unglued by the prospect of a Catholic woman undoing Roe v. Wade that it will backfire and lose voters.

“If nerves were heightened before that confirmation hearing, after it, Catholic and religious people were on their last nerve,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List and a convert to Catholicism. “In this frenetic environment we’re in, everybody’s ready to hear that outrage again.”

But the political bet being made here has a long history — older, actually, than the 48-year-old Barrett. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower named a Catholic Democrat, William Brennan, to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, boosting him with Catholic swing voters in his landslide reelection. During Richard Nixon's first term, the president and his political team obsessed over improving his share of the Catholic vote. He'd lost it decisively to John F. Kennedy (a Catholic) but made gains in 1968, as Democrats became more associated with legal abortion. In a memo, Pat Buchanan advised Nixon to “appoint a conspicuous 'ethnic Catholic' like an Italian-American jurist of conservative views,” arguing that those voters were more winnable than non-White voters who had drifted from the GOP.

“It means nothing to the protestants,” Nixon said, agreeing with Buchanan. “It could mean a hell of a lot to the Catholics.”

Nixon won the Catholic vote in 1972, and both parties have competed for it since then. Republicans have not just considered Catholic nominees to the court — they've prioritized them. Since 1991, Republican presidents have made five successful Supreme Court appointments, four of whom were Catholic; the fifth, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, was raised in the faith and went to Catholic school before marrying into the Episcopal Church.

In many of those confirmation battles, Republicans accused Democrats of imposing “religious tests” on nominees that reveal a thinly veiled bias against conservative Catholics. This is not a small trap. It's a circus-tent-sized trap with the word “T-R-A-P” stamped across the entrance in bright neon. And a number of well-known Democrats have fallen into it, with their gaffes, like Feinstein's, daisy-chained into an argument that one party respects faith and the other fakes it. 

A Barrett nomination is perfect for that strategy. Brian Burch, president of the conservative-leaning group CatholicVote, said Catholics fit into three camps: White Catholics who attended Mass every week; White Catholics who attended Mass more rarely (if at all); and non-White Hispanic Catholics, who generally attended every week. Trump was already strong with the first group and had made gains relative to his 2016 strength with the third group, while Biden dominated the second group. Nominating an antiabortion Catholic woman, he said, would tell some of the movable voters in that first group that Trump was looking out for them. (While Florida-born Judge Barbara Lagoa is also on Trump's shortlist, and is Catholic, most of the speculation has been about Barrett.)

“Trump is having some trouble with suburban Catholic women, in particular,” Burch said. “They’re the most swingable back to him. They’re traditional Republican voters, they’re social-conservative-inclined, and I think having a woman nominee, in particular, is going to add more danger to Democrats in how they handle this.”

But as Burch acknowledged, the Catholic vote is not a monolith. The gains Nixon dreamed about have already taken place, and abortion is not an issue, on its own, that flips many Catholic voters. In the last major poll of views of abortion by religion, Catholics favored legal abortion with limits over banning abortion by a one-point margin. Polling among Catholic voters has found Biden doing far better than Hillary Clinton, which has helped him build small leads in key Midwest states.

Republican messaging has been aimed less at Catholics who support abortion rights and more at winning back antiabortion Catholics who were unhappy with Trump, who is headed to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on Wednesday. CatholicVote's multimillion-dollar ad buys have attacked Biden for dropping his decades of support for the Hyde Amendment, legislative language (initially passed by Democratic congressional majorities) that prevents any federal funds from paying for abortion. 

But they've also focused on what Burch called “the western civilization-guided principles that undergird the principles of [America’s] founding,” reminding voters that the Obama-Biden administration opposed religious exemptions for birth control coverage and anti-LGBT discrimination and didn't support vouchers for parochial schools.

The Trump campaign has been blunter. It gave a prominent speaking slot at the Republican National Convention to Sister Deirdre “Dede” Byrne, who praised Trump as “the most pro-life president ever.” It gave another slot to former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, who called Biden a “Catholic in name only,” citing the abortion issue. 

There was no evidence that this helped Trump, and Biden, who ignored most Republican convention content, jumped to criticize Holtz. (“I’m a practicing Catholic, I don’t proselytize about it, I never miss Mass,” he told MSNBC.)  Leading up to this week, Democrats were not seeing any Catholics peeling away over the abortion issue or the GOP attacks. Former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro, a Catholic who challenged Biden for the presidential nomination, predicted the court fight would be “inconsequential” to Hispanic voters. 

“The numbers reflect that the majority of Hispanics support Biden. He’s Catholic, and he hasn’t been afraid to talk about his faith,” Castro said. “I see this more as inside D.C. talk, launched by the RNC, than an argument that’s going to win the day with everyday Catholics. It’s not 1960. There have been plenty of Catholics who’ve achieved the highest offices, and there's a real diversity of Catholic opinion.”

That's why so much rests on the nominee: on voters liking her, and on Democrats and their allies coming off as churlish or intolerant in their hearings. If Barrett is the pick, Republicans hope that Democrats obsess over her membership in People of Praise, a Catholic group in which women are assigned “handmaids,” a reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus, as “the handmaid of the lord.” A similar group that used that nomenclature detail inspired Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel of Christian theocracy “The Handmaid's Tale” — and the “handmaid” costumes some protesters wear to protest social conservatives.  Democrats envision a fall campaign focused on a conservative court's threat to the Affordable Care Act and Roe v. Wade; conservatives envision one in which the president is protecting a Catholic woman from religious bigotry.

“They won't go after her only on this, because they're not that dumb,” Dannenfelser said. “Opposing a woman nominee, in general, hurts them a little bit. It only hurts them a lot if they go this route. Maybe I’m just hoping that’s the case. But I think it’s true.” 

Reading list

“Biden’s moderation contrasts with Democratic rage as court fight looms," by Annie Linskey and Matt Viser

What the nominee is and isn't talking about.

“As Trump rushes to fill a court seat, conservative groups fear missteps,” by Gabby Orr

The jitters of antiabortion activists.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death brings new uncertainty to the battle over voting rights in 2020,” by Elise Viebeck and Ann E. Marimow

How a vacancy or appointment would affect the laws states are using to conduct the election.

“How Ginsburg’s death has reshaped the money race for Senate Democrats,” by Shane Goldmacher and Jeremy W. Peters

The multimillion-dollar flood of money to potential majority-busters.

“Democrats largely powerless to stop GOP from confirming Trump’s court choice,” by Paul Kane and Rachael Bade

Why Joe Biden's party is talking more about 2021 than the next few weeks.

“With few options to stall a Supreme Court confirmation, Democrats talk drastic change to end ‘minority rule,’" by Jess Bidgood and Liz Goodwin

Democratic plans for the court's future.

Voting wars

It’s a ridiculous-sounding phrase that could end up becoming infamous: “naked ballots.” In Pennsylvania, absentee ballots are sent to voters with both an outer envelope and an inner, security envelope. The state's law has been clear: Voters need to tuck the ballot into both envelopes for it to count.

Pennsylvania Democrats won much of what they fought for at the state's Supreme Court last week, but the Trump campaign won on “naked ballots,” with the court clarifying that votes wouldn't be counted if the inner envelope was missing. Democrats are fighting and fretting about it and trying to get a compromise through the Republican-run legislature, where there's been a stalemate over any changes to voting. 

Their warning: Tens of thousands of valid votes could be thrown out, and voters who hadn't faced this problem in the past would be disenfranchised. Before the lawsuit, cities often opened the ballots anyway, and if this got wrapped up with other ballot fights, it could be too late for voters.

“I urge you, once again, to please act to eliminate the secrecy envelope requirement, though now my pleas have much more urgency,” Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa Deeley wrote to Republican leaders this week. “Disagreements over pre-canvassing length and drop boxes and satellite offices should not interfere with the urgent need to eliminate the secrecy envelope requirement.”

Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, a Republican, who has advocated for easier voter access this year, said in an interview that “the legislature and the governor must get together and resolve this,” though he did see a role for compromise. Failing that, he said, officials needed to make sure voters knew what had changed.

“Listen, I appreciate the concern that people have,” Ridge said. “But you got six weeks left. I’ve received two notices from the post office about how voting will work. There’s ways that state officials can educate all voters, and it’s incumbent on them to do it. The Trump people are going to do what Trump’s people do. They love going to court.”

In Florida, Democrats got their second gift in as many weeks from former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg: His organization had raised more than $16 million for the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which helped pass a 2018 constitutional amendment to give the vote back to nonviolent felons. Florida's Republicans subsequently passed a law requiring felons to pay any fees related to their sentence or court hearing before voting, which threw a registration push into disarray and even kept some felons who had registered from the franchise. The new money will pay off the fees of felons identified by FRRC.

“We know to win Florida we will need to persuade, motivate and add new votes to the Biden column,” read a Bloomberg group memo first reported by The Post's Michael Scherer. “This means we need to explore all avenues for finding the needed votes when so many votes are already determined.” 

Ad watch

Kelly Loeffler, “Attila.” Last month, a spokesman for Georgia Rep. Doug Collins's Senate campaign told the Daily Beast that the appointed Republican senator was a phony: a “corporate liberal” who was trying to come off like “Attila the Hun.” Loeffler's campaign adapted that into this ad, in which an impressed conservative couple muses on Loeffler's Attila-like conservatism, and the scene switches, in the style of “Family Guy,” to a guttural-sounding Attila barking out orders, including the elimination of “liberal scribes.”

DCCC, “Caught.” The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has begun unloading negative ads in swing seats, but it hasn't really competed in this one before: a Republican-leaning district in Indianapolis's suburbs. The accusation here, which unfolds over the whole commercial, is that Republican state Sen. Victoria Spartz sponsored a wetlands bill that would have made it easier for her family to develop property. 

Poll watch

U.S. Senate race in Maine (Boston Globe/Suffolk, 500 likely voters)

First choice
Sara Gideon (D): 46%
Susan Collins (R): 41%
Lisa Savage (G): 4%
Max Linn (I): 2%

Second choice 
Sara Gideon (D): 49%
Susan Collins (R): 19%
Max Linn (I): 10%
Lisa Savage (G): 7%

Maine's race this year is unique: It's the second to be held under ranked-choice voting, which voters passed by ballot measure before the 2018 election. If voters have four candidates on their ballot, they have the option to rank them ― first choice, second choice, third choice, fourth choice — and if no one initially gets a majority, the extra choices are added in. In 2018, this helped Democratic Rep. Jared Golden win, and the same dynamic helps Gideon: Savage, the Green, has been vocal in asking her supporters to pick the Democrat second. (The backstory: Democrats lost two consecutive races for governor thanks to a split in the liberal vote, and make ballot reform a priority.)

U.S. Senate race in Georgia (AJC/UGA, 1,150 likely voters)

Kelly Loeffler (R): 24%
Doug Collins (R): 20%
Raphael Warnock (D): 20%
Matt Lieberman (D): 11%
Ed Tarver (D): 5%
Brian Slowinski (L): 3%

Ballot rules are helping Democrats in Maine, but Georgia's all-party primary is making them sweat: The vote is Nov. 3, and the top two candidates will advance to a January runoff, no matter which party they belong to. Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, has been the choice of national Democrats and nearly all Georgia elected Democrats since entering the race. But he has only slowly consolidated the Democratic vote, which, on its own, would guarantee a runoff spot. Democrats are now waving this poll around to urge Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, to quit the race; he's refused, but Warnock has climbed in polls since going on the air. Consolidating most of Georgia's Black vote, which he has yet to do, would likely get him above 30 percent, and into a runoff berth.

Presidential race in Iowa (Iowa Poll, 658 likely voters)

Joe Biden (D): 47% (+4)
Donald Trump: (R): 47% (+3)

Iowa's gold-standard pollster has delivered good news for Republicans before, and Democrats, at their peril, dismissed it. Its first general election 2016 poll found Trump up four on Hillary Clinton, with the Democrat stuck at 39 percent; its final poll that year found Trump up seven, with Clinton still stuck at 39 percent. Trump ended up winning by nine points, with Clinton at just 42 percent, a complete demolition of the state's old political coalitions. The pollster has consistently found Biden in the mid-40s, in a close race with the president, and Democrats coming closer to their 2018 line than their complete 2016 collapse, thanks to suburban women sticking around. In the 2016 exit poll, Clinton won women by single digits; Biden leads with them here by 20 points.

Debate season

The first Trump-Biden debate will be held in Cleveland next week, and the Commission on Presidential Debates has released its six topics: the Trump and Biden records, the Supreme Court, covid-19, the economy, race and violence in our cities, and the integrity of the election. 

All of those descriptions come verbatim from the CPD, which gets at how different these debates are — by design — from the rough-and-tumble primary debates. In those, the idea of a question or topic being given in advance to candidates is so controversial that Donna Brazile’s 2016 decision to do it cost her a CNN contract and spawned four years of anger and conspiracy theories.

But the CPD always releases its general topics and usually tries to stay away from controversies-du-jour. That changed in 2016, when, starting with the second debate, Trump got a question about the “Access Hollywood” tape, and Hillary Clinton got one about a speech she’d concealed the text of until it was revealed in WikiLeaks’s publication of John Podesta’s emails.

That really was a change from tradition — tradition the CPD enforced, in part, because of a backlash to the 1988 debate and some questions that sounded cheap. (The most famous: Michael Dukakis being asked if he’d support the death penalty for the killer if his wife was “raped and murdered.”)

Candidate tracker

Donald Trump is not hunkering down ahead of next Tuesday's debate, but Joe Biden is. He went dark Saturday and mostly dark Tuesday, after a quick trip to northeast Wisconsin for an economic speech and some local news interviews. The Supreme Court didn't get a mention in the speech, but it came up in both interviews, as Biden refused to weigh in again on “court-packing” (which he has previously said he opposes). He continued to focus more on threats to the Affordable Care Act, and was game when asked how he'd respond if the court invalidated the entire law before he took office. (The timeline, with a hearing on the anti-ACA lawsuit in November, makes that difficult.)

“If it does, I will reintroduce the amended version of Obamacare, which I have, requiring preexisting conditions to be covered, etc., which the president says he wants, but he's been in court to eliminate,” Biden told a Fox affiliate in Milwaukee. “Here’s the deal: The likelihood of the nominee that he's picking, based on the person he’s talking about, is likely to take a very conservative view and say Obamacare is unconstitutional. And that's going to strip over a hundred million people with preexisting conditions of any coverage they have. So what I would have to do is see the basis of that decision and know what constitutional argument they made to determine what I have to propose and pass in order to get it done.”

Trump's airplane hangar rallies continued Monday in Swanton, Ohio, where he promised that his base would be thrilled by his court pick, and where he suggested, against evidence, that young people are not vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“It affects elderly people, elderly people with heart problems and other problems. That’s what it really affects,” Trump said. “In some states, thousands of people — nobody young. Below the age of 18, like, nobody. They have a strong immune system, who knows? Take your hat off to the young, because they have a hell of an immune system. But it affects virtually nobody. It’s an amazing thing.”

Kamala D. Harris traveled to Michigan on Tuesday, though she has not taken or answered questions about the Supreme Court vacancy: She's on the Senate Judiciary Committee that will vet a nominee, and she had not ruled out (though not endorsed) expanding the size of the court. And Mike Pence rallied in New Hampshire.


… seven days until the first presidential debate 
… 15 days until the vice-presidential debate 
… 42 days until the general election 
… 83 days until the Electoral College votes