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Democrats divided over how to attack Kavanaugh

Senate Democrats take issue with federal judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, President Trump's nominee to the vacant Supreme Court seat. (Video: The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee has amplified divisions in the Democratic Party, spurring competing views about how, or even whether, to attack Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Democrats trying to defeat ­Kavanaugh were still searching for a potent line of attack Thursday. Some have focused on portraying him as a threat to take away health-care protections and abortion rights. Others have emphasized concerns about his views on presidential power and how he might apply them to Trump.

So far, their arguments have shown no explicit signs of winning over the two Republican senators seen as most likely to break ranks and oppose Kavanaugh: Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Centrist Democrats trying to survive reelection in states Trump won, meanwhile, have said little about Kavanaugh, seeking to avoid the wrath of the president’s loyal supporters or a backlash from ­liberals bent on defeating Kavanaugh’s nomination. “If you’re going to ask me questions about the Supreme Court nominee, I have absolutely nothing to say,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). told a reporter Thursday. “Nothing to say about the Supreme Court nominee,” she interjected after a ­follow-up question. She repeated herself a third time.

Democratic leaders in the Senate are laboring to demonstrate to activists that they are doing everything they can to fight the nomination, though there is nothing they can do to stop him without Republican help.

“Some of the people that have come up to me at parades have said, ‘Shut ’em down, do this, do that,’ and it reflects a limited understanding of how the Senate operates,” Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said this week.

The battles underscore the chaotic state of a Democratic Party with no clear leader and plenty of ambitious politicians with contrasting ideologies. The party is grappling with dual pressures to win control of the Senate in the midterms, which requires bolstering vulnerable centrists, and to position itself for the 2020 presidential race, which entails firing up the party’s base.

Senate Democrats argued on July 11 that President Trump is trying to "rig a Supreme Court," to overturn the Affordable Care Act by nominating Brett Kavanaugh. (Video: Reuters)

As Kavanaugh spent Thursday on Capitol Hill meeting separately with four Republican senators, Democrats staged another day of protests, this time focusing on abortion rights in a news conference.

“We are out to make sure that people understand that with Judge Kavanaugh on the bench, five men will most likely vote to overturn Roe v. Wade,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). She was joined by a group of female Democratic senators and activists.

A day earlier, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) led a news conference at which he warned that Kavanaugh could undermine health-care protections for Americans. Republicans have rejected their arguments.

“All of our values are at stake here, but we should be emphasizing health-care because that unites 60 to 70 percent of the public,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).

But other Democrats have honed in on Kavanaugh’s views about the presidency, which some have cast as alarmingly expansive. Republicans dismiss their claims.

“He has a massive view of the presidency that’s more appropriate for a king and kingdom than it is for a democracy and a presidency,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a potential presidential candidate, said this week that senators should press Kavanaugh to recuse himself from matters pertaining to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which has reached deep into Trump’s inner circle.

Some Democratic strategists contend that the multifaceted attacks will enable the party to break through to a broad cross section of the public, who they hope will pressure swing votes in the Senate to break against Kavanaugh.

Thus far, their attacks have shown little clear effect on Murkowski and Collins, who favor abortion rights and bucked their party’s effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act last year. Neither has committed to supporting Kavanaugh. But both have shown signs they are open to it.

“I’m doing my due diligence,” Murkowski said Thursday.

Collins, who greeted Kavanaugh’s nomination with a statement saying he has “impressive credentials and extensive experience,” said Thursday that her approach to vetting nominees hasn’t changed. She has never voted against a Supreme Court justice nominee in a roll call.

“I will do extensive research, consult with a lot of people, do an in-depth personal interview and watch the hearings,” Collins said.

Republicans hold a 51-to-49 majority in the Senate. With Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) away undergoing treatment for a severe form of brain cancer, that majority has been 50-49 for months. If all Democrats band together against ­Kavanaugh, they would still need one Republican to cross over to defeat him.

Democratic unity is far from a foregone conclusion. Three centrist Democrats facing reelection in states Trump won by double digits voted to confirm Justice Neil M. Gorsuch last year: Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.). They are already coming under heavy pressure from Republicans to vote for Kavanaugh.

Even the Democrats who voted against Gorsuch have felt the weight of the Kavanaugh nomination.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who faces reelection, tweeted questions this week he had about Kavanaugh’s stances on health care, abortion and other matters.

“We already know the answers to these questions, Tim Kaine. Stop playing political games and help us #StopKavanaugh” responded Brian Fallon, whose group, Demand Justice, is working to defeat the judge’s nomination.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who is up for reelection this year in a state Trump won, announced that she will oppose Kavanaugh. “We cannot afford a nominee who could serve as the deciding vote to take us back to the days when powerful insurance companies wrote the rules,” she said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) aggressively defended Kavanaugh on Thursday, delivering a speech on the Senate floor accusing Democrats of “fill in the blank opposition” to a nominee from a president they don’t like.

For now, Democrats have their hands full with potential opposition to their cause — from their own ranks and possibly from Collins and Murkowski.

“We have to win over two different sets of senators,” said Fallon.