Senators go home, but can't escape Supreme Court fight

Story highlights

  • Democrats are targeting Republican senators for their refusal to advance the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court
  • Senators will be home for two weeks, where they will be the target of protests from liberal groups
  • The Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative interest group, will launch a $2 million ad campaign against Democrats

Washington (CNN)As one of the most vulnerable Senate Republicans seeking re-election, Sen. Rob Portman wants to spend the two-week congressional recess home in Ohio touting a just-passed bill he authored to combat heroin and opioid addiction as well as rare Senate approval of a subpoena for an investigation he's leading into online sexual trafficking.

The two high-profile bipartisan accomplishments should play well in his purple state and help fend off a major Democratic challenge for his seat from former Gov. Ted Strickland.
    No such luck.
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    Instead, Portman is under fire from the White House, Senate Democrats and aligned outside progressive groups for his opposition to holding confirmations hearings and votes on President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Merrick Garland.
    On Monday afternoon, protesters from the liberal group MoveOn.org will rally at Portman's Cleveland office while a plane flies overhead pulling a banner that reads: "Sen. Portman Do Your Job." The protest is just one part of a multi-pronged campaign by a coalition of liberal groups to pressure Republicans -- especially those up for re-election in swing states -- to change their minds and agree to confirmation hearings and a vote on Garland.
    Similar protests will take place in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, targeting Sen. Pat Toomey, and in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, against Sen. Ron Johnson.
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    As he left the Capitol this week, the soft-spoken Portman told CNN he's prepared for an onslaught from the left but that he's not going to give in.
    "I'm sure there will be ads on both sides. This is not about politics. It's about what's best for the country," he said.
    Portman, reflecting the position of the Senate GOP leadership, said a Supreme Court nominee, who could dramatically alter the balance on the bench, should be picked by whomever wins the divisive presidential contest that's underway, not Obama who nearing the end of his term.
    Asked if he expected blowback back home, the longtime lawmaker and George W. Bush administration official thought it might be a wash -- Democratic voters might oppose his defiance but Republicans would cheer his refusal to allow Obama to turn more liberal the seat held by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a staunch conservative.
    "I see people have strongly held views on both sides," Portman said.
    A banner also will be flown over the office Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee who incensed Democrats by refusing to schedule a hearing for the judge. His decision brought a wave of negative press back home for the popular and independent-minded Grassley, who is seeking a seventh term this year in Iowa.
    Asked by CNN if his tough position on filling the vacancy was hurting his standing in Iowa, Grassley responded, "You can't worry about that. You've got to do what's right."
    With Republican leaders dug in, Democrats are hoping rank-and-file GOP senators will be persuaded to change course by constituents who are fed up with dysfunction and gridlock in Washington and who will view the decision not to act on Garland as more of the unacceptable same.
    Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who is up for re-election this year, told WLS radio in Chicago on Friday that the Senate should "man up" and hold a vote on Garland.
    But right now most Republicans, even those facing voters in November, aren't budging.
    "I continue to believe the Senate should not move forward with the confirmation process until the people have spoken by electing a new president," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, another threatened Republican who is facing a tough re-election against the sitting Democratic governor of her state, Maggie Hassan.
    A recent email from the Hassan campaign blasted Ayotte for "putting her party before justice for Granite Staters and causing Washington dysfunction at its worse."
    Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid vowed he and other Democrats would keep the fight for Garland's confirmation in the headlines over the long, potentially momentum-draining recess.
    "You'd be surprised at how hard we're going to work to make sure this is on the front pages of all the papers," Reid said Thursday as he left a meeting with Garland.
    To counter the left's broad campaign, the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative interest group, plans a $2 million radio, TV, and Internet ad buy beginning Monday. It will run in Iowa and New Hampshire to bolster and praise Grassley and Ayotte for not giving into Democratic pressure.
    The ads will also run in red states where the group thinks Democratic senators might be uncomfortable with some of the ruling by Garland that deal with EPA regulations, the IRS, and National Labor Relations Board.
    The ads will target Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Michael Bennet of Colorado.