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Sweet: Democrats to make Supreme Court fight an issue for Kirk

U.S. Sen Mark Kirk, R-Ill., gives a thumbs up after he defeated Oswego businessman James Marter in Illinois' Republican primary in Chicago, Tuesday March 15, 2016. (Kevin Tanaka/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)


WASHINGTON — Democratic groups allied with the White House are targeting Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., over the GOP Senate leadership blockade of the Merrick Garland Supreme Court nomination —despite Kirk being the Republican taking the lead in backing President Barack Obama’s right to tap a replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia.

On Tuesday, Kirk plans to become the first Republican senator to meet with Garland, a federal appellate judge here who is a Chicago native raised in north suburban Lincolnwood and a graduate of Niles West High School in Skokie.

Kirk’s aggressive calls for Garland to have a hearing and an up-or-down Senate vote is not buying him immunity from a drive by Obama associates to pressure Republicans, especially vulnerable incumbents such as Kirk, over Garland.

OPINION

Last month, Kirk broke with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who declared the day Scalia died on Feb. 13 that Obama should not even bother sending the Senate a nominee.

Kirk has been out front on the issue since he wrote  in a Feb. 22 op-ed in the Sun-Times,  “I recognize the right of the president, be it Republican or Democrat” to send a nominee to the Senate.

Kirk’s moves were “smart politics,” acknowledged Robert Kettlewell, the Illinois consultant for Americans United for Change, one of the groups that is part of the coalition the Obama alumni founded  — a non-profit called The Constitutional Responsibility Project — to take on the Supreme Court fight. The project was formed about two weeks ago.

And Kirk’s savvy decisions about Obama’s Supreme Court nominee “had us realizing we had to sharpen our message, and we’ve done it,” Kettlewell said.

The goal line is different depending on the GOP senator that is being targeted. For Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the objective is to force him, as he faces re-election, to hold a confirmation hearing for Garland.

In a small world, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, is Garland’s second cousin. Still, Branstad backs Grassley’s decision not to hold a hearing.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., is probably even more at risk for re-election than Kirk in his rematch battle against former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. Johnson, who came to the Senate on 2010 with Tea Party support, is making a centerpiece of his campaign his refusal to budge on Garland.

That’s just the opposite strategy of Kirk, who faces Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., in the fall. The brand Kirk has carefully nurtured since coming to Congress means on certain matters he almost gleefully goes against his Senate leaders.

The Democrats have figured out what they want from Kirk.

“We need him to fight for a vote,” Kettlewell said, echoing a variety of Democrats I talked to involved in the Garland fight.  Kirk needs to “say to Mitch McConnell, ‘I will not support you as the leader in the next election if I don’t get to vote for Garland.”’

In other words, nothing is going to be acceptable short of a Garland hearing and an up-or-down vote. The Democrats are arguing that what Kirk says and does will not matter unless McConnell moves the Garland nomination to the Senate floor.

For years now, Democrats have been unable to take down Kirk — in his House contests from the north suburban 10th congressional district and his own 2010 Senate race – with the argument that a vote for Kirk is a vote for a Republican leader, no matter that he goes rogue now and then.

Now, with the Supreme Court pick in play — and McConnell’s obstruction on very public display — the discussion of what party controls the Senate and who is the Senate leader may resonate more with the voting public. That’s what Democrats hope.

Hillary Clinton, in a speech Monday in Wisconsin, with an April 5 primary, made the argument against McConnell even tighter, as she linked McConnell’s “reckless” objections to Obama since he became president — to the rise of Donald Trump, currently the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination.

“Donald Trump didn’t come out of nowhere,” Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, said in a speech in Madison, where she slammed Johnson for his role in blocking Garland.

A few hours earlier, in a visit that was not flagged by her campaign, Clinton made a quick stop in Chicago, for a high dollar fund-raiser at Riva’s Restaurant on Navy Pier. Duckworth was at the event – and got a shout-out from Clinton.