Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, center, waits with other GOP senators Thursday before a news conference at the Capitol in Washington. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

WASHINGTON — Minutes after Mitch McConnell threatened to hold yet another Supreme Court seat open if he reclaims the role of Senate majority leader, Democratic candidates aspiring to join the body jumped on the warning as a rallying cry for their candidacies.

“Let’s make damn sure he’s not,” tweeted John Fetterman, one of the leading candidates to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. A donation link to his campaign website accompanied the retort.

“Folks, we need to expand our Senate majority to stop Mitch McConnell. Our best chance is by defeating Ron Johnson and flipping Wisconsin’s Senate seat,” replied Sarah Godlewski, a Democratic Senate candidate in Wisconsin.

“Mitch McConnell will trample our democracy if it means getting more power for himself. We can’t let that happen,” said Cheri Beasley, a Democrat running for the open seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Richard Burr. “Flip North Carolina, and we keep Mitch in the minority.”

The rapid-response appeals to McConnell’s pronouncement were an easy way to haul in tens of thousands of dollars in donations. Even some House Democratic incumbents sought to capitalize on liberal exasperation with McConnell and angst over the possibility of a conservative Supreme Court moving even further to the right.

“I need your help to stop Mitch McConnell’s plan,” said California Rep. Josh Harder in a fundraising appeal, even though as a House member he can do close to nothing to impact whatever a new Republican Senate majority chooses to do.

But in conversations with Democratic campaign aides, few saw the Supreme Court rocketing up voters’ issue lists in 2022 — even as progressive activists seek to elevate the high court’s fate as a cause as elemental to democracy itself.

For now, McConnell’s broadside is largely an animating factor for liberal activists and highly engaged donors, these Democratic aides say. Voters, they contend, are still primarily focused on their health and economic hardships as the country continues to climb out of the pandemic.

“I definitely think it’s an activist thing,” said Martha McKenna, a veteran Democratic Senate strategist. “It’s a separate conversation about voters.”

The strategic play for campaigns is making the court issue about McConnell, who remains one of the least popular political figures in the country, both among Democrats and Republicans.

“There’s no downside to banging on McConnell,” McKenna said. “By now, our base voters totally understand how he changes the rules and takes total control around the issues of the court. Mitch McConnell thinks he’s more important than the Supreme Court. He thinks he has total control over who gets to the Supreme Court. I think it’s more about McConnell.”

A growing number of progressives are trying to alter that calculation to make the Supreme Court and judicial nominations as big of a political priority among Democrats as they have been for McConnell.

Three leading progressive groups — Indivisible, Sunrise Movement and Working Families Party — are set to announce that they will include a new question on their candidate surveys about expanding the Supreme Court to determine 2022 endorsements. They cite academic data showing little electoral effect if a candidate endorses electoral expansion.

Still, legislation in the House and Senate that would lift the number of high court justices from nine to 13 faces the longest odds in a Congress still struggling to come together around infrastructure spending.

But Aaron Belkin, director of the liberal Take Back the Court, said that candidates should embrace the proposal as a way to showcase their willingness to combat McConnell.

“He fully intends to drive democracy into a ditch to preserve Republican minority rule,” Belkin said of McConnell. “He’s never had to pay a price for overreach … he’s never had to pay a price for flaunting norms.”

McConnell defended his decision to hold open the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia this week by arguing that different parties controlled the White House and the Senate in 2016.

“I was very much aware of the fact that when you had divided government, there had not been a nominee confirmed by a Senate of a different party from the president since the 1880s,” McConnell said.

That could be the scenario again in 2023 and 2024 if Republicans return to Senate control with President Joe Biden in the second half of his first term. The minority leader is just making it clear this time he’s willing to take the arrows again if it means the shot at another high court seat.

As former President Donald Trump lingers on the sidelines ahead of 2024, McConnell remains the more imminent threat to Democrats as he attempts to return to power in 2023. He’s an easy foil to tether to GOP candidates and incumbents.

“With Mitch McConnell taking this clear partisan, Washington-is-broken gridlock step, it couldn’t be easier to show how they are that motivating figure again,” said Jeremy Busch, a spokesperson for Godlewski, the Wisconsin candidate.

McKenna said Democratic candidates don’t need to endorse more liberal proposals like expanding the court in order to talk about significant issues that sit before the court like reproductive rights and voting accessibility.

“No,” she said. “Make it about McConnell.”

Story by David Catanese, McClatchy Washington Bureau.