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Mitch McConnell is laser-focused on jamming through more judges

He sent a warning shot to Democrats by citing Kavanaugh’s effect on the election.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) Speaks To The Media Day After Midterm Elections Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan after holding on to the Senate: push through more judges.

Speaking the day after the midterms, McConnell took a victory lap on the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, taking an I-told-you-so position and implying that Democrats’ objections are why they lost a slew of key states.

“We were worried about lack of intensity on our side, and I think that the Kavanaugh fight certainly provided that,” McConnell said.

Democrats have opposed some of Trump’s judicial nominees, and McConnell’s comments appeared to offer a veiled message to this pushback. If they kept blocking nominees, he seemed to say, it could put their party in a bad position ahead of 2020.

“It’s noteworthy that the one Democrat in a red state who survived voted for Kavanaugh ... Joe Manchin,” he said. (At the time of McConnell’s remarks, the Arizona and Montana Senate races had yet to be called and Florida was headed to a recount.)

The argument is not exactly bulletproof. But it’s just the latest indicator that McConnell plans to jam through as many judges as possible.

There are some holes in McConnell’s argument

McConnell’s efforts to tie a set of red-state victories to voter discontent over the handling of the Kavanaugh confirmation obscures the fact that Democrats were on track to lose in several of these states before the Kavanaugh saga. It also doesn’t account for the red-state Democrats who won in the wake of their opposition to him.

Take Indiana, North Dakota, and Missouri, for example. These are all red states that were held and lost by Democratic incumbents this cycle, but Sens. Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, and Claire McCaskill, respectively, were already polling closely with their challengers even before the Kavanaugh confirmation took place. Conversely, Manchin — who ended up winning and voted in favor of Kavanaugh’s nomination — had been consistently beating his Republican challenger since earlier this year.

As Pod Save America’s Jon Favreau also pointed out, several Democratic incumbents voted against Kavanaugh but still managed to successfully defend themselves in states that Trump won in 2016, including Debbie Stabenow, Tammy Baldwin, and Jon Tester. The outcomes across these races seem to indicate that Kavanaugh could have been a factor in the midterms, but that many of these states were already trending a certain way prior to his confirmation.

In North Dakota, for example, things were looking so grim for Heitkamp that she even acknowledged a potential defeat before she cast her Kavanaugh confirmation vote. “If this were a political decision for me. I certainly would be deciding the other way,” she said at the time. “History will judge you, but most importantly, you will judge yourself.”

Early exit polls also signaled that a sizable proportion of voters perceived the Kavanaugh confirmation negatively. These polls found that almost half of voters opposed the Senate’s approval of Kavanaugh — although this sentiment likely differed state by state.

Why this argument matters for Republicans

Making this Kavanaugh argument stick matters for McConnell because it’s his chance to set the stage for his much-touted goal of confirming more of Trump’s judicial nominees. If he can effectively levy the case that blocking judicial nominees could hurt Democrats in elections down the line, it’s possible he could compel members of the minority to think twice about obstructionist tactics as they determine how best to combat Trump’s onslaught on the judiciary.

Trump echoed this point in a White House event on Wednesday, noting, “Candidates who embraced our message of ... low crime, strong borders, and great judges excelled last night. They excelled.”

Put another way, Trump seemed to signal that candidates who don’t embrace this message, one that focuses on “great judges,” could put themselves at risk.