Supreme Court vacancy will bring social issues into greater focus in campaigns so far dominated by coronavirus and race.
United States President Donald Trump has indicated that he will announce his nominee for the Supreme Court at the end of the week, intensifying an already nail-biting campaign for the presidency on November 3.
Behind in the polls against Democratic opponent Joe Biden and widely criticised for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump is seizing on the sudden vacancy on the country’s highest court as a way to change the subject and super-charge his right-wing base.
“We’ll make a decision probably Saturday, maybe Friday,” Trump told reporters as he campaigned in the US state of Ohio. He says he will choose between five female candidates.
The death on Friday of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stripped the court of one of its steadiest liberal votes.
With a chance to name his third new justice since entering the White House, Trump is now on the cusp of installing a firmly conservative majority for many years to come.
Biden is leading calls for the Republican-controlled Senate to delay voting on a nominee until the results of the November 3 election are known, arguing that to rush through confirmation before the polls would be an “abuse of power”.
But Trump made clear on Monday that he has no qualms about flexing his political muscles and his allies in the Senate have said they intend to deliver.
There is “overwhelming precedent behind the fact that this Senate will vote on this nomination this year”, said Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, dismissing comparisons to the time when he refused in 2016 to vote on a replacement nominated by President Barack Obama for the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
Ginsburg is to lie in repose for public viewing at the Supreme Court on Wednesday and Thursday, and will lie in state on Friday in the national statuary hall of the US Capitol, where an invitation-only ceremony is planned.
She will be buried next week in a private ceremony in Arlington, near the capital Washington.
Trump said he would wait to announce his nominee until after memorial services have been completed, but that he would move full speed ahead afterwards.
“The final vote should be taken before the election. We have plenty of time for that,” Trump said earlier on Monday in an interview with Fox News.
Trump cited fears that a court with only eight judges could end up in a 4-4 split on rulings following what is likely to be a close and contentious election.
“We don’t want to have a tie,” Trump said.
He rejected Democratic complaints, saying if they “were in the same position there is zero chance that they wouldn’t do it”.
“They wouldn’t even talk about it. They’d say ‘you’re crazy.'”
Trump confirmed that two women – Judge Amy Coney Barrett and Judge Barbara Lagoa – feature prominently on his short list. He also noted Lagoa is a Hispanic-American from Florida, a state that by some projections he has to win if he has any hope of securing a second term.
Analysts say that a Supreme Court nomination saga could also shift attention away from the coronavirus pandemic, which has already killed nearly 200,000 Americans.
But there are also risks for Trump.
Ginsburg was an icon to the left and the fight to replace her with a conservative during an election race that Biden is currently leading might stir Democrats even more than Republicans.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 62 percent of Americans, including one in two Republicans, think the vacant court seat should be filled only after the election.
In another potential warning sign to gung-ho Republicans, the Democratic fundraising group ActBlue reported Sunday that small donors had given a total of $100m since Ginsburg’s death.