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Scalia’s death adds new dimension to presidential, New Hampshire Senate races

Monitor staff
Last modified: 2/16/2016 1:25:58 AM
In season five, episode 17 of the West Wing, fictional President Josiah Bartlet confronts a precarious choice after the sudden death of a prominent conservative Supreme Court justice.

Bartlet, a New Hampshire Democrat played by actor Martin Sheen, must decide between nominating a liberal successor, which is certain to incite a backlash from congressional Republicans, or nominating a more moderate candidate, which is sure to infuriate his own party’s base. In the end, an elaborate third option surfaces, in which the administration persuades the sitting chief justice to resign and then names a pair of ideologically opposed front-runners to fill the seats, thus placating all sides.

If only it were so simple.

The death Saturday of Justice Antonin Scalia has already sparked a fierce partisan clash over who should replace him, and, more immediately, who should choose.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, vowed Saturday to block any appointment until a new president assumes office next year. President Obama, faced with a chance to profoundly reshape the court in his final months, has insisted he will name a successor regardless.

The debate, which erupted just hours after the conservative jurist was found dead at a West Texas ranch, has added a new wrinkle to an already fraught presidential race and could affect key U.S. Senate contests, including in New Hampshire, where Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte is facing a challenge from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

Ayotte, the state’s former attorney general, quickly seconded McConnell, issuing a statement over the weekend and another Monday.

“This vacancy on the Supreme Court will have significant implications for both the direction of the Court and the future of our country,” she wrote Monday on the internet publishing site Medium. “We’re in the midst of a consequential presidential election year, and Americans deserve an opportunity to weigh in on this important decision.”

Hassan responded Monday with her own charged remarks, saying any attempt to stall a confirmation “is a complete abdication of the Senate’s constitutional duty.”

“Senator Ayotte’s decision to put her party leaders ahead of our country is a sad reflection of just how wrong her priorities are and how broken Washington has become,” she said.

State GOP strategists were skeptical that the battle would radically shift the race here, particularly for Ayotte, who faces a potential primary challenge from her party’s far right wing.

“In terms of whether they can seize some kind of lasting political advantage, I’m deeply skeptical,” said Fergus Cullen, former New Hampshire GOP chairman. “There are so many ways this can play out.”

He added: “I think these short-term instant reactions will seem misplaced in the fullness of time when the president comes forward with a nominee and we’re talking about a real person.”

Jamie Burnett, a former aide to John E. Sununu, said Ayotte’s decision to jump into the fray is not a real gamble.

“If Obama nominates someone palatable, there’s nothing that precludes (Ayotte and fellow Republicans) from supporting that person,” Burnett said. “But I think right now McConnell and Ayotte laying down a marker, there’s no problem with that.”

Burnett predicted that issues like economic growth and national security are still likely to matter more to independent voters and casual voters. He said the outcome of the presidential nominating contests will be the biggest factor in the Senate race.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen refrained from weighing in over the weekend. A spokesman said Monday she supports moving forward with the confirmation process as soon as the president names a candidate.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)


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