Will The Supreme Court Nomination Fight Cost This Senator His Seat?

Mar 19, 2016
Originally published on March 19, 2016 10:53 am

If Republicans don't hold hearings on the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, Democrats believe the issue could help them win the Senate this November.

One test case for this proposition is Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees Supreme Court nominations.

At 82 years old, Grassley has coasted safely to re-election for decades and is seeking his seventh Senate term this fall.

So far, Grassley has resisted calls to hold nomination hearings, arguing in a conference call with Iowa reporters that the Republican takeover of the Senate after the 2014 elections indicated that voters had rejected Obama's policies.

"The Senate is responding to the people's voicing their disagreements with the President," said Grassley.

"I guess I have a little trouble following his logic," said Patty Judge, a former Lieutenant Governor who recently announced she will challenge Grassley and plans to put his opposition to the Garland nomination at the center of her campaign.

She's one of four Democrats challenging Grassley this year. The others are Cedar Rapids State Senator Rob Hogg and former state lawmakers Bob Krause and Tom Fiegen.

"I do not believe they have the right to say we are not going to have hearings because we have a presidential election. That's just obstructing the process," said Judge, who has a reputation as a centrist in Iowa politics.

Judge is seen as the kind of high profile candidate who could give Grassley his first tough reelection fight since voters sent him to Washington in 1980.

"She's one Judge that Senator Grassley can't ignore," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, after a recent meeting with Judge, according to the Associated Press.

Grassley said he has nothing against Garland and said he's willing to meet with the nominee.

So far, Grassley remains quite popular in the state according to a recent poll from the Des Moines Register.

But the Supreme Court fight means that just two months after the Iowa caucuses, Iowans are starting to see political ads again from groups across the political spectrum.

Among the actors is a local Iowa non-partisan group, Justice Not Politics, that is working to pressure Grassley to hold the hearings with ads and events. The group's co-chairs are former Iowa lieutenant governors of each major political party who argue politicians need to de-politicize the courts.

"Saying that we ought to let the people decide. Well, the people have already decided. They have elected members of Congress. They have elected a president. Those are the people we expect to follow the rules," said co-chair Joy Corning, a Republican who served with Gov. Terry Branstad when he first served in the 1980s and 90s.

Inspired by a liberal campaign, many Iowans are tweeting at Senator Grassley with the hashtag "do your job." Grassley, who's known for writing his own tweets, has fired back with his own hashtag "doing my job."

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If, as promised, Republicans don't hold hearings on President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, Democrats believe that could help them win back the Senate this November. One test case is Iowa and Senator Chuck Grassley. He's in charge of the Senate Judiciary Committee that's supposed to question Supreme Court nominees. And as Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports, Grassley is coming under pressure from all sides, ahead of his re-election campaign.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: It's safe to say that Chuck Grassley has never worried about getting re-elected. At 82 years old, he's seeking his seventh term to represent the swing state. Grassley says he has nothing against Garland and says he's willing to meet with the federal judge. But Grassley has no plans to hold confirmation hearings because he argues President Obama should not nominate Supreme Court justices in an election year.

CHUCK GRASSLEY: By Obama's own words, he saw the takeover of the United States Senate by the biggest change in membership since 1980 election as a referendum on his program and his administration. So the Senate is responding to the people's voicing their disagreements with the president.

PATTY JUDGE: I guess I have a little trouble following his logic.

MASTERS: That's Democrat Patty Judge. She's a former lieutenant governor, Iowa's first female secretary of agriculture and has a reputation as a centrist. Judge decided to run for the Democratic nomination after finding out Grassley would not hold hearings.

JUDGE: I do not believe they have the right to say we are not going to have hearings because we have a presidential election. That's just - that's obstructing the process.

MASTERS: Her campaign is calling her the judge Chuck Grassley cannot ignore. Earlier this month, she met with some Senate Democrats in Washington, including Minority Leader Harry Reid. So far, Grassley remains quite popular in the state. But Judge is seen as the kind of high profile candidate who could give Grassley a tough re-election fight. Two months after the Iowa caucuses, Iowans are starting to see political ads again, like this one from the conservative group Judicial Crisis Network that's trying to give Grassley some cover.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The Supreme Court has a vacancy, and your vote in November is your only voice. Senator Chuck Grassley agrees. The American people should decide.

MASTERS: Meanwhile, the Iowa non-partisan group Justice Not Politics is working to pressure Grassley to hold the hearings. They have an ad out too. The group's co-chairs are former Iowa lieutenant governors of each major political party. And they argue politicians need to depoliticize the courts. Joy Corning is a Republican who served with Governor Terry Branstad when he first served in the 1980s and '90s.

JOY CORNING: Saying that we ought to let the people decide - well, the people have already decided. They have elected members of Congress. They have elected a president. And those are the people that we expect to follow the rules.

MASTERS: Inspired by a liberal campaign, many Iowans are tweeting at Senator Grassley with the hashtag #doyourjob. Grassley, who's known for writing his own tweets, has fired back with his own hashtag, #doingmyjob. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.