The day after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis broke some news to a crowd of cheering supporters at a rally for President Trump in Fayetteville.
“All the press tried to swarm me when I was coming up here, but I thought I would tell you all first,” he said, surrounded by a sea of red MAGA hats.
“As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I’ve seen the list of justices. [The president] is going to nominate one of those justices, and I’m going to vote for their confirmation.”
The crowd erupted in applause.
On Saturday, Trump said he would nominate Judge Amy Coney Barrett, setting off a fierce battle not just over the nominee, who is said to be staunchly against abortion, but also over the timing of the vote.
With less than six weeks before Election Day — and with many North Carolinians already casting votes by mail — Ginsburg’s death intensifies a Senate race that had already attracted millions of dollars and strong interest from around the nation.
“This is gonna take a race where the volume was already a 10 and crank it up to 11,” said Chris Cooper, professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. “It’s just going to make everything louder and more intense. … The partisanship, the intensity and the consequences—it draws into sharp detail the consequences of controlling the United States Senate.”
Trump’s effort to speed ahead with a vote has put Tillis and other Republicans in a bind because they took the opposite position in 2016 after Justice Antonin Scalia died. They blocked hearings on President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.
In August 2016, Tillis wrote a USA Today op-ed that said “the Senate should not hold hearings or votes if a Supreme Court seat opened up during the [presidential] campaign.”
But the morning after Ginsburg’s death, Tillis tweeted his support for filling the vacancy, distinguishing the situation from 2016 by saying that the latter involved a “divided government” and a “lame-duck president.”
That has prompted cries of hypocrisy and shameless opportunism. Tillis’s Democratic opponent, Cal Cunningham, has pushed for the seat to be filled after the election.
But Tillis’s decision to support the nominee could be smart politics. It reflects the importance of court nominees to many evangelical Republicans. They are hopeful that a new justice could be the deciding vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.
According to FiveThirtyEight, Tillis has consistently trailed Trump in polls, indicating that some Republican voters who are gung ho about the president may feel hesitant about the senator. By doubling down on his support for the court nominee, Tillis may win them back.
“He is sort of going above and beyond to try to prove his fealty to Trump to make up for the last year when he very briefly bucked him on the border wall,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for The Cook Political Report.
She referred to Tillis’s response to Trump’s declaration of a national emergency over illegal immigration across the Mexican-American border in 2019. Tillis initially said he would vote against the declaration but later backtracked and voted for it.
Taylor said the Tillis campaign has probably done the math: Promising to confirm Barrett could alienate some moderate voters, but Tillis will win more support from his conservative base.
“I think they’re just looking at it from a sheer numbers game of what’s my best path to try and move my numbers up,” she said. “And I think it is shoring up that Republican base.”
The fight could also rouse voters on the left. As the de facto leader of the court’s left wing, Ginsburg championed gender equality and abortion rights, becoming a liberal icon and earning the nickname “Notorious R.B.G.”
The possibility of this progressive ally being replaced by a conservative, anti-abortion justice could intensify turnout among young and female voters — who often vote Democratic.
“The big question is going to be unmarried women,” said Kristin Goss, a professor of public policy and political science at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “The fact that whoever takes that seat could be a deciding vote on Roe vs. Wade could make a big difference for unmarried women, particularly younger, unmarried women.”
Goss said that this moment could also be a “flashpoint” for college students and millennials. That, too, could help Cunningham.
The progressive organization NextGen America says Ginsburg’s death is providing new energy for young people to get involved in the campaign and vote.
Immediately after the justice’s death, NextGen America debuted a new YouTube ad targeting young voters in North Carolina.
“Justice Ginsburg’s dying wish was not to be replaced by Trump. But we can’t trust Thom Tillis to do the right thing,” the ad says. “He has ignored our needs and voted for Trump’s anti-choice, anti-equality judges. We need Cal Cunningham, not a Trump loyalist, in the Senate.”
In a race that had been dominated by the coronavirus, healthcare and the economy, a new issue has emerged.
“This is not exactly an October surprise, but this is one of those things that happens in politics, where it’s an unforeseen event,” said John Hood, chairman of the John Locke Foundation and president of the John William Pope Foundation.
“It sort of knocks all the preconceived notions for a loop.”