There’s some irony to the urgency being expressed by Republican members of the Senate pushing for a sooner-rather-than-later vote on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh. After all, it was only two years ago that the Republican majority in the Senate ignored a nominee offered by President Barack Obama, citing the proximity of the 2016 election as a reason to hold off on considering Merrick Garland for the high court.
That irony is not lost on opponents of Kavanaugh’s nomination, of course, many of whom now question why senators such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) insist that “a committee vote be taken ASAP.” What, they ask, is the rush?
It’s important to note that, compared with other recent court nominations, Kavanaugh’s isn’t moving at a particularly quick pace. The past six successful nominations to the court took an average of 73 days from nomination to confirmation by the full Senate. Kavanaugh’s bid is on its 72nd day as of Thursday.
In most of those past six nominations, the Senate Judiciary Committee had already made its recommendation to the full Senate. That’s the step that was scheduled for Thursday but was postponed until the committee could evaluate the new allegations by Christine Blasey Ford about an sexual assault she says Kavanaugh committed in 1982. Were the committee to vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination next Tuesday, it would come only two days later than the same vote during the nomination process for Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
The successful nomination process that lasted the longest in recent history was that of Justice Clarence Thomas, who similarly faced allegations casting doubt on his behavior. If the Kavanaugh nomination were to take as long as Thomas’s, it would stretch until Oct. 17.
Or: Less than three weeks before the midterm election.
That, of course, is probably the reason Graham and other Republicans want to wrap this up sooner rather than later. This nomination fight comes much closer to the next federal elections than other recent nomination fights.
Only the nomination fight over former justice David H. Souter came closer to a presidential or midterm election than Kavanaugh’s has so far.
As we noted this week, Kavanaugh’s nomination has far less support than that of most recent nominees, a function, in part, of his low support among women. Although polling suggests that the new allegations haven’t hurt Kavanaugh’s chances, it seems fair to assume that continuing to fight over Kavanaugh (or a replacement nominee) close to Election Day might help motivate Democrats and women to vote, particularly in close Senate races. It might help motivate Republicans, too, of course, but Republicans generally turn out more reliably in midterm elections than Democrats do.
The nature of this year’s election adds another level of complexity to the subject. In past years, even in nomination fights that culminated close to Election Day, the results of the Senate contests didn’t make a significant difference to the results of a court nomination.
An exception is the nomination of Antonin Scalia, which was resolved 48 days before the 1986 midterms, in which President Ronald Reagan’s party lost eight seats and the Senate majority. But that was in an era where the minority in the Senate could filibuster court nominees, a rule that was changed last year to facilitate the confirmation of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch. Scalia needed 60 votes anyway, making the results of the election less important.
It was also an era in which presidents were given a lot more leeway on court picks by the opposition; Scalia received 98 votes of support. That era has passed; court nominations have grown increasingly contentious, making every Senate seat important in determining who ends up on the bench.
Is Kavanaugh’s nomination being rushed? That’s a subjective question. It is the case, though, that an effort to resolve the question raised by Ford doesn’t seem to be spurring Republicans to want to take their time moving forward.
Republicans are very aware of the looming election. As they were after the nomination of Merrick Garland two years ago.