Saturday, September 19, 2020


By Dominique Paul Noth

The election elation about how well Joe Biden was doing in the polls and in campaign appearances dwindled into dread September 18 with the sad news that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had succumbed at age 87.

Politics cut into mourning time for RBG
If ever a legal catalyst deserved a lengthy mourning period free of political maneuvering and punditry, it was the diminutive RBG.  Her decisions, dissents, personality and quotes were important to all sides beyond transforming our understanding of the law.  There were literally novenas being held for the last few years praying that she would survive her bouts with cancer so that a respectable president could pick her successor.

Now, given the nature of the partisan divide and the politics of D.C., and given a presidential election Nov. 3, this is a period of sorrow the nation will not give her. 

Quickly the Democrats’ senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, threw back into Sen. Mitch McConnell’s face his pledge 11 months before Obama left office that it was too close to the election (10 months!) to pick Merrick Garland to replace RBG’s good friend and opinion rival, Antonin Scalia:

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”  The fact that Scalia was conservative and Obama was not, of course, had nothing to do with it.

The very thought that so venal a man as Trump could name RBG’s replacement fills the majority of voters with disgust as well as fear.

But there is no question that Mitch will play politics days before the election – even maybe try to protect some threatened members by waiting until Nov. 4 to start the nomination process so they don’t have his flat reversal of a promise wrapped around their necks at the ballot box.   (It usually takes 70 days to choose, interview and hold hearings but Trump is in office until Jan. 20 even though he is likely to lose.) 

Mitch looks to be plunging right away – and to hell with backlash on his buddies. The White House will pursue fear tactics, arguing that Trump is still close despite the polls and now closer with RBG’s death, so we can’t have an eight member high court deciding a disputed presidential election. That argument is a blatant attempt to turn Trump’s false attack on mailed ballots into reality. The media is helping this vision of a protracted election season, which would be great for ratings but not likely if voters own up to the importance of the vote despite the pandemic. 

What might stop Trump cold, some say, is Republicans who in their hearts know they should have impeached Trump in February and today will resist more blatant violation of norms.   Relying on GOP conscience was always highly dubious.

What will spur Trump is his own cult. Many are only voting for him to make the US Supreme Court solidly conservative.  It might not last long given the age of the justices, but what else can galvanize the diminishing Trump base? 

The wrong timing could spur loss for some Republicans.  Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins, who are in tough races to keep their senate seats, at first pledged to not select anyone for the high court before the election – and Graham is chair of the judiciary committee! Graham has already flipped -- in fact, intends to lead the charge.  So has  former chair Chuck Grassley who signed the pledge. But other Republican senators facing tight races – Joni Ernst in Iowa, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Thom Tillis in North Carolina and newly threatened John Cornyn in  Texas  – will jump to whatever tune Mitch plays, whatever they pledged in the past.

The math is simple.  Four members of the GOP must bolt.  Lisa Murkowski in Alaska and Collins herself have taken principled stands of waiting for a new president, but only one of two conservative traditionalists who are retiring have spoke up  – Lamar Alexander said he won't resist, but there is  also Pat Roberts.  There is even a D.C. press pool on how long it will take Collins to wimp out.

No one expects Trump to honor Ginsberg’s deathbed plea: "My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed."  His backers expect defiance to remain the Trump mantra and McConnell has already signaled he will put any Trump nominee before the Senate.  Within hours of her death, gleeful Trump backers were planning how to raise campaign funds on her corpse.

It does make one wonder if Trump got any medical heads-up September 9 when he trotted out a number of candidates for a then unpredicted Supreme Court opening.  Or was he just trying to excite his base?

The news of Ginsburg made Democrats even more skittish about the presidential election – reducing her death to “another rabbit the evil magician had pulled out of his hat.” It will become Trump’s best opportunity to shift attention from his failures in handling the pandemic and explaining 200,000 bodies.  Some foolish voters may think a conservative blockade on the US court system will balance his proven ineptness.

But this dismay among Democrats was within hours followed by renewed determination to elect Biden in a landslide.  Now it has to be landslide, politicians were saying, because a flipped Senate was even more essential for Biden to get things done.  There will even be talk, which Biden will probably resist for fear of agitating the extremists further, that if they can’t stop Trump replacing her, Biden should look at new laws to reform the US court system.

State AG Josh Kaul spells out loss.
The consequence of her death was spelled out by Wisconsin’s Attorney General Josh Kaul: “Another Trump appointee on the Supreme Court would almost certainly mean the end of Roe v. Wade. It could well mean the end of the ACA and policies that reduce the transmission of the coronavirus. Rules that help fight climate change and other environmental harms would be more likely to be struck down. And that’s just the start.”

In other words, the emboldened  progressive American agenda Ginsburg helped form was in jeopardy – not just from Trump’s attempt to extend his reign but in how her death had put in blunt relief the central crisis of this election and the hard work ahead regardless of who wins. Her death may also shuffle the deck of Democratic priorities, pushing to the top new laws on voter rights.

These events also turned a previous column of mine too”conservative” (a term hardly ever applied to my writings). But I  signaled 10 Republican seats in the Senate that good turnout could flip. And a recent Washington Post opinion piece listed 13

I not only agree but have become aware of a few other races both my story and the Post opinion missed – things are so fast moving and our minds have been stuck on the presidential sweepstakes, not down the ballot where voters have to start looking.

Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins

The races missed are longshots that a Biden tsunami could change in states given to Trump on the electoral college map. One race fits the curious Nov. 3 profile of a special election that takes place inside a general election and has multiple Democratic candidates right now.  But popular Shreveport mayor Adrian Perkins has been climbing forcefully against GOP incumbent Bill Cassidy (who tested positive for covid in the summer but says he has recovered).

From a shoo-in for Cassidy, the race is now regarded by local newspapers as competitive.

Also unlikely but growing in interest:  Idaho Sen. James Risch is 20 points ahead in a red state but rising in the polls and backed by Emily’s List is Paulette Jordan, already known from her 2018 run for governor and her work for the Coeur d’Alene tribal council, advocating for progressive policies such as health access and better rural education.

Paulette Jordan

The Trump administration’s delays to the USPS delivery system, which Risch cited as no problem for Idaho, have become a campaign issue for Jordan in a rural state rethinking what being rural means.

Though Biden is now expected to win 71% of the electoral college delegates, there is a tendency to overlook senate races in states where Trump has a predicted electoral college edge.

Such as Mississippi. The state is changing (claiming the highest number of black elected officials in the country) with some clear diminishment of Confederate heritage.  Mike Espy, a black former Clinton cabinet officer, has cut in half the GOP edge of incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith, who has been proud to pose with an old rifle and Confederate memorabilia. 

Barbara Bollier

In a Republican heritage seat in another Trump electoral state, Kansas, the Democrats’ Barbara Bollier, who left the Republicans in 2018 to gain an economic reform reputation, is today the good doctor to all sides, getting endorsements from a former GOP senator.  She is definitely 
 leading many polls against Roger Marshall, the doctor who wants to end the ACA.

Then there’s South Carolina, long put on the Republican electoral college list but in the Senate race Jaime Harrison is astounding the pollsters by leading Graham – and Biden is also leading in electoral polls.

That was also true in the summer in Kentucky, which stung conservative sensibilities in its Louisville embrace of Black Lives Matter concerns and with former Marine pilot and lieutenant colonel Amy McGrath raising enormous small-donor social media money to compete with McConnell -- and actually leading the polls for months. In recent polls and employing some big money, McConnell has tied her – though his shenanigans with the Ginsburg case may bring McGrath more voters.

And Georgia, long regarded as red clay, could lose two Senate seats to Democrats! Jon Ossoff is leading the polls against David Perdue and the Rev. Ralph Warnock is leading against the likely GOP survivor Kelly Loeffler, an appointee to the Senate who like Perdue has run into fraud complaints.  But the Warnock race has some wrinkles, since the GOP’s Doug Collins is also running and the two top finishers Nov. 3 compete in January.  Warnock is leading but not with the 50% that would prevent a runoff. That’s a confusion of election law that makes it harder for outsiders to peek in.

The Democratic National Convention did a sterling job for Biden and his VP pick, Kamala Harris, but I was struck by how few of the Democratic candidates for senate were featured, a determination to be political but not opportunistic that right now (post RBG)  I wish the DNC had resisted.

Local politics historically don’t play well on national TV, but money raising now plays in every state in the union for every other state and many of these candidates mainly need financial help.  The voters outraged about Trump had better turn to those Senate races, where thanks to the Internet everybody can provide money and support. 

There are also a few Democrats seeking help to keep their seats.  Most are in good shape (Dick Durbin, Tina Smith, Chris Coons and Jeff Merkley) and were inadvertently featured in DNC videos.

Doug Jones

The most threatened is Doug Jones of Alabama, but his media campaigns have enabled him to score big points against the know-nothing football coach he’s facing. It’s another Trump state where he could upset expectations.

And the Democrats have put front and center in the USPS campaign Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, who is favored though being outraised by a Michigan consortium of Trump and Betsy DeVos money.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  A member of the American Theatre Critics Association at its inception, he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.