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For Senate Republicans, Kavanaugh’s confirmation a political imperative

Author: David M. Drucker, Washington Examiner - July 11, 2018 - Updated: July 26, 2018

President Donald Trump listens as Brett Kavanaugh, his Supreme Court nominee, speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House on July 9 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

For Senate Republicans, the rejection of President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, could foment a political disaster in the midterm elections.

The conservative grassroots base is cheering Kavanaugh’s selection to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy; they expect the Republican-controlled Senate to seal his confirmation before Election Day. Failure to deliver on this vital issue to the GOP base could depress voter turnout and jeopardize the party’s congressional majorities.

“If anybody defected it could have a chilling effect on base enthusiasm,” said a Republican strategist active in Senate races. “It’s hard to imagine we’ll reach our turnout goals if Republican voters spend the fall doubting the value of the Senate majority.”

At the outset, Senate Republicans are on track to confirm Kavanaugh, 53, over Democratic objections. Under Senate rules, a simple majority is sufficient to quash filibusters of judicial nominees. But their majority, just 51-49, is slim. With Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., away from Capitol Hill battling brain cancer, just two defections could sink the nomination if Democrats are unanimously opposed.

The situation has cast a spotlight on Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the two Republicans deemed most likely to jump ship. Both have signaled they would look askance at a Supreme Court nominee who might overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that ushered in abortion rights in all 50 states.

Yet neither appeared especially troubled by Kavanaugh’s nomination when cornered by reporters on Tuesday, although they emphasized their intention to vet the nominee thoroughly before deciding on his confirmation. There are no other serious threats to Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

“I do not apply an ideological test to their personal views. That’s why I voted for Justice Kagan, Justice Sotomayor, even though I don’t share the same political philosophy with them. But I found them well qualified to serve on the court. I made a similar determination with Justice Roberts and Justice Gorsuch,” Collins said.

She was referring to liberal Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, appointed by President Barack Obama; and conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed by President George W. Bush; and Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, appointed by Trump last year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been remarkably successful at holding his conference together on the confirmation of Trump’s judicial nominees. It’s not a tough sell. Republicans view the 2016 debate over which party should control the filling of a Supreme Court vacancy as the linchpin of the party’s victory that year in the battle for both the Senate and the White House.

So the high stakes for Senate Republicans are probably not lost on Murkowski, who values serving in the majority. On Election Night 2014, after it was clear Republicans had flipped the Senate after eight years of Democratic rule, Murkowski celebrated in an Anchorage hotel ballroom by waving a chair over her head and shouting, “I’m going to be chairman!”

However, she dismissed the political ramifications of the Kavanaugh confirmation when asked to comment.

“I find it interesting that that’s the question when this name has just been down now for, what, 10 hours? Twelve hours?” Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said. “Now, the tough job is to go to work. We’ve got some due diligence that we’ve got to do, and I think that’s Republicans and Democrats alike.”

The Republican majority in the House, under severe threat this fall, is relying on the upcoming Supreme Court battle to energize a sagging grassroots base and erase the Democrats’ critical edge in voter enthusiasm heading into a midterm election shaping up as a backlash against Trump.

Senate Republicans are shielded from these headwinds by an electoral map that features seats up for election in 10 states Trump won in 2016, among them approximately five that are decidedly conservative and still hold the president in high regard, a stark contrast to his standing in competitive House districts.

Democratic incumbents in these red states have a choice to make: Confirm Kavanaugh to satisfy their constituents and hope the bipartisan gesture is sufficient to win re-election, or oppose him to satisfy their liberal base and national network of donors and avoid risking an intraparty rebellion.

That predicament has encouraged Senate Republicans that they might grow their majority in an otherwise challenging midterm election for the party. But first, they have to do their part and get Kavanaugh across the finish line.

“I don’t think he’ll be rejected,” said Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party’s Senate campaign arm. “You’ve got red-state Democrats that are up for re-election this year that are going to be faced with some pretty significant challenges with this vote. I think it’s a hot potato.”

David M. Drucker, Washington Examiner