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Progressives split on Merrick Garland as pick for Supreme Court

The left is unanimous that the moderate Merrick Garland should get a hearing. But how hard activists will work on his behalf is unclear. And it could matter.

President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court sets up a battle royale with Senate Republicans, who have pledged not to move on any White House nominee in an election year.

Conservatives are already demanding that the GOP hold the line by refusing even to schedule a hearing for Garland, a former prosecutor and the chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, progressive groups, including those that are often Obama allies, face a trickier question: Should they work energetically on behalf of Garland’s nomination, given his reputation as a judicial moderate? A Justice Garland would be expected to vote with the liberals more often than not, but he’s not seen as someone who will help shift the court in a progressive direction over the long-term.

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Does it matter? After all, if Republicans stick to their vow to block any Obama nominee, what kind of justice he’d be is a moot point. Still, the fight over his nomination could have big political implications. If activists on the left sit it out, it could make it harder for Democrats to use the issue against the GOP in swing Senate races this fall — and even in the presidential race, as they’re eager to do. It also could further reduce the chances of getting Republicans to reconsider their hard-line stance.

As of early afternoon Wednesday, progressives appeared split. There’s nearly universal agreement on the left that Republicans should hold hearings. But some progressives aren’t happy with the pick.

Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America, a progressive activist group launched by Howard Dean, called the choice of Garland “deeply disappointing,” adding: “This selection will make it harder to excite grassroots progressive about the slog ahead." And Kurt Walters of the online advocacy group Demand Progress said Obama had “missed the opportunity to solidify his legacy by appointing a true progressive.” Another grassroots group on the left, CREDO, said Garland wasn't likely to be a "progressive champion," but that he's "clearly qualified."

Still, plenty of others, especially groups with stronger ties to the Democratic establishment, were supportive. Americans United for Change, a close White House ally, said Garland has “impeccable credentials.” NARAL Pro Choice America called Garland “an accomplished jurist,” though it said it wanted to hear more about his views on abortion. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has sought to push Democrats to the left, launched an online petition calling on Republicans to give Garland a hearing. And even, often a voice of outspoken progressive activism, said Obama had “fulfilled his constitutional duty” by nominating Garland, and called on Republicans to "abandon their unprecedented obstruction.”

On the other side, Garland’s moderate credentials don’t appear to have weakened conservatives’ determination to deny him consideration. “No hearing, no vote,” announced FreedomWorks, the Koch-funded advocacy group, adding: “This debate is over the process, not the nominee.”

So far, Republican leaders are on the same page. Senate Judiciary chair Chuck Grassley reiterated in a statement that the Senate intended not to support the nomination, adding: “The American people shouldn’t be denied a voice.” And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the Senate floor Wednesday morning to make a similar case.   

Shortly after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, which opened up the seat on the court, an array of conservative groups has been mobilizing against any Obama nominee. McConnell and Grassley reportedly met at the Capitol early this month to plot strategy with the National Rifle Association, Heritage Action, the Judicial Crisis Network, and National Right to Life, among others.

RELATED: RNC launches campaign to oppose Obama's Supreme Court pick

As the various sides stake out their positions, lurking just beneath the surface is the unfolding presidential race. If Donald Trump emerges as the Republican nominee and looks likely to lose to Hillary Clinton, that could shift the thinking of at least some Republican leaders. Better to grit their teeth and accept the moderate, 63-year-old Garland, they may calculate, than to give Clinton the chance to make a far more liberal pick, with a fresh mandate from voters. But that same situation could weaken Democratic support for Garland, making progressives more willing to take a chance on letting Clinton choose a younger and more liberal nominee.

Already, Democrats are looking to use the issue to portray vulnerable Republican senators as obstructionists, and to tie them to Trump. “Kelly Ayotte wants Donald Trump to pick the next SCOTUS nominee,” a pro-Democratic Super PAC charged Wednesday, announcing an ad-buy targeting the New Hampshire senator. Another vulnerable GOPer, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, has broken with his party’s leadership, saying in a statement he’ll consider Garland’s nomination on the merits. Ayotte and others may feel pressure to do likewise.

In other words, as this unpredictable political year plays out, this story could take a few more twists and turns yet.