Kavanaugh’s confirmation is still not certain, but we have evidence Thursday that senators on the fence are leaning toward voting for him after getting the FBI to spend a few days looking into the allegations. “It appears to be a very thorough investigation,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told reporters Thursday — checking one of the main requirements for her vote.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who set the supplemental FBI investigation in motion, seemed satisfied with the FBI report, too. “We’ve seen no additional corroborating information,” he told reporters after reviewing the report.
If Kavanaugh gets on the court, McConnell will have cemented a huge legacy by reshaping the judicial branch. In the past 2½ years, he has made three big gambles to get his way in Supreme Court battles — and by the end of this week, he may be able to claim victory on all three.
Gamble No. 1: Holding up Merrick Garland
Hours after the world learned that Justice Antonin Scalia died in February 2016, McConnell made the risky decision not to vote on whomever Obama nominated.
He was making himself single-handedly responsible for leaving a vacancy on the Supreme Court for more than a year, a highly unusual (though not unconstitutional) thing to do. He also had to gamble that the Republican nominee would win the presidency — a proposition that seemed to become extra dicey when Donald Trump became that nominee.
Everything McConnell hoped for happened, and now he can claim credit for maintaining the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 conservative balance, a balance that ultimately held up Trump’s travel ban.
Gamble No. 2: Getting rid of the filibuster to get Trump’s pick on the bench
Having blocked Obama’s pick, the next battle for McConnell was how to get Trump’s pick, Neil M. Gorsuch, on the Supreme Court. Democrats had the votes they needed to block Gorsuch, so McConnell would have to pull the plug on the Senate’s centuries-old practice of requiring 60 votes to confirm a Supreme Court nominee.
McConnell, a student of the Senate’s arcane rules, would go down in the history books for undoing the one rule that makes the Senate unique from the House. Just a few years earlier, Democrats cleared the way for him to do that by ending the ability to filibuster on all nominees except for Supreme Court nominees.
McConnell also had to bet that he would have enough Republican votes to end the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees. In the end, he went for getting rid of it, and it worked. Gorsuch got on the court over Democratic objections, and McConnell never blinked the whole time. “There are any number of ways this could end,” he said in the thick of the debate. “But what I will tell you is — we are going to get this judge confirmed.”
Gamble No. 3: Not hesitating to back Kavanaugh after he was accused of sexual misconduct
When Justice Anthony M. Kennedy announced this summer that he was retiring, Republicans suddenly had a chance to bolster the court’s conservative majority, possibly for a generation. But to maximize political benefit, they had to hurry to get it done before November’s congressional elections.
McConnell didn’t want Kavanaugh to be Trump’s pick. There’s no evidence that McConnell feared anything like what Kavanaugh has faced, but McConnell did recognize that Kavanaugh was a George W. Bush White House employee with too much of a paper trail to have a smooth, expeditious confirmation.
Sure enough, Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in September were contentious as Republicans raced to review and release pertinent documents in time, even dumping some the night before the hearings commenced. But Kavanaugh finished the hearings appearing to have won over the senators he needed support from. On the week voting was going to start for Kavanaugh, all hell broke loose for McConnell when Christine Blasey Ford publicly accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school. Again, McConnell set a plan and never blinked. As Ford’s allegation was still being processed by the nation, he reflexively backed Kavanaugh. As Ford’s Senate hearing neared and some Republicans tried to pitch themselves as having an open mind, McConnell said this: “In the very near future, Judge Kavanaugh will be on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
As I wrote at the time: There is no way to read McConnell’s comment other than that the Ford allegation didn’t matter to him, at least not when he’s so close to fulfilling his goal of firming up the installation of a staunch conservative on the Supreme Court weeks before an election.
Now that Kavanaugh and Ford have testified, polls suggest that more Americans believe Ford over Kavanaugh. But McConnell is not backing down. He has consistently tried to lump Ford’s story in with other, less credible ones while perhaps disingenuously accusing Democrats of bringing the allegation up at the last minute. Even on Thursday morning, as things were leaning his way, he called the claims against Kavanaugh an “outrageous smear conducted in conjunction with Senate Democrats.”
The day before, an NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll suggested that McConnell’s efforts to make Democrats the boogeymen for Kavanaugh’s struggling nomination were working. There was a big jump from July to October among Republican voters who said November’s elections were “very important,” virtually erasing the enthusiasm momentum that Democrats had. It doesn’t guarantee that Republicans will keep control of Congress in November, but it does give Senate Republicans in tough races momentum and hope.
Three times since February 2016, McConnell has played hardball to get what he wants on the Supreme Court. And it has worked out magnificently for him, especially if Kavanaugh gets confirmed by the end of this week.