Often lost in the blizzard of explanations for Donald Trump’s astounding Electoral College victory is the slower, steadier development that put him within close reach of an upset: the consolidation of Republican voters in support of him despite the many defections he suffered among GOP elites. And while reflexive partisanship and intense hostility to Hillary Clinton may have had a lot to do with it, a more tangible factor was the argument so many of them offered themselves: the Supreme Court seat at stake, and with it the balance on the Court for many years to come.
As Russell Berman observed in October, when Republicans were really coming home to roost:
Conservatives have prized the Supreme Court as much if not more than Congress and the presidency for decades. But the degree to which it is driving activists and party leaders this year is without precedent.
The emergence of the Supreme Court as a crucial campaign issue for Republicans was partly due to the belief that the judiciary could be the ultimate tiebreaker in a system so often characterized by divided control of the executive and legislative branches. For some elements of the Republican coalition, the courts are central to the disposition of the issues they care about most, like the Second Amendment for gun enthusiasts and the constitutional right to an abortion for conservative Christians.
But what brought the whole issue to the forefront and made it pivotal for actual voting decisions was Mitch McConnell’s decision to deny Barack Obama any consideration of his Supreme Court nominee to succeed the late Antonin Scalia. That made an existing vacancy in a closely divided Court one of the most visible prizes of the presidential election. For his part, Donald Trump came through not just with the usual vague promises about the conservative character of SCOTUS nominees — promises Republican presidents have often broken — but with actual lists of names that activists could critically examine.
The McConnell-Trump parlay play worked brilliantly, perhaps better than the wily Senate Majority Leader might have imagined, as Seth Masket explains:
The risk paid off. Near as I can tell, Republicans paid no electoral penalty for this maneuver. Sure, they took some heat from the political media for it, but, like most other issues, it was quickly absorbed into the partisan divide. Conservative media sources claimed it would be inappropriate for a president to name a justice during his final year in office, other outlets noted there was precedent for it, and the Senate majority held fast to its position.
The decision to block Merrick Garland, of course, had the more practical effect of keeping that seat on the Court in play. Had Hillary Clinton won, Senate Republicans would have had the option of seeking to confirm Garland in a lame-duck session, preempting a younger or more progressive jurist. So it was a winning proposition for McConnell all along — so long as it did not help Democrats concerned with the Supreme Court counter-mobilize with their own Court-base argument for electing Clinton.
They did not, to any significant degree. And so it all worked out for Republicans.
If Washington is indeed a swamp that Donald Trump intends to drain, he’ll need to remember he may well owe his presidency to that ultimate Swamp Person, Mitch McConnell.