US Senator Kelly Ayotte and her top opponent for reelection squabbled Tuesday over a succession plan for US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, demonstrating the partisan divide that reverberated throughout the country’s Senate races.
In New Hampshire, Ayotte faces a challenge from Governor Maggie Hassan in what analysts say is one of the most competitive US Senate elections in the nation. Ayotte is one of several Republicans facing tough reelection races this November, when the parties will battle for control of the Senate.
Ayotte, a former New Hampshire attorney general, has sided with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has indicated he would not hold a vote on a new Supreme Court nominee until after the presidential election. President Obama has signaled that he plans to put forward a nominee soon to succeed Scalia, who died over the weekend.
“New Hampshire just finished our first-in-the-nation presidential primary, and this is a very consequential position that comes with a lifetime appointment and will shape the court,” Ayotte said in an interview. “I firmly believe that this is an election that the people should weigh in on when they select a president in nine months.”
Hassan, also an attorney, said the American people spoke when they reelected Obama in 2012, and the Senate should at least consider a nominee that Obama puts forward.
“President Obama was reelected in 2012 to do his job through Jan. 20, 2017,” Hassan said in an interview. “I continue to be hopeful that people in the Senate and the White House can find a consensus candidate, but Senator Ayotte has made it clear that she is siding with her party leadership instead of doing her job. I am troubled by it.”
When a Supreme Court justice retires or dies in office, the Constitution dictates that the president must nominate a replacement with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Under Senate rules, Democrats must find 14 Republicans to have enough support to cut off debate on a nominee and allow a simple majority vote on his or her appointment to the court.
So far, not a single Senate Republican has said he or she would prefer to vote on Obama’s nominee before the election. The partisan divide is striking, given the large number of Senate Republicans — more than half a dozen — who face competitive races in November.
Like Ayotte, senators Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin have said the next president should nominate a replacement for Scalia on the high court. All of their top Democratic challengers have the same position as Hassan.
The only prominent exception among Republicans seeking reelection in November is Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, who has so far limited his remarks to honoring Scalia.
Additionally, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who is up for reelection this year but is not considerd politically vulnerable, has most recently taken a wait-and-see approach to the brewing nomination battle.
Ayotte’s stance runs counter to the more moderate political image she has tried to craft ahead of her reelection race. New Hampshire is a swing state, in presidential elections and in statewide races.
Ayotte’s campaign circulated a memo Tuesday that included the number of Obama’s judicial nominees, 100, whom she voted for as a senator. In the last year, Ayotte has offered her own proposals on gun control, supported Obama’s new emissions regulations for coal-fired power plants, and publicly disagreed with Senator Ted Cruz and New York billionaire Donald Trump.
“I look at issues on their face and carefully come to a decision,” Ayotte said. “I have an independent mindset, and I didn’t come to this decision because of McConnell or anyone else. I came to this decision because I think it is right.”
Last week, Ayotte challenged Hassan to take a “people’s pledge” to limit outside spending in their race. Hassan signed an amended pledge that included a $15 million spending cap on each of their campaigns.
Ayotte received some pushback on the pledge from Americans for Prosperity, the main political arm of the wealthy and conservative Koch brothers. Americans for Prosperity said last week that they would not run ads in support of Ayotte.
For his part, Obama promised Tuesday that he would nominate an “indisputably” qualified candidate to the Supreme Court, saying “the Constitution is pretty clear about what is supposed to happen now.”
‘‘This will be a test, one more test of whether or not norms, rules, basic fair play can function at all in Washington these days,’’ Obama told reporters in California.
Stu Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst who founded the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, said that while this issue has changed the conversation in high-profile Senate contests this year, this does not mean that it will be a deciding factor for voters in November.
“We still don’t know what the election is going to be about,” Rothenberg said. “What is today’s hyperbole may not be tomorrow’s reality. We have to see how this year unfolds and see where issues like national security and the economy are as we get closer to the election.”