President Donald Trump has asked advisers their opinions about nominating Utah Senator Mike Lee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court, according to three people familiar with the matter. …
Trump thinks Lee would be easily confirmed by the Senate, but the president has expressed concern about keeping his Senate seat in Republican hands, one person said. All of the people spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations.
He has been assured the seat will remain safely Republican, the person said. Trump complained that he was told the same about the Alabama Senate seat held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who wound up replaced by Democrat Doug Jones.
C’mon. I know he’s scarred by the Alabama nightmare, particularly after he went to bat for the establishment candidate, Luther Strange, in the primary and got rebuked by Republican voters. But Roy Moore was a 500-year flood for the GOP. He had tons of baggage from his Ten Commandments and gay-marriage crusades years before, which gave Democrats a real hunger to beat him. He had the misfortune of facing a low-key genial opponent in Doug Jones, who did nothing to alienate swing voters. In spite of all that Moore probably still would have won the seat if not for the last-minute scandal involving teen girls. As it is, he ended up losing by less than two points.
Like Alabama, Utah’s a deep red state but the political culture is different in key ways. Look no further than Mike Lee himself. It’s hard to remember now but, in a way, Lee is the Roy Moore of Alabama. Not in terms of character, of course, but in terms of insurgent appeal: Lee got elected to the Senate by beating Republican incumbent Bob Bennett in the Republican primary in 2010. His was the first great grassroots upset of an incumbent in the tea-party era. That is to say, when Utah Republicans went looking for a hell-raiser to drain the swamp in Washington, they came up with … squeaky-clean, mild-mannered, Constitution-quoting Mike Lee.
And he’s no outlier. Virtually all successful Republicans from Utah are polished, polite, a bit patrician — Orrin Hatch, Jon Huntsman, Gary Herbert, and of course the next senator, Mitt Romney. (People more qualified than me can opine on whether, and how, Mormon culture fosters that sort of political culture.) Even the rabble-rousers like Lee are soft-spoken. Because the state is so heavily Republican and consistently produces politicians who are well-mannered, it’s almost unthinkable that Lee’s successor would have a skeleton in his closet so frightening that it would put the seat in play. It’s been 40 years since a Democrat represented Utah in the Senate, twice as long as it had been for Alabama before Jones won. And even if the Utah GOP did somehow fumble and nominate a subpar candidate for Lee’s seat, no worries: The governor, Herbert, would get to fill the vacancy for awhile, giving the appointee an aura of incumbency before the next election. If things *really* went sideways, Romney, Hatch, and Herbert would all hit the trail on the appointee’s behalf to carry him over the finish line. Losing Lee’s seat is as close to impossible as one can get in politics.
As for Trump’s incentives or disincentives in nominating Lee, the one frequently mentioned (including by me yesterday) is that Lee was vocally anti-Trump in 2016, including at the convention. But that rift appears to have been healed, with Lee not only attending an official presidential event in Utah in December but being introduced by POTUS as “your great senator, Mike Lee.” Trump even invited Lee to say a few words, which Lee did: “It’s not every day the President of the United States asks you to take the microphone from him. But I want to say, Mr. President, thank you for your leadership. Thank you for being here. Thank you for standing with the people of Utah. We appreciate it deeply.” The media will dredge up Lee’s criticism from 2016 anyway if he ends up being nominated but Trump is used to that from his flirtation with Romney as Secretary of State after the election. For all his tendencies towards personalizing things with critics, POTUS has a strange capacity to lay it all aside when it suits him.
And nominating Lee would give him a killer reply to his conservative critics. The big knock on him in 2016 from stalwart righties like Lee was that he wouldn’t govern as a conservative if elected. (There were criticisms related to character, of course, but Trump’s unpredictability on policy was a core one.) Well, what further proof of his conservatism could Lee want than Trump … nominating Lee himself to the Court? “Mike said I wasn’t a constitutionalist,” POTUS could say. “How do you explain Gorsuch and Lee, then?” It would certainly be true that the one-two punch of Gorsuch and Lee would be the strongest SCOTUS slate by a Republican president in decades. Roberts and Alito were strong too, although if Dubya had had his way, it would have been Roberts and Harriet Miers; Reagan and Bush 41 had some real winners in Scalia and Thomas but some weak candidates too. Nothing would match Gorsuch and Lee for strength and consistency. Why not do it and turn Lee’s prior skepticism about him into a sort of asset? If nothing else, nominating a critic would make Trump look like the bigger man. “In the end,” he’d say, “I need to do what’s best for the country.”
Would the squishes in the caucus vote for this, though?
Trouble for Mike Lee nomination? He likened Roe v. Wade to Dred Scott in a searing speech on the Senate floor just months ago. And Murkowski, Collins (and Capito?) want to preserve Roe: pic.twitter.com/zzF3Ja8DUH
— Steven Dennis (@StevenTDennis) June 28, 2018
We’ll see. In lieu of an exit question, here’s Ted Cruz wondering whether Scalia’s death in early 2016 was the difference in Trump’s victory. It’s quite possible. Like I said yesterday, the argument to Trump-skeptics on the right that they had to vote for him for the sake of the Court wouldn’t have had the same urgency if there wasn’t a huge vacancy sitting right there already. Letting Hillary appoint Scalia’s replacement, shifting the Court to the left, would have been scary as a hypothetical. As a reality, it was terrifying.