By Steve Peoples
The US presidential campaign has been jolted by the death of supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, potentially reshaping the election as some Americans are beginning to cast ballots.
For months, the contest has largely centred on President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, the biggest public health crisis in a century, which has badly damaged his prospects for reelection as the US death toll nears 200,000 people.
However, Ms Ginsburg’s death has added new weight to the election, with the potential that Mr Trump or his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, could choose a successor who could decide abortion access, environmental regulations and the power of the presidency for a generation in America.
With early voting under way in five states and polling day just over six weeks away, Democrats and Republicans were largely unified in praising Ms Ginsburg as a leading legal thinker and advocate for women’s rights. However, strategists in both parties also seized on the moment to find an advantage.
Facing the prospect of losing both the White House and the US senate, some Republicans viewed the supreme court vacancy as one of the few avenues remaining for Mr Trump to galvanise support beyond his most loyal core of backers, particularly suburban women who have abandoned the party in recent years.
Veteran Republican strategist Alex Conant said: “It’s hard to see how this doesn’t help Trump politically.
“Biden wants this election to be a referendum on Trump. Now it’s going to be a referendum on whoever he nominates to the supreme court.”
Multiple Republicans close to the White House believe Mr Trump will likely nominate a woman, who could serve as a counterweight of sorts to Mr Biden’s choice of running mate Kamala Harris, who would be the first woman to serve as vice president.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell pledged to quickly bring about a vote on whoever Mr Trump nominates. But he faces potential division within his own ranks, including from senators Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado.
Ms Collins and Mr Gardner both face particularly tight races for re-election this autumn.
That is fuelling optimism among Democrats that the vacancy could drive home the significance of the election to their base.
“The implications for senate races could be profound,” said Democratic strategist Bill Burton.
“The presidential race will see some immediate churn as activists on both sides will be newly energised.
“The persistent question will be whether huge protests around the Capitol and the country will inflame such vigorous energy that it leads to awful clashes.”
Mr Biden, who has already pledged to appoint the first black woman to the supreme court, told reporters that “voters should pick the president and the president should pick the justice to consider”.
Democrats are enraged by Mr McConnell’s pledge to move forward, especially after he blocked former president Barack Obama from appointing a justice to replace Antonin Scalia nine months before the 2016 election.
That decision cast a long political shadow, prompting Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor who mounted a spirited bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, to make expansion of the supreme court a centrepiece of his campaign. Mr Biden has rejected the idea.
Some Democrats privately concede that the supreme court vacancy could shift attention away from the virus, which has been a central element of Mr Biden’s campaign.
Mr Trump took the unprecedented step in 2016 of releasing a list of supreme court choices before he was elected, a move that was credited with unifying sceptical conservative voters to unite behind him.
Republicans also believe that the high-profile debate over Mr Trump’s last supreme court choice, Brett Kavanaugh, helped the Republicans retain the US senate during the 2018 mid-term elections, when the party lost control of the US house of representatives.
The president, seeking to build the same type of energy that surrounded his 2016 bid, released another list of potential supreme court nominees this week.
However, some Democrats said the political environment is already overheated, with partisan divides over everything from wearing a mask to curb the pandemic to addressing climate change.
Ms Ginsburg’s death, they say, may not change that.
“It’s already pretty ugly out there,” said Megan Jones, a Democratic strategist who worked for former senate majority leader Harry Reid.
“I do not know how this does not become a fight of epic proportions.”