Gorsuch charm offensive may be working: At a one-on-one sit-down with Sen. Ben Cardin last week, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch rattled off his favorite past justices. One was Robert Jackson, who dissented in a landmark case that allowed for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
“He obviously did his homework with me,” Cardin (D-Md.) said of Gorsuch afterward. “He knew I would be favorably inclined to that type of discussion.”
In nearly 60 meetings since he was nominated just three weeks ago, the Colorado appellate judge has chatted up senators about fishing and rafting. He’s distanced himself from the president who nominated him, Donald Trump, while lavishing praise on the jurist who could have had the job he now seeks: Merrick Garland.
Gorsuch and his allies are engineering a full-court charm offensive to win over Democrats soured by the GOP’s yearlong blockade of Garland, President Barack Obama’s final nominee to the Supreme Court. And there are signs it’s working — if not generating outright Democratic support, at least leaving the minority with little to latch on to so far.
The Senate Republican Conference even went so far as to post a video on Instagram of Gorsuch petting a furry Shih Tzu, with the caption: “One more reason you’ll love Judge Gorsuch: He loves dogs.”
“He did a very good job in the meeting with me,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is being heavily courted by the pro-Gorsuch side, said in an interview. “He presents himself very well. I mean, he is very, very professional. Very smooth.”
Gorsuch isn’t there yet: He still needs to win over eight Democrats and keep all 52 Republicans in line. There are 10 ripe Democratic targets: Senators up for reelection in states Trump won. But two of them have already said they would oppose Gorsuch.
Gorsuch has taken positions that Democrats say are problematic, such as siding with Hobby Lobby in its challenge of Obamacare’s contraception coverage requirement. But his biggest liability remains Trump, whom Democrats will seize on during the confirmation fight. Judiciary Committee hearings on the high court nomination start March 20 and are expected to last three or four days.
“We’re in a very chaotic time right now with a president who is really testing the separation of powers,” Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the third-ranking Senate Democrat, said last week after meeting with Gorsuch. “I think we have to be very careful about what we are doing about judicial nominees today because of that.”
Well aware of his political hurdles, Gorsuch is making every effort to leave a good first impression with senators.
During his meeting with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, Gorsuch told the Illinois senator that he hoped he would be half the nominee that Garland was. Gorsuch mentioned that he accepted a speaking invitation before the Federalist Society to talk about criminal justice reform, a cause dear to Durbin.
The judge even shunned a National Review article he penned in 2005 charging that “liberals have become addicted to the courtroom.” Of the article, Gorsuch said he “wishes it would just disappear,” Durbin recalled.
Asked whether he felt Gorsuch was saying these things merely to appease Democrats, Durbin responded: “This is a political world and that’s where he’s seeking his approval.”
Still, Durbin said he would not rule out supporting the 10th Circuit judge for the Supreme Court, saying, “He has a hearing to get through and more questions to be answered.”
Gorsuch’s team is aiming to sit down privately with upward of 70 senators, or at least accommodate everyone who wants to meet with him. Since he was nominated by Trump on Jan. 31, Gorsuch has met with 58 senators, said former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Gorsuch’s so-called sherpa, or guide, through the confirmation process.
Some swing-vote Democrats, such as Chris Coons of Delaware and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, have asked for follow-up meetings to further explore Gorsuch’s record.
Tester, too, remains open to backing Gorsuch. The moderate Montana senator, who is up for reelection in 2018, said he pressed the nominee on the independence of the judiciary during his own sit-down and was pleased with Gorsuch’s answers.
That meeting occurred just after Trump blasted the judge who issued an injunction against his travel ban as a so-called jurist. Gorsuch called such remarks “demoralizing” and “disheartening” in repeated conversations with senators. That’s bought some goodwill from Democrats, although some are skeptical that the comments were choreographed to address one of the main question marks surrounding Gorsuch.
“His reaction to that was positive, from my perspective,” Tester said. “Hopefully that was not pre-planned. If I ever found out it was pre-planned, I would vote against him in a minute.” (Ayotte said the comments weren’t stage-managed.)
Gorsuch is also finding ways to appeal to Republicans who haven’t yet firmly committed to supporting him. When he met with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) earlier this month, she pressed him on his views on judicial precedent: If five current justices disagree with a previous Supreme Court decision, is that sufficient grounds to overturn the ruling? Gorsuch said no.
“It’s important to me generally, but it also is important to me because of Roe v. Wade,” Collins, who supports abortion rights, said of asking Gorsuch about precedent. “It’s an important principle.”
But the meetings aren’t all business. Gorsuch, who as a Coloradan is an avid fan of the outdoors, talked about whitewater rafting with Manchin, whose home state of West Virginia has plenty of rapids, too.
Several liberal Democrats quickly declared their opposition immediately after Gorsuch was announced. But most Democrats who’ve met with him have declined to say how they intend to vote on his nomination.
Many of them say they want to do their due diligence on Gorsuch, despite their base’s anger toward Trump and the lingering furor over the GOP’s treatment of Garland last year. A clearer read on Gorsuch’s prospects probably won’t come until after his confirmation hearings.
Senate Republican leaders want to confirm him before senators leave for the Easter recess in April.
“He’s obviously a very smart guy, he’s got a thoughtful background,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said after meeting with Gorsuch. But “I didn’t get full answers to my questions, and … this is why we have a Judiciary Committee hearing process to hear his answers with more detail.”
Even if he avoids direct answers to some queries from senators, Gorsuch goes into each meeting thoroughly prepared. His team — led by Ayotte, who served for six years in the Senate before losing her reelection bid in November — briefs the judge on policy matters that a given senator has worked on.
But Ayotte said Gorsuch is already “well prepared on almost every issue.”
“I see that there’s a real open dialogue and a discussion among the judge and the senators,” said Ayotte, who has sat in on all of his meetings. “He has spent as much time as they want with him. Also, they’re getting to know him on a personal basis.”
SOURCE: Seung Min Kim, Politico, 2/21/17