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Mitch McConnell’s Kavanaugh calculation

Why the Senate majority leader keeps pushing so hard to confirm Brett Kavanaugh.

Mitch McConnell is pushing for a Brett Kavanaugh confirmation vote this week
Mitch McConnell is pushing for a Brett Kavanaugh confirmation vote this week.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prepared for a difficult Senate vote on repealing Obamacare last July, he had something else on his mind.

“I’d really like to get that Kennedy slot,” McConnell told his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, while they were walking in Washington. (Joe Perticone, a reporter for Business Insider, overheard the comment and tweeted it.) He made the comment nearly a year before Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement.

Fifteen months later, McConnell is finally close to fulfilling that ambition. By confirming Brett Kavanaugh, he’d lock in a solid conservative to replace Kennedy, the Court’s swing vote. When combined with McConnell’s successful blockade of Merrick Garland, last year’s confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, and the dozens of conservative lower court judges he’s gotten through, it would make for a remarkable legacy.

But the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh pose a threat to all this. The nominee, never all that popular, has now become intensely controversial. Senate Democrats now have an easy excuse for voting no, and it’s moderate Republicans who are facing enormous pressure and a difficult vote.

McConnell’s response? He’s vowed that he’ll go full steam ahead.

“In the very near future, Judge Kavanaugh will be on the United States Supreme Court,” McConnell said last month, just days after Christine Blasey Ford came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her. “My friends, keep the faith, don’t get rattled by all of this. We’re going to plow right through it and do our job.”

That is, before Ford even testified, McConnell was promising that Kavanaugh would be confirmed regardless of what she said. That his allies shouldn’t “get rattled” by a sexual assault allegation. And before the FBI has completed its new investigation of Kavanaugh, McConnell has continued to defend Kavanaugh — most recently insisting on a vote this week.

Who does Mitch McConnell care about?

The venue for McConnell’s “plow right through it” comment was telling. He made those remarks at the Values Voter Summit, a gathering of religious right activists, media figures, and politicians. Some were deep-pocketed donors; others were just conservative enthusiasts. But they were all a crucial part of the Republican coalition that’s worked to put McConnell in power and keep him there.

The religious right, megadonors, business groups, the Federalist Society network of conservative legal activists — they’re all part of McConnell’s team. McConnell has a deeply ingrained sense of what they want and sees part of his job as delivering it to them as best he can.

So when McConnell announced just hours after Justice Antonin Scalia’s February 2016 death that he wanted to hold that seat open until after the presidential election, Washington was shocked. Perhaps, some thought, he had gone too far. Preemptively refusing a hearing on anyone nominated by President Obama just seemed so ... unreasonable.

But McConnell fully understood how the prospect that Obama would replace one of the Court’s staunchest conservatives with a liberal struck terror into the hearts of so many on his team. He knew how important this was to so many of his most important supporters. He knew that the best way to protect his own purple-state Republican senators was to take any potential nomination off the table. And he knew that, should he make himself the face of this blockade, he would win enormous credibility on the right as a true fighter.

Still, it’s important to understand that McConnell took a real risk. Through much of 2016, Hillary Clinton was expected to win the presidential election, and Democrats were thought to have a 50-50 chance of retaking the Senate. If that had happened, Democrats could well have pushed through someone younger and more liberal than Merrick Garland. But instead of backfiring, Trump’s surprise win allowed it to pay off spectacularly.

McConnell’s team is not ready to give up on Brett Kavanaugh

An interesting wrinkle in this is that McConnell didn’t even want Trump to pick Kavanaugh. According to the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin, McConnell warned the White House that Kavanaugh’s “lengthy paper trail” from his work in the Bush White House made him a riskier pick than two other finalists on Trump’s shortlist, Judges Raymond Kethledge and Thomas Hardiman.

In the end, Kavanaugh’s paper trail didn’t prove to be a problem. Republicans set up a dubious process in which their political allies decided which Bush White House documents involving Kavanaugh would be disclosed. Democrats and liberals howled, calling it an unprecedentedly partisan Supreme Court vetting process. But McConnell (and, more importantly, the swing GOP senators) didn’t care.

So for a while, it all seemed to be going swimmingly. McConnell aimed to hold a vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination in September, a little over a month before the midterms. This looked like savvy politics — five Democratic senators on the ballot this fall represent states Trump won by double-digit margins. They’d either have to infuriate their state’s conservatives by refusing to back a qualified nominee or infuriate their own Democratic voters by backing Kavanaugh.

But Ford’s allegations have turned what looked like a political dream for Republicans into a nightmare. Now they’re no longer voting to confirm a conservative with impeccable credentials — they’ll be backing a man who’s been accused of sexual assault in the #MeToo era, when they’re already in deep trouble with well-educated women voters.

Red-state Democrats, meanwhile, can cite the allegations as an easily understandable reason for voting no (though it should be noted that Republicans still hope the controversy will help them out in some key Senate races). And even if Kavanaugh is successfully confirmed in the end, he’s become so toxic that he may well damage the Court’s legitimacy for decades.

Considering all that, one might wonder why Republicans are sticking by Kavanaugh. Wouldn’t withdrawing his nomination, and putting up another conservative who’s not plagued by scandal, be far more ... reasonable?

Not to McConnell. His team — Trump, White House counsel Don McGahn, the Federalist Society, the religious right, and conservative donors — still wants Kavanaugh on the court. Or at least they don’t want to give up on him without a fight. So once again, McConnell seems to see his job as trying to make that happen.

In the end, it’s possible that swing vote Republicans like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski will sink Kavanaugh. But unless and until they do, McConnell will work his hardest to try to convince them to vote yes. And publicly, he will betray no sign of hesitation or second-guessing on Kavanaugh. His team simply wouldn’t stand for it.