Every senator looks in the mirror and sees a future president, the old saw goes.
So as the Senate Judiciary Committee meets this week to consider the nomination of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson for a seat on the Supreme Court, we’ll be watching the panel not only for probing questions about his judicial philosophy, but also for clues. on 2024.
Four Republican senators on the committee have shown signs of broader aspirations, and they share plenty of other things in common. They are all men who are roughly less than a decade old. All have one or two Ivy League degrees. Each sought to shape the Republican Party in their own image. And everyone comes to those audiences knowing they’re just as much on stage as Jackson.
For the most ambitious, a battle for the Supreme Court nomination is an irresistible opportunity. It’s a chance to build mailing lists, raise campaign money, and impress grassroots voters. Remember how Kamala Harris used Brett Kavanaugh’s ratings to preview his 2020 presidential run?
It’s still early to think about the 2024 presidential race, but the candidates are already engaged in “shadow jockeying,” said Bob Vander Plaats, an influential conservative from Iowa. “Everyone is waiting to see what Trump does.”
Even so, Republican activists are looking for a champion, said Rachel Bovard, senior policy director at the Conservative Partnership Institute. “They want to see you have a pulse,” she said.
But large audiences can also be perilous. Senators cannot be considered “playing for the cameras,” Quin Hillyer, a conservative columnist, told us. More and more Republican voters, he said, want “toughness without histrionics.”
With that in mind, here are the four Republican senators to watch:
The hard line
Tom Cotton, 44, from Arkansas, has two degrees from Harvard and served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army Ranger. He’s been an increasingly frequent visitor to Iowa and New Hampshire lately — telltale signs he’s caught the presidential bug.
Cotton is a foreign policy hawk, especially vis-à-vis China. But he has also championed far-right positions on domestic politics, with calls to restrict legal immigration and roll back criminal justice reforms.
In a speech this month, Cotton embraced the “proud, patriotic and populist” direction of the Republican Party under Trump. “We are the party of the common man, the worker, the farmer, the guard cop,” he said. But he broke with Trump over the First Step Act, which he blamed for the early release of “child predators, carjackers and gang members.”
The Old Tea Party
Ted Cruz, 51, of Texas, ran for president once and could still do so, his allies say. A graduate of Princeton Law School and Harvard, Cruz has been a major force in Republican politics since entering the Senate in 2013.
He went through three main phases during his time in Washington. He was first a Tea Partyer known for challenging Republican leaders over government spending. Then he was a presidential candidate who came second to Trump in 2016 by portraying himself as a conservative true believer. And now he’s a bearded Trump ally who preaches “America First” dogma with the zeal of a convert.
Cruz once thrust himself into the national spotlight like a moth to be ignited. But in recent years, the spotlight has been harsh: His vacation in Cancun during a storm that left millions of Texans without power or running water has been met with scathing contempt, and his recent apology to Tucker Carlson, the host of Fox News, for calling the Jan. 6 rioters “terrorists” was seen as rampant.
He was soft on Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination, calling for it to be treated with “dignity and decorum.” After meeting her in his office last week, he joked on a podcast that he was “highly suspicious” of her – for rejecting his offer of Cuban coffee.
Observers close to Cruz say he seems less calculating, more relaxed and more authentically himself than in the past – which potentially means he’s put aside his presidential ambitions or is simply trying a different approach.
“I think Cruz views it as, nobody’s going to beat him on the conservative path,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist. “He may not need to pick every fight.”
The young upstart
Josh Hawley, 42, from Missouri, is an evangelical Christian who promotes traditional values. That puts him on a potential collision course with Cruz and with former Vice President Mike Pence, said Henry Olsen, senior fellow at the Center for Ethics and Public Policy.
Hawley has carved out a niche for himself on the right by suing tech companies for what he calls their alliance with the “radical left.” And while he said he wouldn’t run for president in 2024, he also didn’t exactly dismiss the speculation.
Hawley is a staunch supporter of the January 6 protesters. And though he condemned the violence on Capitol Hill as “horrific,” his campaign put a photo of him waving to the Jan. 6 crowd on mugs (“the perfect way to enjoy coffee, tea, or liberal tears! “). He’s raised millions complaining that Democrats are trying to “cancel” him. On March 1, he led his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference by noting his objection to certification of Electoral College votes. “I wasn’t backing down then; I haven’t changed my mind now,” he said to thunderous applause.
Allies say Hawley, a Yale Law School graduate who worked for Chief Justice John Roberts, considers the Supreme Court his domain. Of the four senators, he is the only one to have resisted the wishes of Senate Republican leaders by forcefully attacking Jackson’s record. Fact checkers found his claims insufficient, and the White House called them “toxic.” He probably won’t be able to prevent his confirmation. But the fact that Hawley is fighting Jackson’s nomination could endear him to Republicans who want a brawler in their corner.
“His goal seems to be to make Ted Cruz look like the statesman of the group,” said Terry Sullivan, a Republican political consultant.
The prairie philosopher
Ben Sasse, 50, from Nebraska, is a former college president who has carved out his own path as a sporadic critic of Trump. Sasse holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a doctorate from Yale. But unlike other senators, he even embraces and displays his intellectual roots.
Sasse wrote his thesis on the “culture-war entrepreneurs” who seized on the school prayer debate to fuel Ronald Reagan’s political rise – an early expression of the two people’s smallpox political approach. Sasse houses. A lone wolf in the Senate, Sasse often positions himself above the fact that he mocks Washington’s “tribal” politics. Noting Jackson’s appointment, for example, he said the Judiciary Committee has been “a place of demagoguery and rabid partisanship.”
“Grandstanding” is a word Sasse uses frequently — like when he tangled last week in the Senate with Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, over Ukraine aid. The skirmish caught the attention of conservative pundits, who saw it as a sign that Sasse was seeking attention.
But why? If there’s a path for Sasse in an upcoming presidential election, it’s probably as a Never Trumper or an independent. He voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment, a no-no for grassroots Republican voters.
What to read
The ex-wife of Eric Greitens, a leading Republican candidate for the US Senate from Missouri, has accused him in court papers of running her down and confiscating her keys, phone and wallet during of a dispute in 2018.
Republicans are questioning Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle, writes Glenn Thrush, even as they prepare to question Jackson in confirmation hearings that began with opening statements on Monday.
Erica L. Green recalled Jackson’s years at Harvard University, where the future judge learned to navigate “one of the most elite and white institutions in the country.”
Russia becomes a campaign handicap
To understand how fast foreign policy politics is shifting to the right, look no further than North Carolina – where being associated with Donald Trump’s views on Russia is now a political issue.
The state is electing a replacement this year for Senator Richard Burr, who is retiring. On the Republican side, the May 17 primary is largely a two-way contest between Pat McCrory, a former governor, and Rep. Ted Budd, a far-right lawmaker who has been endorsed by Trump.
When the war in Ukraine broke out, McCrory ran an advertisement accusing Budd of being soft on Russia. The ad features a clip of Budd calling Vladimir Putin “smart” – just as Trump hailed the Kremlin leader’s assault as “genius”.
“As the Ukrainians bled and died,” a narrator rumbles, “Deputy Budd excused their killer.”
In a sign that McCrory’s attack might land, Budd’s allies responded with a response announcement calling it “a low and dirty blow”. The ad quotes Budd as saying, “Putin is evil. He is an international thug”, and underlines his support for Ukraine.
Each side has spent only a few thousand dollars on ads so far, indicating that the goal was to generate free media coverage and not directly reach voters.
But the exchange underscores how suddenly being seen as a Putin apologist is a bad look in a Republican primary thanks to Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s charismatic president. By presenting an alternative model of strength and machismo, said Rick Tyler, a former aide to Cruz, “Zelensky changed the whole dynamic of the Republican Party”.
Thanks for reading. Well see you tomorrow.
— Blake and Lea
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