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The impact of Scalia’s death on the 2016 GOP race

An American flag flies at half-staff in front

An American flag flies at half-staff in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in honor of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on Feb. 14, 2016. Scalia. Photo Credit: AP

Will the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia remind South Carolina’s primary voters that the 2016 presidential contest is more than just a reality TV show? If so, how?

When the Republican presidential candidates hit the stage in Greenville, South Carolina, on Saturday night, the news of Scalia’s death was just a few hours old. So, the future of the nation’s highest court was the first topic of conversation. Nearly every candidate said President Barack Obama should wait and let the next president nominate the next justice, a move that would leave the court with an empty seat and a 4-4 deadlock on consequential issues for nearly a year.

The question now is how the justice’s death affects the next election, particularly with the key South Carolina GOP primary six days away. No Republican has lost the South Carolina primary and won the presidency. And the state’s politics are terribly tricky. While almost two-thirds of its Republican voters identify as evangelical, it traditionally does not opt for evangelical darlings. Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Alan Keyes and Pat Robertson all failed to win there, while mainstreamers like Bob Dole, John McCain, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush all triumphed.

And while one big question in light of Scalia’s death is who can win the South Carolina primary and the GOP nomination, that doesn’t matter in terms of choosing Supreme Court justices unless the nominee can win the White House. That brings us back to Saturday night, and a GOP debate that was shockingly bad in both tone and content. It was a two-hour lesson in how to convince a nation your party cannot be trusted with the White House and the power to nominate Supreme Court justices. It was, in fact, essentially an infomercial for the Democratic Party that could have been called “Where Have All the Grown-ups Gone.”

In front of a raucous, interrupting crowd that appeared to have been sampling the Greenville bar scene for hours (or days) before the 9 p.m. kickoff and was spoiling for a fight, the candidates whined, interrupted and insulted each other. With the exception of the cheery and peripheral Gov. John Kasich, the ambience was that of a middle-school food fight. One exchange between Donald Trump and former Gov. Jeb Bush over Barbara Bush’s involvement in the campaign got within a frog’s whisker of an actual “Yo momma” throwdown. For the record, I believe “Yo momma is so establishment Washington she was the First Lady” would have been the ultimate zinger had it continued to devolve.

That’s yesterday’s story, but it may impact Saturday’s vote. To the extent that conservatives start thinking hard about Supreme Court choices, and the gravitas of the presidency, it can’t be good for Trump. There has to be some fear, as unbearably boorish and idea-free as Trump was Saturday night, that he can’t win a general election because he can’t answer two hours of policy points from a Democratic candidate with “Huge wall…..winning….trust me….I can’t be bought.” And when it comes to letting him select justices, his credentials supporting abortion, including the late-stage variety, supporting eminent domain seizures for private projects and his general liberal “New York values” past aren’t going to do much to convince conservatives he can be trusted.

Can he become a more serious candidate? I have no idea whether he can, or whether, with polls showing him up 22 points, he has to. But if anything is going to make South Carolina voters sour on him, the combination of Scalia’s death and Trump’s debate behavior would be it.  

The effect of the news on the presidential hopes of Ted Cruz is the big unknown. In South Carolina, some may view the Texas senator as eminently trustworthy on not just abortion, but also states’ rights, Obamacare and gay marriage. Certainly, as a top lawyer and former clerk for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, he is knowledgeable on both the court and the law.

But again, Cruz’s extreme conservatism can scare both moderate Republicans who have moved south in droves over the past two decades, and anyone who wants a candidate that can pull enough swing voters and swing states to win a general election. No GOP voter in South Carolina wants to vote in a way that leads to a President Clinton or President Sanders, and the death of Scalia has really brought that concern home.

As for the trailing candidates, thoughts about the importance of the election can’t be good for retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, either, because he has so little political and policy track record. And maybe Kasich, having expanded Medicaid via Obamacare in Ohio, gets pounded in this context for not being ideologically conservative enough.

As for Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, they would likely be pretty similar on the type of justices they’d appoint, so Scalia’s death probably doesn’t hurt or help them much.

What Scalia’s death should have reminded the candidates of, and will hopefully remind South Carolina voters of, is the gravitas of such an election. The winner will not only lead the nation’s executive branch for four years or eight, but he or she will also make numerous judicial appointments, possibly several to the Supreme Court and that could influence the trajectory of the nation forever.