Elections Lend Kagan Debate a More Partisan Tinge

Associated Press + More

Bond, Martinez and Gregg all broke with their party's leaders last year to back Sotomayor. Ayotte said shortly afterward that she, too, would have backed Obama's first Supreme Court choice.

High court battles in the last 20 years have been partisan affairs. But Supreme Court nominations before that were not as polarizing; members of the opposing party usually backed the president's choice barring extraordinary circumstances. Hatch, for instance, supported every Supreme Court nominee he voted on for more than 30 years in the Senate — including Democratic-named Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer — until casting his "no" vote against Sotomayor last year.

Times are different now.

Last year marked the first time the politically active National Rifle Association waded into the Supreme Court fray, coming out in opposition to Sotomayor and then, shortly before her confirmation, declaring that it would count senators' "yes" votes against them in their closely watched candidate ratings that go out to millions of gun-owning voters.

This year the NRA moved more quickly, announcing simultaneously that it would not only oppose Kagan but also punish senators in its candidate ratings if they support her confirmation — a factor that strategists in both parties acknowledge weighs heavily on Republicans and some Democrats from conservative-leaning states. The group said it began circulating a 90-second Web ad against Kagan this week.

"Gun owners in this country and NRA members are not only a loyal voting bloc, they're a very savvy voting bloc, and they are paying close attention to these votes," said Chris Cox, the organization's top lobbyist.

Marx said the NRA grade could put pressure on Republicans and Democrats from conservative states who are facing voters this year, like Lincoln, and even some — like Alaska's Sen. Mark Begich and Nebraska's Sen. Ben Nelson — who don't face re-election for another two or four years.

Marx's group, the Judicial Crisis Network, is also running phone banks in South Carolina targeting Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Sotomayor supporter who has signaled he may also back Kagan.

Graham suggested at Kagan's confirmation hearings, however, that he's more inclined to approach Supreme Court nominations with an eye on another race: the 2008 presidential election that Obama won, thus handing him the power to name justices.

"Elections," Graham told Kagan at the hearings, "have consequences."

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