Bitter confirmation fight in Georgia sure to follow Ginsburg’s death

Annette Davis Jackson running for the U.S. Senate, talks to the crowd at the Wild Honey Acres Farm during the Republican United Faces of America Rally in Lawrenceville Sunday, September 20, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

The conservative activists arrived long before the Republican rally began Sunday, setting up tables and tents in a rural patch of Gwinnett County farmland.

Many shared the view of Nathanael Flock, a Lawrenceville Republican whose daughter sported a newly purchased President Donald Trump ball cap. The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he said, has transformed the race.

“The stakes are definitely higher now,” he said. “I feel like the determination of both parties is going to only increase. We’re in the last 45 days, and it just feels that everything is starting again.”

As Trump prepares to nominate a jurist to fill the high court vacancy, the developments Sunday offered a reminder that the bitter confirmation fight offers both promise and peril to vulnerable Georgia Republicans.

U.S. Sen. David Perdue indicated in a statement that he supports a speedy vote on a Supreme Court nomination, adding that he’s confident Trump will "nominate another highly-qualified candidate who will strictly uphold the Constitution.” He joined Kelly Loeffler, Georgia’s other Republican senator, in backing Trump’s push to fill the seat this year.

But even before he took that position, his Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, accused Perdue of hypocrisy, invoking his opposition four years ago to then President Barack Obama’s pick for a Supreme Court vacancy.

Back then, Perdue said repeatedly, the seat shouldn’t be filled until after the White House vote. It’s not surprising, Ossoff said Sunday, that Perdue violated “his so-called principles.”

ExplorePerdue backs Trump's push for Supreme Court vote this year

As polls show tight races in Georgia contests, Republicans hope that reframing the race around Ginsburg’s replacement helps unite a fractious GOP that’s struggling to defend two U.S. Senate seats and prevent Democrats from flipping the state in a tight race for the White House.

In his bid for re-election, Republican U.S. Sen. David Perdue, left, faces Democrat Jon Ossoff.

Democrats see a chance to upend the conventional political wisdom that tussles over Supreme Court nominees benefit Republicans, and are drawing plans to energize their supporters over the fate of the vacancy.

“Justice Ginsburg’s death made this election very real for a lot more people,” said state Rep. Beth Moore, a Democrat who flipped a Gwinnett-based district two years ago. "Georgia Democrats were already enthusiastic, but the idea of filling a Supreme Court vacancy has galvanized even more to show up to the polls.”

ExploreFull coverage: The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

‘Critically important’

Perdue was under immense pressure from the Georgia GOP’s base to side with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s effort to fill Ginsburg’s seat immediately. So far, two Republican senators - Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski - have opposed the idea. With a 53-47 edge in the Senate, McConnell can only afford to lose one more senator.

Though Perdue’s stance was predictable, it evokes the bind he’s in. He’s locked in a tight race, and the Republican can ill afford to infuriate the conservative voters he’s long courted. Still, he risks alienating moderate voters, particularly in Atlanta’s suburbs, who helped Democrats flip a congressional seat in 2018 and nearly defeat Republican Brian Kemp.

The Republican’s campaign pushed back at accusations of a double standard, with Perdue spokesman John Burke saying the scenario in 2016 was different because the White House was held by Democrats and the Senate was controlled by Republicans. This year, both the presidency and the Senate are in GOP hands.

Annette Davis Jackson running for the U.S. Senate, talks to the crowd at the Wild Honey Acres Farm during the Republican United Faces of America Rally in Lawrenceville Sunday, September 20, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

At the same time, the vacancy fueled a fresh lunge toward the party’s hard-right flank in Georgia’s other U.S. Senate contest, a special election. Loeffler and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins have jockeyed to outdo each other courting conservative voters and largely ignored the other 19 candidates in the race.

Collins, a four-term congressman, dismissed pushback of his bracing criticism of Ginsburg shortly after her death. He sent condolences “to the more than 30 million innocent babies that have been murdered” during her time on the bench, referring to her support of abortion rights.

Like Perdue, Colins also was outspoken in 2016 in blocking a vote on Garland. His spokesman said he has no qualms about reversing his stance to guarantee a conservative justice on the high court.

Though Loeffler didn’t use the same language, she also immediately backed Trump’s push to pick a justice. Flanked by members of the Georgia Martyrs III% militia at a northwest Georgia rally, Loeffler said she supported “a strict constructionist, an originalist” who backs conservative values.

“It’s critically important that we maintain a full Supreme Court,” she said.

‘About power’

Many Georgia Democrats, meanwhile, urge Joe Biden and other candidates to keep a focus on the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that a shakeup on the Supreme Court could jeopardize protections for people with pre-existing conditions under the Affordable Care Act.

The former vice president warned Sunday that if Trump gets his way and Obamacare is overturned, the lingering effects from coronavirus will become the “next deniable pre-existing condition.”

“This is about power. Pure and simple power,” Biden said. “The voters should make clear on this issue that the power in this nation resides with them: the American people, the voters.”

Other hoped it would direct more attention toward Democratic efforts to win down-ballot seats. Everton Blair, a Gwinnett County school board member, said he’s urging voters concerned about the Supreme Court fight to rally behind Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic front-runner in the Loeffler race.

“We need leaders who are going to make sure these Supreme Court nominees can restore faith in our system,” he said. "Partisanship has completely taken over the nomination of justices, and the only solution I see is to elect people who can get rid of that completely.”

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