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Horowitz: Scalia’s Death Ripples Through Presidential Race

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

 

The impact of Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely death this past Saturday on the Presidential race began to play out, before his body was even cold. In Saturday night’s debate in South Carolina, the issues of whether or not the Republican Senate should even consider a nominee put forward by President Obama, let alone confirm one, and which candidate for the Republican nomination would be best to ensure the appointment of an appropriately conservative successor were front and center. This is something I suspect that Scalia, with his outsized intellect, appetite for political combat and healthy ego, would have appreciated.
 
While all the candidates predictably said that they would nominate someone in the Scalia-mold,  Senator Ted Cruz seized the opportunity to assert that Donald Trump, given his past support for liberal positions and politicians, could not be counted on to appoint Conservatives to the US Supreme Court. “The next President is going to appoint one, two, three, four Supreme Court Justices. If Donald Trump is President, he will appoint liberals,” said Cruz.
 
Cruz’s claim is certainly arguable but anything that raises the salience of a candidate’s  consistent adherence to conservative principles will likely benefit Cruz who has made that a central selling point of his candidacy—and hurt Trump who has changed his positions over the years on a number of issues that are important to Conservatives.
 
In the Democratic contest, the issue is unlikely to offer the same kind of contrasts between the candidates. Voters are not likely to see a meaningful difference between the kinds of Justices that Clinton or Sanders would appoint. This weekend, both candidates sounded similar notes on the need for a timely vote in the Senate on President Obama’s prospective appointment in order to fill the vacancy.
 
At the margins, however, Scalia’s death may boost Hillary Clinton’s argument about the importance of Democratic primary voters choosing the candidate with the best chance of winning in November. So far, according to exit polls, primary voters, saying electability is the most important candidate attribute, have favored Clinton over Sanders.
 
The fact that Scalia’s death leaves the US Supreme Court evenly divided with 4 conservative Justices, who were appointed by Republican Presidents and 4 liberal Justices, who were appointed by Democratic Presidents, raises the substantive and political stakes of the next appointment. This will give the issue lasting impact—both in the nomination contests and the general election race—impact I am sure that Justice Scalia wherever he has gone will be smiling about.
 

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates.

 

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