Micek: Scalia's death heats up senate race

John L. Micek
John MIcek

Now it's serious.

The fight for Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey's U.S. Senate seat was already a big deal. But with the death last weekend of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, it's now a no-holds-barred, steel cage match.

That's because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as The Washington Post notes, is putting his majority on the line as he tries to block President Barack Obama's attempts to replace the conservative icon.

Scalia's death has shaken the presidential race and galvanized the liberal and conservative bases, ladling on additional turmoil in a year already fraught with heavy drama.

With issues from gun control and the environment to abortion and immigration on the line, Scalia's replacement will shape national jurisprudence for the next decade at least — and perhaps well beyond, given the proclivity of the high court's members to live on into extended old age.

And nowhere will that rhetoric be as sharp as in the races for the U.S. Senate, which has the final say over the White House's high court nominee.

Democrats need to win four or five seats (depending on the presidential math) to retake control of the Senate. As Politico notes, the odds of a Democratic swing are good, but there isn't much room to screw up.

And Toomey is in the crosshairs.

Toomey, 54, a former a three-term congressman from Pennsylvania, was elected to the Senate in 2010. He narrowly beat former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired Navy vice-admiral.

Democrats would need to win most of the toss-up races and beat several well-funded incumbents, including Toomey, Politico reported. The former businessman and ex-Wall Streeter had $10 million cash on-hand in January, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

On Tuesday, Toomey joined Republicans saying the next president should appoint Scalia's successor, his hometown Allentown Morning Call reported.

"The next court appointment should be made by the newly elected president," Toomey told The Morning Call. "If that new president is not a member of my party, I will take the same objective, nonpartisan approach to that nominee as I have always done."

Toomey acknowledged to The Call's Laura Olson that Obama has the authority to put forward a high court nominee. But he believes the Senate would reject such a nominee.

Toomey's position puts him in the mainline of Republican thought. And three fellow incumbents facing stiff challenges — New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte and Wisconsin's Ron Johnson and Ohio's Rob Portman — are right with him.

But as The Post notes, it's a risk for the GOP. If as expected, Obama nominates a minority or a woman it could "re-activate the Obama coalition that fueled ... victories in 2008 and 2012."

At the same time, the issues that will come before the court could be enough to motivate Democratic voters to come out en masse.

That's especially true in Pennsylvania, where Democrats had the knives out for Toomey even before Scalia's passing.

Three candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination to face Toomey.

They include Sestak, who's reprising his 2010 run; Katie McGinty, a former top aide to Pennsylvania's Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, and John Fetterman, the tattooed and bearded mayor of Braddock, Pa., a steel town outside Pittsburgh.

But they have work to do. Six in 10 respondents to a January poll by Franklin & Marshall College still have no idea who any of the candidates are. At 17 percent, Sestak narrowly led the field.

But recognizing a wedge issue when they see it, the Democratic hopefuls all released statements hammering Toomey for his opposition.

Speaking to The Call, Toomey said that, in addition to the normal high level of scrutiny afforded a high court nominee, Scalia's replacement would have to meet another standard — "whether he or she ought to receive a lifetime appointment this year, when one could be made with a broad public stamp of approval less than a year later."

But as Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe observed on MSNBC's "Hardball" program on Monday, Republicans are "making up history" with the opposition.

Since 1912, the president has nominated and the Senate has confirmed a high court nominee six times in the president's final year in office, he said.

Toomey needs to decide if he's going to play politics or stand on the right side of history.

John Micek is the opinion editor and political columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.