McConnell leans hard on GOP senators to oppose Jackson

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is putting public and private pressure on his Senate Republican colleagues to oppose President Biden’s nominee to the Supreme Court, despite the historic nature of her nomination to be the first Black woman on the court.

McConnell has dug in against Biden’s nominee, arguing the vote isn’t about “race or gender” but about Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s record, which he says is too soft on crime and indicates she’ll likely turn into an activist judge on the bench.

McConnell made an impassioned plea at a recent Senate GOP lunch for his colleagues to oppose Biden’s choice, according to senators who attended the meeting.

One Republican senator said McConnell leaned in hard on Jackson’s nomination.

“He sought recognition and said, ‘I just want to thank the members of the Judiciary Committee for the great work they’ve done in exposing this judge’s radical record, and in particular her record on child pornography cases are alarmingly extreme,’” the source said, recounting McConnell’s message to the conference.

McConnell talked about Jackson’s record in detail, including her decision to give one offender, Wesley Hawkins, a three-month sentence when federal prosecutors asked for him to be sent to prison for two years.

McConnell said, “I think the Democrats thought this would be an easy process, confirmation, but it’s not going to be because she’s a radical nominee, and I would hope that every Republican would look seriously at her record, which I think is troubling.”

The message is putting pressure on GOP swing voters such as Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mitt Romney (Utah) to toe the party line and vote “no.”

Murkowski was present at the meeting where McConnell delivered his comments about the nominee but didn’t say anything. The Alaska Republican, who is up for re-election this year and faces a Republican primary challenger, also declined to comment about Jackson when asked about it by reporters on Tuesday and Thursday.

Romney says he still has to dig deeper into Jackson’s record before announcing his decision.

He said he “enjoyed” meeting with her Tuesday and that “her dedication to public service and her family are obvious.”

Republican strategists and longtime observers of McConnell’s leadership style say he views a unified Republican vote against Jackson as good politics heading into the midterm election and good for his own standing within the Senate GOP conference, which he plans to lead again in 2023 and 2024.

Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based GOP strategist who has advised McConnell’s past campaigns, said Biden’s nomination of Jackson “fits into the overall [message that] the Democrats are soft on crime and criminals, and Republicans aren’t.”

“That is going to be a big narrative in this campaign. You’ve already seen that,” he added. “Anytime you can throw another piece of evidence on that, I do think it furthers that narrative.”

Republican aides say Jackson’s record in sentencing child pornography offenders will be a tough one for vulnerable Democrats such as Sens. Mark Kelly (Ariz.), Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Raphael Warnock (Ga.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.) to defend on the campaign trail later this year.

The more Republicans who vote this week for Jackson, the more political cover it gives to Democrats on the campaign trail.

So far, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), who represents a state that Biden won by 9 points, is the only Republican who has said she will vote to confirm Jackson.

Democrats have pushed back against this criticism. They argue that Republicans have taken Jackson’s sentencing decisions in seven child pornography cases out of context by harping on the fact that she handed out prison terms below what federal prosecutors demanded and below the advisory guidelines.

Democrats say that Jackson is one of many federal judges who view the federal advisory guidelines as out of date and in need of updating since they were established in 2003 with the Protect Act because internet use became more prevalent.

Al Cross, a professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and a longtime commentator on Kentucky politics, says McConnell likely sees a good opportunity to stand with some of the rising young conservatives in his conference, such as Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), with whom he clashed over their efforts to halt the certification of Biden’s election victory on Jan. 6, 2021.

“Once Cruz and the others made this a big issue, it gave McConnell an opportunity to practice some solidarity with his caucus,” he said.

“He’s in a difficult position. He’s got to deal with Trumpers. He’s got to keep the caucus together. And anytime the caucus can find something to essentially agree on, then that’s probably a good thing for his leadership of the caucus,” he added.

Cross noted that McConnell is known to view “the unity of the caucus as a prime directive.”

“I can’t imagine he really believes her judgment in these child porn cases is a disqualifier to be on the Supreme Court, but once it’s been such an issue in conservative media, then it takes on a life of its own,” he said.

McConnell has come out strongly against Jackson in his public statements as well.

“She has a particularly curious view about certain kinds of criminal behavior, in this particular case, people who distributed child pornography,” McConnell told Fox News’s Shannon Bream. “She’s a judicial activist. She’s very smart. She’s very capable. She’s going to be exactly what President Biden wants: a very liberal Supreme Court justice.”

McConnell dismissed the public lobbying of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) who has called on his GOP colleagues to recognize “the historic significance of this nomination” and stressed the importance of Abraham Lincoln’s party, “the Grand Old Party,” being “on board.”

“The Democrats want to make this confirmation about race or gender. We don’t look at judges that way,” McConnell said. “Most all Republicans believe in what’s called a strict construction, that is judges who make their very best effort, as [late] Justice [Antonin] Scalia put it, to follow the law.”

Jennings, the GOP strategist who has advised McConnell, said Jackson’s refusal to express her opinion about adding more justices to the Supreme Court was a big red flag for the leader.

“He’s extremely worried about left-wing, progressive attacks on the institution” of the court, he said. “When she would not take the Ginsburg, Breyer line on keeping the Supreme Court at nine, it was as signal to him that she’s pretty beholden to the liberal allies who have been the very people calling for court packing.”

McConnell in recent days has repeatedly raised his concerns about Jackson’s refusal to take the same public stance as late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Stephen Breyer against expanding the court.

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