WASHINGTON -- Democrats are attempting to turn the Supreme Court into a campaign issue as they confront President Donald Trump's success at reshaping the federal judiciary with young, conservative judges and the prospect that abortion rights are close to being eliminated.
It's a shift after decades of GOP candidates rallying their voters with promises to reshape the courts in a backlash to Warren Court rulings of the 1960s, and Roe v. Wade in 1973, the landmark abortion rights ruling. That dynamic lasted through the 2016 election, when Trump won over skeptical evangelicals by vowing to pick conservative justices who would allow states to outlaw abortion.
The 2020 Democratic presidential contenders are increasingly bringing up the courts when addressing voters. They're egged on by activists still furious about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's refusal to let President Barack Obama fill an open Supreme Court seat in 2016 after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. That enabled Trump to solidify a 5-4 conservative majority.
Focus on the courts was intensified this month with enactment of a law in Alabama that makes performing an abortion a felony in almost all cases. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said the measure was aimed at forcing the Supreme Court to reconsider abortion rights. Legislatures in other Republican-dominated states have passed or are considering abortion restrictions as conservatives see their first viable chance in a generation to overturn or sharply curtail Roe v. Wade.
The Alabama law was roundly denounced by the Democratic 2020 candidates. In an email to supporters Thursday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts warned that "a woman's constitutional right to abortion is under attack," and "we're going to fight this with everything we've got."
At a town hall Tuesday in Nashua, N.H., California Sen. Kamala Harris was confronted by a man who said Republicans "stole a Supreme Court nominee" by refusing to allow a vote on Merrick Garland during the last 10 months of Obama's presidency.
Harris said that if she's elected and nominates a Supreme Court nominee, respect for the precedent of Roe v. Wade would be "a very significant factor." Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York senator who is struggling to gain traction in the nomination contest, vowed to "only nominate judges who will uphold Roe v. Wade."
Warren, Harris, Gillibrand and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey as well as Beto O'Rourke and Pete Buttigieg also have indicated willingness to consider restructuring the Supreme Court as a remedy to its conservative tilt, including adding seats or limiting the terms of justices.
The candidates are all getting a push from some liberal activists who fault previous Democratic nominees, including Obama and Hillary Clinton, for not placing enough emphasis on the courts as election issue.
"It was a huge mistake on the part of the candidates in the primary and then Hillary Clinton in the general election not to talk about the courts" in 2016, said Caroline Fredrickson of the American Constitution Society, a progressive group. "She didn't talk about what her court would look like. Donald Trump was waving his list around and saying 'Here's who I'd nominate, and they'll overturn Roe.' We had nothing to organize around."