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How An Open Supreme Court Seat Could Impact Colorado's Senate Race

Front-facing shot of the U.S. Supreme Court building.
Mark Fischer
CC BY-SA 2.0
The U.S. Supreme Court building.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday at the age of 87. Her death leaves a Supreme Court seat vacant just weeks before the election, raising speculation about whether a new justice will be appointed before Nov. 3. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that the Senate will vote on President Donald Trump’s nominee, causing national attention to turn to contested Senate races, like the one right here in Colorado.

Jesse Paul is a reporter with the Colorado Sun, and he joined Colorado Edition to talk about the impact that Justice Ginsburg’s death could have on Colorado’s Senate race between incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and former governor John Hickenlooper, the Democratic challenger.

Interview Highlights:

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Henry Zimmerman: So let's start with Hickenlooper. How has he responded to Justice Ginsburg's death?

Jesse Paul: John Hickenlooper almost immediately started placing pressure on his Republican opponent, Cory Gardner, over the future of Ginsburg’s seat. He released a statement about four or five hours after her death was announced, saying that Cory Gardener should join a handful of other Republicans in refusing to replace Justice Ginsburg until after the Nov. 3 election is settled.

That takes us over to Sen. Cory Gardner, the incumbent. What does he have to say about the matter since then?

So far, he’s said nothing. He expressed condolences for Ginsburg's loss. But his spokespeople for both his campaign and his congressional office have not returned any of our messages. On Saturday, he appeared at the Club 20 political event in Grand Junction, where he basically said that it wasn't time yet to discuss how to move forward with replacing Justice Ginsburg. And instead, it was time to really think about her legacy and mourn her loss.

That really flies in the face of what other congressional Republicans or Senate Republicans are talking about in the past few days. A lot of them have been answering questions about how they think the Senate should or shouldn't move forward. Cory Gardner is kind of following a path that he's had in the past where he really plays these difficult votes or hot button issues close to the vest until just about the 11th hour.

He is in a tough position. He was notably one of the Senate Republicans who in 2016 held off on voting for President Obama's Supreme Court nominee after Justice Antonin Scalia died. How does all of that impact his position today?

That happened, I think, in February or March. So, it was further out from the election than this whole situation is. Then, Cory Gardner was emphatic that the Senate should wait until the 2016 election was decided to fill that seat.

Basically, progressive groups are saying don't be a hypocrite. He said it was important to wait back then. This time, it’s a shorter amount of time to the election than it was back then, and you need to hold off and match the standard that you set four years ago.

We don't really know what Cory Gardner is thinking on this. It's a really precarious position for him, because on the one hand, his whole re-election chance is predicated on the idea of maintaining the Republican base which adores Trump, and is probably going to want this seat to be filled quickly. But on the other hand, he also needs to attract enough unaffiliated voters in Colorado who don't like Trump, in order to give him another six years in the Senate.

There's no indication that Cory Gardner would split from his long record of siding with President Trump on judicial nominees or siding with President Trump on other hot-button issues. There's a lot of national stir about whether Cory Gardner could be one of these handful of Republicans who say they're not willing to do this before the election and block a potential replacement for Justice Ginsburg.

Does Justice Ginsburg's death, and this contested Supreme Court seat, change the focus of the Senate election, at least in Colorado?

Absolutely. I mean, in the last few weeks, you've seen Sen. Gardner really starting to try and sell the message of his accomplishments, while also tearing down the record of (former) governor John Hickenlooper. And Cory Gardner really needs that message to get across if he wants to win in November.

And now, as the entire conversation has shifted to the Supreme Court seat. That's what everybody's focus is on. And it's probably going to stay that way until a decision is made on whether or not to fill the seat. There's going to be a lot of pressure on Gardner to respond to what he thinks is the right way to handle this.

This could potentially fire up a lot of Democratic voters or unaffiliated voters to turn out to the polls — people who want to want to see a Supreme Court that is more moderate or more liberal. Justice Ginsburg was one of the most liberal members of the court. Another Trump appointee could potentially put at risk decisions like Roe v Wade on abortion, could put at risk the Affordable Care Act, which goes before the court a few weeks after election day. These are really big hot-button issues that were already swirling around the election. And now they're only amplified.

There are people who say that this could help Republicans solidify their support and boost Republican turnout, but that's really not what Cory Gardner's problem is heading in November. He really needs to get that unaffiliated vote. Every vote from a Republican will help but the unaffiliateds are really what he's going to be fighting over. That share of the vote is really what he's going to be battling for. Whether or not he can secure those people will determine whether or not he keeps his position.

After we spoke to Jesse Paul, we got a statement from Cory Gardner's office. In it, he says that if President Trump were to nominate a qualified candidate, he would vote to confirm.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Sep. 21. You can find the full episode here.

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
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