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Grassroots voices gear up for battle over Scalia replacement

Will political pressure sway senators on Scalia's replacement?
The U.S. flag flies at half-staff at the Supreme Court, Feb. 17, 2016, in honor of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last weekend at age 79. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
The U.S. flag flies at half-staff at the Supreme Court, Feb. 17, 2016, in honor of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last weekend at age 79.

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds the public evenly split on whether the Senate should vote on President Obama's pick to succeed Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, but progressive groups and Democrats say their ranks are fired up about pressuring vulnerable senators to allow an up or down vote. 

"I am amazed at how much concern, upsetness, flummoxedness -- how upset people are about this," New York Senator Chuck Schumer told reporters on a call organized by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which also included MoveOn and Color of Change. "And not just hardcore political people, but just average folks.... Grassroots voices are going to be the key to getting [Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell to do his job." 

RELATED: Will Obama look to California for Scalia replacement?

Hours after Scalia's death, McConnell issued a statement drawing a clear line in the sand. “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice," McConnell said. "Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,”

On the call, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal declared, "The simple fact is that this obstructionism is not sustainable." He said his Republican colleagues were already showing signs of reconsidering, pointing to recent, more measured comments from senators like Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley. After taking a hard-line stance Saturday against a vote, Grassley told reporters Tuesday, “I would wait until the nominee is made before I would make any decisions.” Other Republican senators, like North Carolina's Thom Tillis and Nevada's Dean Heller, have also signaled that they will at least look at a candidate. 

But with conservatives long primed to rally against what they see as the liberal destruction wrought by the court, any senator looking wobbly on Scalia's replacement can expect significant pushback from the right.

"I think the pressure is substantial," said Iowa conservative radio host Steve Deace. "I think it’s already begun. It’s the kind of issue that can be a spark to somebody losing a primary they have no business of losing." Grassley is up for re-election at age 82, having served in the Senate since 1980, but his only primary opponent is young conservative talk show host Robert Rees, who has so far gotten little traction. Still, Deace pointed to the fact that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated by a primary opponent in 2014. "This is the kind of issue that, if Grassley were to run afoul on it, could absolutely become a spark," Deace said, "particularly in a populist year where people are just tired of regular politicians."

Republican voters are reliably more angry at the court than liberals, a fury that is decades old and spans Roe v. Wade and Chief Justice John Roberts' dual defections on Obamacare. In a July NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted when decisions on nationalized health care and same sex marriage were fresh in conservatives' minds,  97 percent of Republican voters declared the Supreme Court too liberal. Only 53 percent of Democrats found it too conservative. And that was while Scalia still sat on the court.

Progressives are explicitly trying to liken the refusal to bring a nominee to a vote to the 2013 government shutdown. Both were spearheaded by presidential candidate and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whom Deace supports. The comparison doesn't worry Deace. "I don’t know, last time we had that Ted Cruz shut down, the very next election we had, we ended up with some of the biggest Republican gains," he said. 

Of course, that was a midterm election and an electorate that favored Republicans. Still, if these senators believe they have more to lose from their right flank than from their left, Obama's forthcoming nominee isn't going anywhere anytime soon.