WASHINGTON — For decades, Republicans have galvanized voters around reshaping the Supreme Court, and they have benefited from it at the ballot box. But in a stark reversal, polls indicate that Democrats have the edge this year on the issue.
National and battleground state surveys taken before Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday showed that voters trust Joe Biden more than President Donald Trump to pick a Supreme Court nominee and that Democrats rate the court as more important to their votes than Republicans do.
A Fox News poll this month found that likely voters trust Biden over Trump by 52 percent to 45 percent in nominating the next Supreme Court justice.
A Marquette Law School national poll that was completed three days before Ginsburg died found that 59 percent of Biden voters rated the Supreme Court as "very important" to their votes; 51 percent of Trump voters said the same. Among Democrats, 56 percent said the next appointment was "very important," higher than the 48 percent of Republicans who said the same.
In 2016, voters who rated the Supreme Court as "the most important factor" in their votes favored Trump over Hillary Clinton by 56 percent to 41 percent, according to NBC News exit polls.
The new findings point to a dilemma for Trump and Republicans as they plow ahead with plans to replace Ginsburg with a conservative justice before the election after they refused to allow President Barack Obama to fill a vacancy in 2016. In a political environment in which Democrats are energized over the court, rejecting the dying wish of the leader of the court's liberal wing risks a voter backlash.
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"There's so much at stake: the right to health care, clean air, clean water, environment, equal pay for equal work, the rights of voters, immigrants, women, workers," Biden said Sunday in a speech in Philadelphia focused on the Supreme Court. "And right now, our country faces a choice — a choice about whether we come back from the brink."
Biden faulted Trump for supporting a lawsuit before the court to overturn the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare: "Millions of Americans are voting because they know their health care hangs in the balance."
His remarks signal a new attitude for Democrats, who for decades have been shy about connecting elections and Supreme Court nominees chosen by the two parties to different policy outcomes.
"For reasons I have never understood, Republicans for years have taken judicial nominations much more seriously than Democrats," said Jim Manley, a lobbyist who was spokesman for former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Utah. "We have utterly failed as a party to take the threat posed by the Republican takeover of the judiciary seriously."
'A clear choice on the future of the Supreme Court'
Republicans have been more aggressive at connecting those dots, equating their victories at the ballot box with stronger gun rights, the undoing of abortion rights and other issues that animate their base.
At a rally Saturday in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Trump promised to pick a woman to replace Ginsburg before the end of his first term, again claiming that "there'll be no God, there'll be no guns" if Biden wins.
"The Supreme Court was a very central issue in both the 2016 presidential election and then the 2018 midterm elections," Trump said. "I am holding up your Second Amendment."
The dynamic can yet change. Republicans hope their voters will be ignited by a Supreme Court pick who solidifies a 6-3 conservative majority, as they were by the ugly confirmation fight over Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.
Democrats have limited options to stop Republicans, who hold 53 Senate votes and do not need bipartisan support to replace Ginsburg. A Democratic aide familiar with the process said he feared that his party would be outgunned by the right when it comes to infrastructure to shape public opinion during the battle.
A CNN poll last month found that 79 percent of Democratic registered voters rate the Supreme Court as "extremely" or "very" important to their votes, compared to 71 percent of Republicans who said the same.
And recent New York Times-Siena College battleground state polls found that Biden is more trusted than Trump to choose a justice among likely voters in Arizona (53 percent to 43 percent), Maine (59 percent to 37 percent) and North Carolina (47 percent to 44 percent).
Republican senators facing tough re-election battles have varying strategies to navigate the issue.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has announced her opposition to voting on a Supreme Court nominee because of "the proximity of the presidential election," saying instead that the winner of the contest should pick the next justice.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., came out for Trump's nominee before one was named and sought to mobilize conservative voters around the court.
"There is a clear choice on the future of the Supreme Court between the well-qualified and conservative jurist President Trump will nominate and I will support and the liberal activist Joe Biden will nominate and Cal Cunningham will support, who will legislate radical, left-wing policies from the bench," Tillis said Saturday. Cunningham is Tillis' Democratic opponent in November.
Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who trails Democrat Mark Kelly and is hoping to shake up her race, said less than two hours after Ginsburg's death was announced: "This U.S. Senate should vote on President Trump's next nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court."
And Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., declined to say Saturday whether Republicans should replace Ginsburg this year, saying the country needs "time for personal reflection" before "the politics begin."
In his speech Sunday, Biden addressed fence-sitting senators.
"To jam this nomination through the Senate is just an exercise in raw political power," he said. "And I don't believe the people of this nation will stand for it."