Now that the West Virginia primary is over, we may not be hearing “Cocaine Mitch” thrown around on the campaign trail anymore. But a slew of rabid Republican Senate candidates across the nation are likely to continue to lambast Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not doing more to carry the conservative agenda in Washington.
For conservatives who have their sights set on the long game, those criticisms fall flat.
That’s because quietly and methodically, McConnell is giving the nation’s federal courts a facelift that’s making the next generation or two of federal judges look like the offspring of Antonin Scalia and Rush Limbaugh.
This silent but incredibly consequential judicial overhaul may have helped McConnell and the GOP establishment inside Washington, including President Trump, avoid a major embarrassment on Tuesday, after they teamed up to derail the campaign of coal magnate and former convict Don Blankenship in West Virginia. And yet, another round of McConnell haters are about to get their day.
In Virginia, county supervisor Corey Stewart has called on McConnell to resign for signing off on a bipartisan $1.3 trillion spending bill, and in Mississippi, state senator Chris McDaniel has accused McConnell of supporting Republicans who often vote like Democrats. GOP Senate candidates in Missouri and Wisconsin have also blasted McConnell, while in Arizona former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has said he won’t support McConnell for leader if he’s elected.
Many far-right activists across the nation vilify McConnell for maintaining his old-school tendency to work across the aisle on must pass pieces of legislation (almost exclusive bills that fund the government), for failing to secure the votes to fully repeal and replace Obamacare and for maintaining the Senate’s legislative filibuster rules that are intended to protect minority rights. But inside the Beltway, McConnell is largely viewed as the kingmaker of the numerous judicial thrones that dot the national landscape.
“I think the world of the leader,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) told The Daily Beast. “He’s tough. You don’t want some weenie in that job. He takes a lot of arrows for a lot of people – that’s the job of the majority leader.”
As for his greatest accomplishment?
“We wouldn’t have [Supreme Court Justice] Neil Gorsuch without Mitch McConnell,” Kennedy said.
McConnell deftly slammed the door shut on Merrick Garland, Obama’s third Supreme Court nominee, on the very Saturday night Scalia died. And when Democrats were prepared to filibuster Gorsuch last year McConnell twisted arms and convinced wary Republicans to nuke the Senate rules and lower the threshold for Supreme Court nominees to 50 votes.
Gorsuch may be the most visible face of the surgery McConnell’s performing on the nation’s judiciary, but he’s not the only one. This week Senate Republicans started to rush through a slate of circuit court nominees and by the end of the week they gave Trump a breathtaking 35 federal judicial appointments.
Senate Democrats say Trump is set to oversee the confirmation of 21 circuit court nominees in less than 16 months, while Obama had to wait 33 months before he got that many judges appointed to the same bench.
And once more, McConnell has bent the norms of his chamber to do it: disregarding the long-standing, so-called “blue slip” practice of getting the sign off of a judicial nominee’s home-state Senator before giving him or her a vote.
It’s a very big deal.
“The sad reality is Sen. McConnell’s leadership is dismantling the Senate as an institution brick by brick,” Sen. Dick Durbin, the number two Senate Democrat, told The Daily Beast. “This is a major part of the foundation of the Senate – that senators have a voice in the selection of judges that affect their home states.”
While the Supreme Court hears about 80 cases a year, the judges on the nation’s 12 federal circuit courts are given the final say on about 60,000 cases a year – ranging from environmental to social policy and everything in-between, which is why most Republicans in the Senate are smiling at McConnell’s deft leadership even as he’s being blasted by many conservatives out on the campaign trail.
“Politics is a rough and tumble business,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who used that blue slip process to hold up Obama’s nominees before embracing its abandonment this year. “It’s easy to criticize anybody up here. It’s easy to criticize anything. I would just ask anybody that’s going to do a fair evaluation of any senator take a look at what they’ve actually accomplished, and with Sen. McConnell, take a look at what we’ve done on judges.”
“I think judges are always a legacy – incredibly important, but it just doesn’t really move the needle from the standpoint of public opinion,” Johnson continued.
Democrats are acutely aware of the successes that McConnell has had. And as they gear up for the midterms, they are trying to put what they see as a judicial crisis on voters’ minds. They say they’re seeing some progress.
“The Republicans are remaking the federal bench in the image of the far-right, fringe Republican ideology,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told The Daily Beast. “It is a concerted and relentless effort done very strategically and purposefully.”
Blumenthal, a former state attorney general who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said judges haven’t become as big of an issue back at home as, say, the GOP tax cuts or efforts to deregulate, but he said he is hearing more voters bring it up.
“There is growing awareness about this issue, not at the county fairs and parades, but, among a certain kind of demographic and group, there’s a growing sense of alarm and a feeling that Democrats pay a lot less attention they should and certainly less than Republicans do,” Blumenthal said.
The GOP is showing no signs of letting up on their push to reshape the judiciary. On Thursday Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley, who also is sending out an ominous signal for Supreme Court justices to retire now so the GOP can confirm a replacement before the midterms, told a conservative radio host that he plans to double down on judicial nominees and have his committee review a whopping five district judges and one circuit judge every two weeks.
While many corners of the fractured GOP are frustrated with McConnell – including pretty much the entire House Republican Conference and Trump who has repeatedly called for lowering the filibuster threshold in the Senate – the White House largely gives him a gold star.
“I think that we’re very grateful for what McConnell is doing, particularly on judges,” Marc Short, the White House Director of Legislative Affairs, told The Daily Beast. “We’re excited by what he’s accomplished.”
Democrats are still trying to figure out how to get their voters to care about more than just Supreme Court nominees, but the consensus in the party is that November’s midterms are pivotal so they can stop the GOP from stacking the courts even further.
“They’re avoiding what the Senate does best, and that is to make sure that we get qualified people on our bench, that we don’t politicize the bench, that we don’t go to trying to do partisan, extreme appointments,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) told The Daily Beast. “What they’re doing is really compromising the role of the United States Senate in making sure that we have an independent judiciary that reflects those values.”