WASHINGTON — Hours before President Trump named Judge Brett Kavanaugh as his nominee to a pivotal Supreme Court seat, Sen. Bob Casey had blasted out an unequivocal message: He would oppose anyone the president put forward.
The stand underscored just how much Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat long known as a mild-mannered moderate, has embraced a newly combative persona — and is betting on fiery opposition to Trump as a key to his reelection this fall.
The strategy is in line with a Democratic base that has demanded powerful resistance to the president, and that has been roused anew by the likelihood of Trump’s adding another conservative to the Supreme Court, potentially tilting it to the right for a generation.
But Casey’s stand also carries risks in a state that Trump won in 2016.
While he has effectively taken himself off the board as Republicans seek to pressure some Democrats to support Kavanaugh, the GOP still hopes to exact a political price for his defiance.
“Bob Casey’s opposition to President Trump’s nominee before he or she has even been named shows he has given up any pretense of being a moderate voice,” said Bob Salera, a spokesman for Republicans’ Senate campaign arm.
Casey’s GOP challenger, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, fired out two statements about Kavanaugh and Casey on Monday, and went to Harrisburg on Tuesday for a news conference highlighting the issue.
“Moderate Democrats, independents and Republicans voted for Donald Trump knowing who he would select for the Supreme Court,” Barletta said Tuesday morning, referring a list of potential nominees publicized during the 2016 campaign as a way to solidify conservative support. “The names [of potential nominees] were vetted by the American people.”
Unlike Casey, Democrats in other states Trump won, such as West Virginia, North Dakota and Florida, have left themselves open to supporting Kavanaugh. If any break ranks, it could destroy Democrats’ slim hopes of blocking the pick until after November’s elections — but might help them appeal to crossover voters in tough races.
Casey left no such wiggle room.
“You’ve got a Congress and both houses controlled by the hard right, you have an administration that shows great deference to the hard right on virtually every major issue,” he said in his Senate office Tuesday morning. “I’m not going to be complicit in turning over this third branch of government to the hard right.”
He said he would meet with Kavanaugh if asked but added: “I’ve got a position and I’m not backing off that: I’m a No and I’m [going to] remain No.”
Democrats warn that Kavanaugh’s appointment could lead to judicial decisions that roll back access to abortion, civil rights for same-sex couples and health care safeguards, including protections for people with pre-existing conditions. They are also still fuming over how Republicans in 2016 blocked President Barack Obama from filling a vacancy, leaving it open for Trump.
Republicans hailed Kavanaugh’s credentials — since 2006 he has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — and see a chance to leave a conservative imprint on the Supreme Court for decades.
Even if it can’t sway Casey, a two-term incumbent leading in the most recent polls, the GOP has long used judicial nominations as a motivating factor in elections.
Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by the industrialist Koch brothers, has promised a national campaign, including advertising, phone calls and door knocking, to support Kavanaugh. Pennsylvania is one of 10 states it plans to target, all of them places Trump won and where Democratic senators face reelection this fall.
“We’re going to be holding lawmakers accountable for obstruction,” said Beth Anne Mumford, the group’s state director in Pennsylvania. “Our activists are really committed to being engaged in this conversation.”
Others, like the Judicial Crisis Network, are also planning major spending to promote Kavanaugh as part of what is shaping up as a multimillion-dollar national fight.
But liberal groups are mounting their own campaigns.
Conservatives have long been more focused on the courts than liberals, but Trump’s recent influence has awakened the left, said Kadida Kenner, campaign director for Why Courts Matter-PA.
“This is going to be a rallying cry for progressive groups now for the 2018 election in November, because now they’re getting this wake-up call that elections have consequences and they need to get out and vote in every election,” Kenner said.
She said her group was “ecstatic” over Casey’s stand.
Liberal organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood and Demand Justice, a new group focused on the courts, are planning campaigns, and Why Courts Matter planned a rally Tuesday outside Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s Allentown office. (Nationally, though, the focus seems more likely to center on more strongly conservative states where Democratic senators may be more vulnerable. Trump took some of the juice out of the Pennsylvania landscape by passing over Western Pennsylvania’s Thomas Hardiman, a finalist for the Supreme Court nomination whom Casey had previously supported for an appellate court seat.)
There’s recent history that suggests that opposing a Supreme Court nominee doesn’t hurt — and might help — the candidate saying no.
While Democrats briefly attacked Toomey over his resistance to Obama’s 2016 high court nominee, Merrick Garland, the issue faded during the home stretch of the campaign and some Republicans believe the stakes surrounding the open seat may have motivated GOP voters. Toomey won by less than two percentage points.
Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman from Allentown, predicted on CNN that this nomination fight would “supercharge” liberal enthusiasm.
But Josh Novotney, a GOP consultant from Philadelphia, said Democrats are already energized, and so a Supreme Court fight might again give Republicans a push to narrow the enthusiasm gap.
He said Casey’s stand sent a clear signal.
“It definitely shows a level of confidence in his race or at least a window into his strategy that he wants to gin up his base,” Novotney said.
Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.