It has long been treated as a given in our politics that as an issue, the makeup of the Supreme Court can be counted on to energize the conservative base. Indeed, this is one reason Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused hearings for Barack Obama’s pick to fill a seat in early 2016 – leaving it open would predictably give conservative voters a reason to turn out in that year’s elections.

But the battle to unseat Republican Sen. Susan Collins in Maine is being seen by some progressives as a test of an opposing proposition: That a confluence of conditions will now ensure that the makeup of the court energizes the progressive base in kind, perhaps even enough to prevail in hard fought Senate races.

Demand Justice, a group of progressives committed to Supreme Court reform, is launching a new digital ad campaign against Collins that seeks to road-test this notion. Backed by $100,000, the ad is entirely about Collins’ role in helping Justice Brett Kavanaugh get confirmed last year, and about the dangers posed by the court’s shift to the right, which Kavanaugh’s confirmation helped cement.

“So much is at risk now because of her vote for Kavanaugh,” says the lead woman featured in the ad, who describes herself as a “Mainer, a mom, and a veteran.” She also says: “I used to support Susan Collins, but I feel that she isn’t a moderate voice anymore.”

“Senator Collins needs to know: she let us down,” the ad concludes, flashing imagery of an angry Kavanaugh ranting at that now-infamous hearing, followed by Collins and Kavanaugh shaking hands.

Collins’ support for Kavanaugh appears to be a key reason she is seriously at risk in 2020. FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich recently pointed to a poll showing that Collins’ approval ratings in Maine are underwater, and that her disapproval is one of the highest in the Senate. As Rakich summarized:


“In the aftermath of her vote on Kavanaugh, progressive groups collectively have raised $4.7 million for her eventual Democratic opponent. And in recent weeks, multiple Democrats announced they would run for her seat, most prominently state House Speaker Sara Gideon, who was quickly endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and raised $1.1 million in her first week. Together with this poll, these latest developments in the race support the idea that Collins may turn out to be of the most vulnerable senators up in 2020.”

While there are multiple reasons for Collins’ vulnerability, this may loom as a test of something bigger when it comes to the politics of the Supreme Court’s makeup in particular.

Demand Justice, the group behind the ad and the strategy, also commissioned some new polling by YouGov Blue to gauge public opinion on the court. It found that 47 percent of registered voters in Maine believe that the court is “mainly motivated by politics,” while only 34 percent believe it is “mainly motivated by the law.”

It’s often observed that the Supreme Court is facing legitimacy problems. But the key question for activists focused on the Collins race is whether that sentiment can be harnessed to mobilize the progressive base in the context of electoral politics, and beyond this, for Supreme Court reforms such as expanding the court.

The reason the ground might be fertile for this is a confluence of factors: McConnell holding a seat; the intense passions that surrounded the Kavanaugh confirmation fight; and recent decisions such as the court’s punt on policing gerrymandering, which fed into suspicions among some progressives that the court is basically enabling Republican counter-majoritarian tactics and harming our democracy in the process.

Add to this the fact that the court is set to hear a host of other controversial cases, such as on the fate of the “Dreamers,” on abortion rights, and gun regulations, and it could mean a fusillade of decisions that fuel anger and energy on the left heading into the 2020 election.

“Voters are already losing confidence in the Supreme Court as an institution, and the more the conservative majority presses forward this term on hot-button cases like abortion, immigration and guns, the more of a progressive backlash we are likely to see in 2020,” Brian Fallon, the executive director of Demand Justice, told me. “Republicans like Susan Collins are likely to bear the brunt of the Court’s partisan overreach.”

It remains to be seen, of course, what the electoral impact of all of this will be. But if these factors do energize the Democratic base to the degree activists are aiming for – and if more rank-and-file progressives understand that some of their most basic values are staked on the Supreme Court’s makeup, just as many conservatives do – it could begin to shift our understanding of how the court affects our politics.

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