Is Kamala Harris the Democrats' secret to stopping Trump's Supreme Court nominee?

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — If it seemed like the most pivotal point in Kamala Harris’ quest to help Democrats win the White House was a looming debate with Vice President Mike Pence, that may all have changed Friday evening.

Now Harris, 55, faces what are almost certainly the most challenging, consequential moments of her political career in the coming weeks as both a sitting U.S. senator and the Democratic vice presidential nominee deeply invested in the battle over the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death last week of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

How a woman famous — or infamous, among conservative circles — for grilling Justice Brett Kavanaugh about reproductive rights during his confirmation hearing goes to battle against Republican leaders intent on confirming a new conservative justice while Donald Trump is still president could make or break Harris’ future.

As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Harris would likely take center stage in any questioning of Trump’s nominee — almost certainly a conservative woman — if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pushes to fill the vacancy during the last weeks of the presidential campaign. That could make for political gold, experts say — or it could prove to be a landmine.

Her dual roles “are really in conflict with one another,” said Barbara O’Connor, a professor emeritus of communications at Sacramento State University. “It’s going to be interesting to see how she navigates that.”

Harris will have to be firm but nice, O’Connor said. Dogged but not snide. Factual in a world where basic truths are now routinely up for debate. Careful in her choice of language; talk about preserving health care (read: the Affordable Care Act, which the Supreme Court could soon gut or scrap in an upcoming case) in the midst of a pandemic but perhaps skip the highly emotional debate over abortion.

“You don’t want to piss off the right-to-life Republican women that you need,” O’Connor said.

Democrats have been aggressively luring suburban women turned off by Trump’s behavior as key to winning battleground states. And a Gallup poll conducted this spring found American adults are split on abortion, with 50% saying it should be legal under some circumstances. Forty-eight percent identify as pro-choice while 46% call themselves pro-life.

Trump has said he will name his nominee by the end of the week. Leading contender Judge Amy Coney Barrett is viewed by supporters and opponents alike as a fervently pro-life, conservative Christian.

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, doesn’t think Harris needs to avoid asking any nominee about the most hot-button issue.

“I’m just not seeing the idea that by asking about Roe v. Wade, she alienates voters,” Levinson said.

And, she added, as a lawyer and former prosecutor — whose own name has been at least casually brought up in discussions about who should fill Supreme Court vacancies — Harris could use her turn at the mic to try to appeal to Americans, who could then pressure their senators to delay a confirmation vote until after the election. In 2016, McConnell refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia eight months before the election but quickly announced after Ginsburg’s death that he would fill her vacancy less than two months before Election Day.

“I think she has an amazing opportunity to try to make the case to the American public as to why what the Senate Republicans are doing is hypocritical and why it’s a problem,” Levinson said.

Whether she gets that opportunity in the Senate remains to be seen. McConnell could delay the proceedings until after the election or skip hearings altogether and bring the vote straight to the full Senate. Republicans also could change the rules of a hearing, for instance, and require senators to submit questions in writing. Democrats would need four Republicans to join them to block a nominee, and while a couple have said they support waiting until after the election, it’s not clear how they would respond if McConnell pushes forward before then. There’s also the specter of the special Senate race in Arizona, where Democrat Mark Kelly could replace Republican Sen. Martha McSally as soon as Nov. 30 if he wins.

“This is like a game of eight-dimensional chess,” said Josh Blackman, a law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. “There are so many moving parts.”

But while Blackman thinks a hearing for a nominee “puts Harris in a very precarious spot” by creating opportunities for unscripted, politically costly mistakes, longtime California political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe sees it as a chance to excite the Biden-Harris base, especially the young, progressive voters the campaign will need to turn out to win.

“Women do not walk in lockstep,” she said. “There’s no reason in the world for Kamala Harris to hold back.”

And while a hearing presents a previously unanticipated chance for Harris to make the case that she and Biden deserve to sit in the White House, she’s also got the long-planned vice presidential debate if the hearings don’t result in the perfect sound bite. Which one will ultimately prove more consequential remains to be seen.

“I think she will probably eat the vice president alive in the debate,” said O’Connor, a former debate coach. “She’s very good at it. She’s very smart.”

Ultimately Democrats face an uphill battle when it comes to stopping Republicans from appointing a new justice. But the potential for a climactic scene with Harris cast in a leading role grew even more likely after Friday’s twist.

“If you gave the entire year as a treatment to ‘House of Cards,’” Bebitch Jeffe said, “they would reject it as not being realistic enough.”


©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)