The last confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nominee were a launching pad for Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign. Two years later, the looming confirmation battle for the nation’s highest court could help propel her into the White House.
In a year when the word “unprecedented” has been rendered basically meaningless, the California senator’s dual role as both a vice presidential nominee and one of the most prominent members of the Senate Judiciary Committee is a historical first. Progressives are hoping that Harris’ aggressive cross-examination of Brett Kavanaugh during the explosive 2018 hearings investigating allegations of sexual misconduct are a preview of a similar performance in the coming weeks as the panel considers President Donald Trump’s potential third justice on the Supreme Court—this time, under an even brighter spotlight.
“There’s really only two political events that capture the attention of the whole country: Supreme Court hearings, and presidential and vice presidential debates,” said Teddy Goff, co-founder and partner at Precision Strategies and former chief digital strategist for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Goff told The Daily Beast that “no one’s better in these kinds of settings” than Harris.
“No Democrat would have wished for it to play out this way, but it’s something of an opportunity that Senator Harris will have the chance to appear at one of each in quick succession,” he said.
Harris’ performance during the Kavanaugh hearings was seen as a major boost for her presidential prospects, with donations for an anticipated run for the Democratic nomination pouring in in the weeks after Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Harris’ aggressive questioning—an exchange about reproductive rights that predated revelations that Kavanaugh had been accused of attempted sexual assault at a party decades before, in particular—endeared her to progressives.
“She really helped set the tone for the rest of the week, and it’s that kind of leadership that that we not only would expect to see from her again but really would hope then to see from the rest of the committee,” said Chris Kang, chief counsel at Demand Justice, a progressive judicial advocacy organization.
The Kavanaugh performance was even more indelible for Trump, who has publicly and repeatedly referenced Harris’ “nasty” questioning from the Kavanaugh hearings since she joined the Democratic ticket in August.
“She treated Kavanaugh very badly,” Trump told a North Carolina audience on Saturday, one day after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a feminist icon and unofficial head of the Supreme Court’s liberal wing. “Nobody ever suffered like Justice Kavanaugh suffered in the hands and the mouths of those horrible people. The way he was tortured was disgraced... and the leader of the pack I would say was, Kamala was the worst.”
Trump is weighing the electoral benefits of those on his shortlist to replace Ginsburg on the court, and has reportedly been counseled that whoever he nominates will effectively “be your running mate” in November, according to CNN—which makes the potential face-off between Harris and the as-yet-unnamed nominee as high-stakes an engagement as the upcoming vice presidential debate.
“Presidential campaign donations don’t usually get measured in dollars per minute,” said one Biden campaign bundler, “but there is literally no greater showcase for how prepared the Biden-Harris ticket is to govern on Day One than to see a potential future vice president in action only weeks before the election. We’re going to shatter fundraising records into a million pieces.”
Harris’ performance could also broaden the scope of confirmation hearings from the qualifications of the as-yet-unnamed nominee to encompass the entire election—particularly health care. A case determining the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act is set to be heard by the Supreme Court only days after the general election, and control of the chamber is increasingly a winning issue for Democrats, with 60 percent naming the court as one of their top priorities.
“I think that she’ll have a much different approach to not just interrogate the particular nominee about specific statements they made,” Kang said, “but I think that that Senator Harris does a very good job at widening the lens overall, and that’s what I would expect to see from her.”
Harris has previewed that strategy in recent days as the Biden campaign has placed a particular focus on the future of the ACA in the context of the Supreme Court. During a virtual fundraiser with California donors on Monday, Harris called Ginsburg’s death a “gut punch,” and pushed allies to focus on the bigger picture of what the general election could mean for all three branches of government.
“Use your voice in your role of leadership in a bully pulpit that you have, each one to remind people of what is at stake in terms of their lives and the outcome of this election,” Harris said.
Donors are listening, if recent fundraising numbers are any indication. Democratic coffers have flooded with donations following Ginsburg’s death. Within three days, progressives had donated more than $160 million through progressive digital donation hub ActBlue, with a particular focus on backing candidates who could potentially flip the Senate back into the Democratic column.
Harris herself sought to capitalize on a similar financial boon in 2018, sending out a fundraising blast to her supporters highlighting the reproductive health care exchange during the Kavanaugh hearings.
“I know you’re standing with me in this fight, and I appreciate everything you’ve done so far,” the email said at the time.
But strategists see a risk in Harris—or any Democrat—turning a confirmation hearing into a Biden campaign rally, particularly as the loose tally of likely Republican votes for the eventual nominee make confirmation a fait accompli.
“I don’t expect to see any showboating or presidential campaigning,” Goff said. “I think she will show up to do the job that her position on the committee demands, ask great questions, and help make the case that whichever partisan ideologue Donald Trump will have nominated doesn’t deserve to be seated before the inauguration.”
But Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has demonstrated a remarkable facility for outmaneuvering Democrats on court nominations during his time as majority leader, has broad discretionary powers when it comes to scheduling the confirmation hearings.
As it is, the schedule will be extremely tight. Trump has vowed to name his nominee this Saturday, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, vowed on Monday night to pass the nominee through committee to the Senate floor “to confirm Justice Ginsburg’s replacement before the election.”
That leaves a mere 38 days from nomination to confirmation, made even shorter by a planned “state work” period allowing those senators up for re-election to spend the majority of October campaigning in their home states. With most senators released into the wild, the possibility remains that the vacancy may not be filled until shortly after the election.
Alternatively, the hearings could be scrapped entirely, with the nominee being moved straight to the floor by McConnell to avoid contentious hearings, a move that has the double-sided benefits of putting the nominee on the court even faster while denying the opposing party’s vice presidential nominee a prominent spotlight.
The Biden campaign told The Daily Beast that until the schedule is announced sometime next week, they will continue with debate preparations and traditional campaigning—insofar as it still exists—apace.
“We don’t actually have a nominee yet for the seat,” cautioned a campaign spokesperson. “Until we have a name, a hearing schedule, etc., we are continuing on with campaigning.”