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The very simple reason Republicans are fighting so hard for Brett Kavanaugh

Republicans can’t risk demoralizing their voters by pulling the nomination.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shakes hands with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as he arrives with Vice President Mike Pence.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Even after Christine Blasey Ford’s compelling testimony Thursday that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school, Senate Republicans show no signs of slowing his nomination.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and other Republican senators ferociously defended Kavanaugh at Thursday’s remarkable and dramatic hearing. President Donald Trump was said to be hugely pleased with Kavanaugh’s performance. Republican leaders are saying his nomination will continue apace to the Senate floor for a confirmation vote.

Neither Ford’s testimony nor other allegations of sexual misconduct have dissuaded Republicans.

Christine Blasey Ford had already been scheduled to testify Thursday regarding an incident in which she alleges Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her as a teenager when Deborah Ramirez came forward with new allegations of sexual misconduct, first reported by the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer. Republicans didn’t bat an eye. According to the New Yorker, unnamed Republican staffers knew about the allegations ahead of publication, even as their party sought to push forward with Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

This might seem like poor political calculus, to move forward with the confirmation of a potentially damaged individual. But Republicans aren’t being irrational. While Democrats are appalled, Republicans are listening to a different drummer: the conservative grassroots. Those voters want their Supreme Court justice confirmed, or else they are threatening to stay home on Election Day — and that really could put the Republican majority at risk.

Evangelicals are maybe the single cohort most loyal to Trump and therefore crucial in midterm elections, which will be a referendum on the president. They were already warning Republicans not to withdraw Kavanaugh or else risk electoral disaster before Ramirez came forward. They don’t sound likely to change course now.

“If Republicans were to fail to defend and confirm such an obviously and eminently qualified and decent nominee,” evangelical leader Ralph Reed told the New York Times last week, “then it will be very difficult to motivate and energize faith-based and conservative voters in November.”

The very end of Kavanaugh’s hearing, an exchange with Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), only amplified this point. Kennedy asked Kavanaugh to “swear to God” he did not assault Ford, and he did.

Republicans are already favored to hold on to their Senate majority, and possibly increase it, after this year’s elections. There are several Democrats running in states that Trump won, and a fresh Supreme Court nomination was initially thought to put red-state Democrats in a tough spot.

But now that Kavanaugh has been publicly accused of sexual misconduct by at least three women, the conservative base sees a longtime dream of a permanent conservative majority on the nation’s highest court slipping away — and so they are pressuring Republicans to hold firm and confirm him anyway. So far, the GOP is listening.

Republicans need their base to show up for the midterms — or they’re screwed

The theory that ramming Kavanaugh through would hurt Republicans in the November elections has a certain superficial logic. Kavanaugh is a historically unpopular nominee by a very unpopular president. He’s accused of sexually assaulting a young woman and waving his penis in front of another amid a 2018 campaign defined by the electoral strength and energy of Democratic women. Young and progressive women will drive any blue wave we see this year, mobilized by their opposition to Trump and his toxic attitude toward women.

Everything about the Kavanaugh situation would seem to fuel that fire further. So why are Senate Republicans stubbornly moving ahead?

They have their own voters to worry about. Democratic enthusiasm is a given at this point, and the challenge will be for Democrats to convince less reliable voters to turn out. But Republicans are banking on their older, whiter, conservative base to show up as they usually do — and those voters want their Supreme Court justices.

“A SCOTUS nomination is always a base driver for both sides,” one Republican operative working on a closely watched campaign told me recently. “I think it still is — maybe even more now. My guess is the Republican base will be fired up by this. And the Democratic base certainly will be fired up. So I’m not sure the political calculation changes much.”

Kavanaugh has been the most polarizing Supreme Court nominee in recent history. Earlier this month, before Ford’s allegations became public, a full 78 percent of Republicans said he should be confirmed by the Senate, though just 38 percent of the overall public shared that view, according to a Washington Post–ABC News poll.

In an NBC-WSJ poll conducted after Ford’s story became known, 69 percent of Republicans still said they supported his nomination. As Vox’s Alvin Chang reported, GOP men saw a brief dip in support for Kavanaugh, but it quickly started to recover; GOP women didn’t change their feelings at all after Ford’s allegations.

Republican voters in general do not find Ford very credible, which gives their politicians more freedom to plow through the controversy and confirm Kavanaugh over Democratic objections.

Alvin Chang/Vox

The New York Times captured the feelings of evangelical leaders, including Reed, last week:

The evangelical leaders’ pleas are, in part, an attempt to apply political pressure: Some of them are warning that religious conservatives may feel little motivation to vote in the midterm elections unless Senate Republicans move the nomination out of committee soon and do more to defend Judge Kavanaugh from what they say is a desperate Democratic ploy to prevent President Trump from filling future court vacancies.

“One of the political costs of failing to confirm Brett Kavanaugh is likely the loss of the United States Senate,” said Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition who is in frequent contact with the White House.

The election this year is about which base is the most motivated, and the Republican base wants Kavanaugh.

Senate Republicans already have a good chance of keeping their majority

Republicans may also be a little more willing to play hardball because they are already favorites to hold the Senate next year. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight Senate forecast gives Republicans a 2-in-3 chance of holding on to the Senate. They are even money — 50 percent — to either keep the 51 seats they have now or gain at least one seat and expand their majority to 52 senators or more. It is as likely as not that Republicans will have the same amount of wiggle room — or more — in the Senate in 2019.

If you just took the Real Clear Politics polling averages as of Friday, Republicans would have a 51-48 majority, with Tennessee a dead-even toss-up.

Neither of the swing GOP votes on Kavanaugh — Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) — are up for reelection this year, so that softens any pressure to fold as a purely political strategy. Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), the most vulnerable GOP incumbent, is not really entertaining the idea of voting “no” after Ford’s allegations — even offering his own assessment that the scandal was merely a “hiccup.” (He did walk that back a bit later.)

Republicans also want a 5-4 conservative majority when the Supreme Court begins to hear cases in October; Senate Republican leaders have little reason to waver.

Now it all comes down to moderate Republicans

Officially, Republicans wanted to hear out Ford in Thursday’s hearing. But they seemed content to let Ford speak, perhaps a recognition that the public will certainly take charges of sexual misconduct seriously in the age of #MeToo, and then get on with a vote. They also appear perfectly comfortable turning the story of a Republican Supreme Court nominee allegedly sexually assaulting his high school acquaintance into a tale that is actually about Democratic malfeasance.

After the testimony, Republicans seemed more or less united on confirming Kavanaugh — save two moderate Republicans: Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

Retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who had been seen as a possible swing vote, said he left the hearing with “as much doubt as certainty” and said he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh.

The he-said-she-said nature of the hearing is exactly the game Republicans want to play. Muddying the story and keeping the nomination moving is the strategy.

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