What Price Alito?

As the Senate moved this week toward the anticipated vote to confirm Samuel Alito, a resident of far-off North Dakota was likely to watch a heavily aired television ad. A female announcer read this:

"Along with Democrats and Republicans, newspapers across America — the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, the Fargo Forum — are endorsing Judge Samuel Alito for the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet, politically motivated liberal extremists like Ted Kennedy continue to attack Alito. Sen. Kent Conrad will soon cast his vote. Call Sen. Conrad and tell him to vote yes on Judge Alito and stand with mainstream America, not Ted Kennedy."

Conrad, a powerful figure in the Senate as ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, normally experiences no difficulty in making up his mind to express firm opinions. But not on the Alito confirmation. He scheduled an extra meeting with the judge on Friday, and his staff said an internal meeting to decide his vote would be held later that morning. Facing re-election this year in the very red state of North Dakota, Conrad may be wondering what political price he might pay to vote no on Alito.

The Democratic leadership has made a calculated decision to follow Kennedy and liberal pressure groups in opposition to Alito. Sen. Ben Nelson, up for re-election in Nebraska, at this writing is the Senate’s only Democrat to endorse Alito. Regarding this opposition as a political decision, conservative strategists are determined to play politics themselves this year against Democrats — particularly red state senators who oppose Alito.

That has opened the door for conservatives to turn the Alito confirmation into a political asset in the 2006 elections. Two unnamed donors have contributed $100,000 for current TV ads in the Dakotas to influence Democrats Kent Conrad and Tim Johnson. These same contributors, who spent $4.5 million in the 2004 election cycle, have privately committed $5 million against the re-election of red state Democrats who actually vote against Alito.

Conrad and his North Dakota colleague Byron Dorgan, Bill Nelson of Florida, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Ken Salazar of Colorado, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas are red state Democrats who voted to confirm Chief Justice John Roberts. While Roberts is no less conservative than Alito and was markedly less forthcoming in answering Senate Judiciary Committee questions, these Democrats who voted for the chief justice have been under intense pressure from the Left to oppose Alito.

All such senators may be willing to risk a politically unpopular "no" vote, partly thanks to disappointing Senate Republican candidate recruitment this year. With party leaders unable to convince popular Republican Gov. John Hoeven to run in North Dakota, Conrad does not yet even have an opponent. Florida Republican leaders did not get the candidate they wanted with Rep. Katherine Harris running far behind, enabling Bill Nelson to surprise many colleagues by announcing opposition to Alito. However, conservative money now will pour into both Florida and North Dakota.

Politicizing the confirmation vote also poses problems for prominent Democratic non-incumbent candidates. Pennsylvania State Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., the nominally pro-life opponent of Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, is keeping quiet about Alito. He will be bombarded on this point in weeks to come. In New Jersey, newly appointed Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez does not have Casey’s luxury of neutrality on Alito. He is expected to vote no, threatening Italo-American votes against him this year in favor of Republican Thomas Kean (son of the former governor).

Alito strategists were delighted this week when "Friends of John Kerry" dispatched over the whole country an e-mail signed by the 2004 presidential nominee. That facilitates the conservative tactic of linking Conrad with Kennedy and Kerry in the minds of North Dakotans if he votes against Alito.

"We can’t trust [Alito] to defend mainstream American values," contended Kerry’s letter. The contention that President Bush’s nominee is outside the "mainstream" is the major talking point against Alito, but polls show support for him and his endorsement of spousal abortion notification. That debate’s outcome may determine whether senators who vote against Alito will suffer at the polls this year and in the years ahead.