The debate over a Supreme Court nominee has ramifications for the law, the nation, and the legacy of the president.
But for most US senators, the Supreme Court confirmation process is one of the few opportunities they have to be in the national political spotlight. After the president makes his pick — in President Trump’s case, Judge Neil Gorsuch — the Senate vets the nominee through confirmation hearings and eventually takes a vote on the candidate for the bench.
These hearings and votes have produced career-defining moments. They help brand the senator as a moderate or a firebrand, and they can boost a lawmaker’s name ahead of a national run. In 1987, for example, then-US Senator Joe Biden oversaw the controversial hearings for Robert Bork while Biden was running for president (Bork’s nomination was rejected).
In 2017, Gorsuch’s confirmation proceedings could prove important to several senators from New England — some of whom face reelection in two years, while others may have national aspirations.
Democrats, in particular, want a fight against Trump and are seeking two senators to lead it, according to University of Massachusetts Boston professor Mo Cunningham.
“Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are logical people to lead that fight, and Democrats will be looking to each of them,” Cunningham said.
But beyond who will lead a party — or, potentially, a nationally watched filibuster — are less flashy but still important opportunities for other senators, from Maine to Connecticut.
Senator Susan Collins is a moderate Republican who has bucked her party from time to time. The day after Gorsuch’s nomination, Collins came out against Trump’s pick for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos.
Bobby Reynolds, a Republican consultant who was political director for Collins’s 2014 reelection campaign, says he expects Collins to approach the Gorsuch nomination the way she has other appointments.
“Mainers have come to expect her to make up her own mind and not be driven by her political party,” Reynolds said. “This nomination could burnish her reputation as one of the best ever of Maine’s public servants.”
Maine’s other senator, Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, is running for reelection in 2018, and Governor Paul LePage, a Republican, has suggested he might challenge him.
King has hinted he is very open to voting for Gorsuch. If he does vote to confirm him, King could potentially neutralize that issue in a potential matchup with LePage. However, such support could also jump-start a conversation among Democrats about putting up their own candidate against King.
Many Democrats view Senator Chris Murphy as a rising star with national potential. While his fellow senator from Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal, sits on the Judiciary Committee, which will conduct hearings for Gorsuch, Murphy is the one who might be more interested in making a name for himself in the confirmation process.
University of Connecticut political science professor Ron Schurin notes that while the state’s liberal base wants Democrats to reject all Trump nominees, Murphy hasn’t done that. He voted for Trump Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Defense Secretary John Mattis, and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.
Murphy rose to prominence after his very public display of support for the families affected by the Newtown shootings.
“[Murphy] is picking and choosing carefully, but I expect that if the right moment comes on Gorsuch, particularly in the area of gun control, Murphy will lead a fight,” said Schurin.
Another one to watch is Senator Maggie Hassan, who was just elected in November by about 1,000 votes over the Republican incumbent, Kelly Ayotte, in New Hampshire. A new member of the world’s most deliberative body, Hassan might be mindful of staking out a slightly moderate position because she represents a swing state — even if her reelection is still six years away.
So far, Hassan has not joined the small group of Democratic senators who have said they would break a filibuster to allow for an up-or-down vote, though it is unlikely she would vote to confirm Gorsuch, given her public statement linking him to Trump’s travel ban executive order that she opposes.
Finally, there’s Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont, who is a member of the Judiciary Committee. He has been through more Supreme Court nomination battles than anyone else in the Senate — a dozen of them.
A Democrat, Leahy has voted for three Republican nominees to the court, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy.
So far, Leahy is undecided this go around.James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp