It feels a bit odd to use such an emotionally fraught situation to look ahead at the political futures of those involved. But how politicians navigated the drama of the past three weeks will undoubtedly shape how many of the political players in it are viewed going forward in their careers — and perhaps long after.
Who strengthened their brand
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): He initially didn’t prefer that President Trump pick Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court vacancy, but he was going to confirm Kavanaugh come hell or high water. McConnell relentlessly stuck by Kavanaugh, using his position to argue that the judge’s troubles were driven by Democrats. That seems to have resonated with his base. And McConnell may just have cemented his legacy as the transformer of the U.S. judicial system to a much more conservative lean.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.): “[This is] the most despicable thing I’ve seen in my time in politics.” With a five-minute tirade late in the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing, Graham simultaneously made it okay for frustrated Republicans to question out loud Kavanaugh’s accuser, sealed his reputation as one of Trump’s most loyal defenders and made himself a hero among conservatives who wanted a voice for their frustration at that moment.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.): The retiring senator was responsible for one of the only moments of bipartisanship in this whole affair. Flake orchestrated a week-long delay in the Kavanaugh vote to allow for the FBI to look into the accusations against the nominee. It’s up for debate how meaningful that was, but Flake brought a brief detente to a chaotic process.
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.): It was Flake’s Democratic Party buddy Coons who cracked open the door to the compromise by offering it in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. When it was Flake’s turn to speak, he got up, tapped Coons on the shoulder and thus began the negotiations. Coons later teared up talking about that moment, and the previously under-the-radar senator became a household name for Americans obsessively following the debate.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.): The mild-mannered senator showed why she’s named alongside more bombastic senators as a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. Her careful, polite questioning revealed Kavanaugh’s anger over the matter of whether he ever drank to the blackout stage — and produced a viral moment that later led to a Kavanaugh apology.
Sexual assault survivors: Ask any senator who is willing to talk about it, and you’ll hear that they got bombarded with stories like Ford’s, of survivors who held their stories in for years, even decades. “I had no idea that they had been the victims of sexual attacks,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said of people who shared their stories with her. After Ford’s testimony, many victims' long-held secrets are being shared in the open now, including with some of the most powerful people in the country.
Who came off the worse for wear
Kavanaugh: Anytime you have a former Supreme Court justice saying you aren’t fit for the court, you have a reputation problem. Kavanaugh’s struggles with his judicial contemporaries came not from the original accusation of sexual assault but from how he defended himself against it: Angry, partisan, even conspiratorial. Kavanaugh tried to course-correct by writing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which said he “might have been too emotional at times” and promising he would be an independent judge.
Michael Avenatti: The lawyer for Stormy Daniels and possible 2020 Democratic presidential candidate expertly maneuvered Daniels’s case to the national forefront. But he botched a delicate situation when representing a third Kavanaugh accuser, Julie Swetnick. He hit the media circuit for days, teasing a new client, then presented a sworn affidavit from Swetnick alleging that Kavanaugh was an accomplice to gang rape in high school; Swetnick later backed off that in a TV interview. In explaining her decisive vote for Kavanaugh, Collins described Swetnick’s allegation as “outlandish.” Avenatti, perhaps more than anyone else, handed Republicans a potent argument that Democrats were just making up accusations.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.): The top Senate Democrat on the Judiciary Committee has been criticized by some members of her own party for holding onto Ford’s letter about Kavanaugh until the last minute, when she passed it to the FBI, probably under pressure from her other Democratic colleagues. There’s no evidence that Feinstein or her staff leaked the letter to the media, but the timing of it gave Republicans ammunition to argue that Democrats tried to tank the nomination at the last minute.
Male politicians: Calling Ford “attractive.” Asking whether, if Kavanaugh did attempt to rape Ford, it would disqualify him from the Supreme Court. Mocking Ford with the power of the presidency. Politicians — all male, almost all Republican — repeatedly found ways to degrade the debate by degrading the women at the center of it.
Players whose fate is still to be determined
Collins: She was supposedly one of the most anguished swing senators on Kavanaugh, undecided from the moment Trump nominated him. But when the time to make a decision arrived, Collins seemed to have no trouble summoning a rationale for being a decisive vote to send Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. “The claims [against Kavanaugh] at least should meet a threshold of more likely than not as our standard,” she said. Collins’s term is up in 2020, in a state that is fiercely independent. She has probably made herself many enemies on the left, though because she is one of the few moderates in the majority, it’s possible they’ll need to make amends with her someday.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska): The lone Republican to cross party lines and vote against advancing Kavanaugh’s nomination said it was agonizing. “This has truly been the most difficult evaluation decision that I’ve ever had to make,” she told reporters Friday. She stressed that she thought Kavanaugh was a good man but also recently had shared that she lived through a #MeToo moment. She’s not up for reelection until 2022, but some conservatives have promised to make unseating her a priority. Of course, this is the senator who in 2010 won a write-in campaign after losing the Republican primary.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.): She is up for reelection in November, in a state Trump won by more than 30 points. And yet Heitkamp decided to vote against Kavanaugh. Was it a recognition that she will probably lose her reelection bid? A last-ditch effort to rally her base? Or a savvy move to make her opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer — who asked whether attempted rape years ago is disqualifying for the Supreme Court — look bad?
Republican lawmakers: They control Congress, the White House and now have firmed up the Supreme Court’s 5-4 conservative lean, possibly for a generation. A poll during the Kavanaugh debate showed a surge of Republican enthusiasm, matching that of a fired-up Democratic base. But will it fade now that the battle is over? And how will Republicans be remembered: for giving their base what it wants in a conservative court, or for putting on it one of the most polarizing and unpopular Supreme Court nominees in modern history?