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  1. Florida Politics

Right and left pressure Florida Sen. Bill Nelson over Supreme Court nominee decision

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., stands during a brief recess at the Senate Commerce Committee's confirmation hearing for commerce secretary-designate Wilbur Ross on Jan. 18. [Associated Press]
Published Feb. 9, 2017

WASHINGTON — Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is about to face intense pressure from a well-funded conservative coalition to vote for President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, a decision that will likely resonate into Nelson's 2018 re-election campaign.

Proponents are targeting Nelson and nine other senators from states Trump won in November who are also up for re-election — an effort that will include advertising and mailers, petitions and phone banks.

"Don't let Senate Democrats and the radical left block President Trump's great Supreme Court Justice nominee, Judge Neil M. Gorsuch," reads a postcard that will arrive this week in the mail of Florida activists. "Tell Senator Nelson to vote yes."

At the same time, Nelson will hear from a newly charged Democratic base that is demanding rejection of Trump's agenda, and the party remains bitter over GOP refusal last year to take up Obama's pick to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

"Whatever the pressure is," Nelson said in an interview, "I'm going to make up my own mind as to what I think is in the best interest of our country and Florida."

Republicans need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, but there are only 52 Republicans, meaning eight Democrats would have to cross party lines. Should Democrats resist, GOP leaders could deploy a "nuclear option" and approve Gorsuch with a simple majority, escalating already pitched partisan rancor.

It will be weeks before confirmation hearings commence, but the fight began to take shape immediately after Trump announced Gorsuch as Scalia's replacement on Jan. 31. Republicans point out that Nelson was among the Democrats in 2006 who approved Gorsuch for the U.S Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

"You've got lots of court of appeals judges; you only have nine Supreme Court justices," Nelson said. "In this divided court, one justice can completely change the outcome."

Republicans also note that Nelson opposed a filibuster of Samuel Alito's Supreme Court nomination in 2006, calling for an up-or-down vote (he was ultimately against Alito) but today stands with Democrats in insisting on a 60-vote threshold.

"You bet I do. The filibuster has always forced the political extremes to come of the middle to build consensus," Nelson said, adding it was a "mistake" for former Democratic leader Harry Reid to lower the threshold on other nominees that were stymied by Republicans.

But detractors say Nelson is having it both ways.

"Senator Nelson has been caught red-handed playing politics with President Trump's mainstream Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch," said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "The election is over. It is time for Bill Nelson to get to work and take his own advice: Judge Gorsuch deserves an up-or-down vote."

Nelson says the GOP blockade of Obama's nominee Merrick Garland last year won't be a factor, though he acknowledged it is a sore spot. Republicans will also seek to use his words from that debate against him. "The Senate has a constitutional responsibility to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court and I take that responsibility very seriously," Nelson said when Obama announced his pick in March 2016.

Nelson, 74 and in his third term, said he hasn't made up his mind about Gorsuch and plans to meet with him. But Nelson has "real concerns" about two fundamental rights:

"The right to vote and the right to know who you are voting for. And I specifically want to know how the judge feels about the suppression of voting rights and about the amount of undisclosed, unlimited money in campaigns," as he outlined in a statement last week.

Nelson said he will begin to read Gorsuch's circuit court decisions but singled out a case that will come up repeatedly in the hearings. It involves Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based company that successfully challenged a provision of the Affordable Care Act mandating employee health insurance cover birth control. The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling by a 5-4 decision.

"I'm interested to know how he can go from the religious rights under the Constitution of an individual to a corporation," Nelson said, contending rights given to a corporation "deny those same religious rights to the individual, who are employees of that corporation."

Voting for a Supreme Court justice is one of the most important duties of a senator and the stakes are even higher as the Gorsuch would tilt the court back in the conservative corner.

An array of conservative groups are planning ways to target senators from GOP-leaning states. Judicial Crisis Network has already begun a $2 million pro-Gorsuch TV ad campaign in Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota, Colorado and the District of Columbia. Overall spending will be $10 million.

Some Democrats already seem to be feeling the heat. When a reporter tried to talk to Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri on Tuesday in the Capitol, she flatly said, "I'm not talking about Gorsuch."

No decision has been made about TV ads in high-cost Florida but it's a possibility.

"We're gauging Senator Nelson's comments," said Gary Marx, senior adviser to the Judicial Crisis Network.

Even so, the group's allies have plans under way. Faith and Freedom Coalition is planning a postcard to its Florida members urging phone calls to Nelson in support of Gorsuch. The anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List will deliver petitions and hold events at Nelson's Florida offices, the first to begin in about two weeks. Americans for Prosperity will canvass neighborhoods and do phone banking.

Concerned Veterans for America has a digital ad campaign on Facebook, Twitter and in Internet searches that targets conservative activists to contact Nelson. It will also pay for mailers and door hangers and hold phone banks. Already, thousands of calls have been made urging activists to contact Nelson in support of Gorsuch, a spokeswoman said.

Nelson also has to contend with the Democratic base, which has been outraged by the early days of the Trump administration, staging protests across Florida and other states.

"People are on fire right now," said Susan Smith, an activist in Tampa Bay. "You don't motivate people unless you show you are fighting for them and you're not fighting for them if you're giving into Trump's agenda on anything."

Damien Filer of Progress Florida, which is a member of the Why Courts Matter coalition, said a public education campaign would seek to inform voters on Gorsuch's record and how his presence on the court would affect their lives. "My hope is that if we do these events and people are watching the news, they become aware of what's at stake" and pick up the phone or send email to Nelson.

Nelson's vote comes as he prepares for a re-election campaign that will hinge on support from some Republicans and independent voters while maintaining ties to his base. Already Gov. Rick Scott is signaling he's likely to run against him as could other Republicans, who have long tried to cast Nelson as too liberal for the state.

One wildcard is how Florida voters will perceive Trump a year from now and the midterm elections usually favor the opposing party.

"If Hillary had been president and Bill were running for re-election, it would be a totally different political environment in Florida than what he is likely to face," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the chamber.

"I think the environment is more encouraging for him," Durbin said. "He knows there is going to be a backlash."

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.

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