WASHINGTON | The possible choice of Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval for the Supreme Court vacancy would give President Barack Obama a shot at breaking Senate Republicans’ planned blockade of any election-year confirmation.
Sandoval, Nevada’s first Hispanic governor and a supporter of abortion rights, would test the unified GOP caucus’ insistence that voters in November and the next president make the lifetime appointment to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia. The White House is considering the 52-year-old Sandoval, two people familiar with the process said Wednesday.
The two people declined to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the possible replacement for Scalia.
Still, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that regardless of whom Obama nominates, likely in the next few weeks, “This nomination will be determined by whoever wins the presidency in the fall.”
Senate Democrats are intent on pressuring Republicans and plan to stand in front of the Supreme Court at noon on Thursday and renew their demand that the Senate consider the president’s nominee, with hearings and a vote. Some Republicans say they won’t even hold a courtesy call with the nominee.
The choice of Sandoval would upend the political dynamic and challenge the GOP. Last week, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, said Nevadans should have a voice in approving a selection — which his aides said meant the next president, not Obama, should fill the vacancy. Heller’s written statement concluded, “But should he decide to nominate someone to the Supreme Court, who knows, maybe it’ll be a Nevadan.”
Liberal groups made clear within hours on Wednesday that they would have serious problems with the selection.
“Sandoval’s checkered history on reproductive freedom should raise some serious flags — it certainly has for us,” said NARAL Pro-Choice America in a statement.
Democracy for America said “nominating Sandoval to the Supreme Court would not only prevent grassroots organizations like Democracy for America from supporting the president in this nomination fight, it could lead us to actively encouraging Senate Democrats to oppose his appointment.”
Before Sandoval became the state’s first Hispanic governor, he was the state’s first Hispanic federal judge.
In Nevada, Sandoval’s critics have more often come from the right than from the left. In November 2012, he became the first Republican governor to expand Medicaid as part of Obama’s health care law, drawing fire from conservative members of his party.
Sandoval also has been criticized for raising taxes and most recently declining to join Nevada’s Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt in a federal lawsuit challenging new U.S. regulations protecting the sage grouse. He has argued that continued negotiations with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other members of the Obama administration have a better chance of resulting in an easing of the land-use restrictions for Nevada ranchers, miners and others than will a costly court battle that could drag on for years.
Limited to two terms, Sandoval’s final term as governor expires in early 2019. He announced last year that he would not seek the seat of retiring Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate minority leader, in this November’s election, a race in which Sandoval would have been a strong favorite.
“My heart is here. My heart is in my job,” Sandoval said at the time.
Mari St. Martin, Sandoval’s communications director, said Wednesday that the governor hasn’t been contacted by the White House.
“Neither Gov. Sandoval nor his staff has been contacted by or talked to the Obama administration regarding any potential vetting for the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court,” she said.
Sandoval met with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid on Monday in Washington while he was in town for a meeting of the National Governors Association.
At the governors’ meeting over the weekend, Sandoval said he was honored his name was mentioned as a potential successor for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, but had heard nothing to think the Democratic president is considering him.
Sandoval’s consideration immediately reverberated in the Nevada Senate race, where candidates are vying to replace Reid, who is retiring. Democratic Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto urged her Republican competitors to call for hearings if Sandoval is the pick.
“Voting on nominees is part of the job of being a senator, and if politicians in Washington have a problem with that they should find a new line of work,” she said.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said Wednesday that the leader’s office is working with the White House to schedule a meeting with the president, but the leader remains firm in his opposition.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the president is also hoping to meet with Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa.
Sandoval’s consideration was first reported by The Washington Post.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram in Washington and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada contributed to this report.