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Republicans Play Hardball on Judges. Can Democrats Give It a Shot Too?

Republicans Play Hardball on Judges. Can Democrats Give It a Shot Too?

President Trump this month celebrated the confirmation of his 200th lifetime appointment to the federal bench, outpacing his predecessor by dozens through three-and-a-half years.

Campaign supporters of Mr. Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, have been urged to buy T-shirts saluting the two men as “Back-to-Back Supreme Court Champs,” their faces rendered in white silhouette with “Gorsuch” and “Kavanaugh” etched on the sleeves.

And four years after the battle over a court vacancy helped deliver Mr. Trump to the White House, the president hopes to keep his job by playing the hits: He has pledged to produce an updated roster of would-be justices to galvanize the right before November, warning that his Democratic opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., would nominate “a radical lefty” as a slate of major cases returns the judiciary to the political fore.

“Based on decisions being rendered now, this list is more important than ever before,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “VOTE 2020!”

That message arrived well before the court’s latest ruling to disappoint conservatives on Monday: a 5-4 decision striking down a law restricting abortions in Louisiana.

By their own account, Democrats have long found themselves outmaneuvered in electoral fights over the courts. Exit polls from 2016 showed Mr. Trump winning by double digits among those who called the Supreme Court the “most important factor” in their vote.

Most memorably, Mr. Trump made the novel choice to publish a list of prospective nominees, shaped by leaders from conservative groups like the Federalist Society, supplying specificity (at least on this subject) from a candidate prone to ideological shape-shifting.

“It gave certainty to people who didn’t know the president — and I was one of them,” said Penny Nance, the chief executive of Concerned Women for America, a conservative Christian group. “It was probably the No. 1 issue when we looked at the polling of what brought conservatives to the voting booth in 2016. I think it will be a top-of-mind issue, certainly, in 2020.”

Trailing in the polls amid overlapping national crises that he has strained to corral, Mr. Trump seems even more likely to place the courts, an area of unambiguous conservative triumph, at the center of his case for re-election.

Whether Democrats can harness their own enthusiasm on this score is at once uncertain and potentially critical to election fortunes this fall, both in the presidential race and several competitive Senate contests where the Republican incumbents’ Supreme Court votes might figure prominently. (In Maine, Senator Susan Collins’s support for Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2018 attracted wide-scale scrutiny — and millions of dollars in donations against her — before she had an official opponent.)

Recent years have produced no shortage of seminal moments to mobilize Democrats around matters of the judiciary: the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh; the non-confirmation of Judge Merrick B. Garland; the Supreme Court’s refusal in April to extend the deadline for absentee voting in Wisconsin during a pandemic.

Still, some in the party sense an asymmetry in how urgently many Democratic voters think about the courts.

“I do think it has picked up in visibility, but I don’t think it moves millions to the polls in the way that it really should,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and a close Biden ally. “That’s the challenge that remains before us.”

Progressives have suggested that Mr. Biden, the former vice president, could prompt excitement by releasing his own list of preferred judges. Some activists have urged him to embrace a proposal to expand the size of the Supreme Court.

Mr. Biden has done neither, though he has promised to nominate a black woman to the court and said that the judiciary was “the single most important reason” that his wife, Jill, wanted him to run in 2020.

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