Three Senate Republicans were already at the epicenter of the firestorm around Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court: Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
But the trio, who have been lobbied heavily by outside groups, vocal constituents and their own colleagues, are now suddenly grappling with a new set of allegations brought by a third woman against Kavanaugh — accusations that are making an already tense confirmation fight even more combustible for the influential group of senators.
In addition to considering weighty legal issues that may come before the Supreme Court, the three senators find themselves dealing with the highly sensitive issue of sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era, just as their party becomes more aggressive in pushing Kavanaugh through to cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.
Flake illustrated his internal dilemma in an impassioned floor speech Wednesday. He didn’t signal how he would ultimately vote on Kavanaugh or weigh in on the allegations. Rather, he suggested that what he hears Thursday in testimony will heavily influence his decision.
“Many members of this body from both . . . parties have already made up their minds, on the record, in advance of the hearing,” Flake said. “They will presumably hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest. One is tempted to ask, why even bother having a hearing?”
He continued: “I do not know how I will assess the credibility of these witnesses, these human beings . . . because I’ve not yet heard a word of their testimony and because I am not psychic. I am not gifted with clairvoyance. I will have to listen to the testimony before I make up my mind about the testimony.”
The message that senators should not make any prejudgments is one that Flake and others in the newer generation of senators have relayed publicly and privately to other Republicans since the first allegation of sexual assault — from Christine Blasey Ford — against the 53-year-old Supreme Court nominee became public last week.
In recent days, two other Kavanaugh accusers have come forward — Deborah Ramirez, a former classmate at Yale University, and Julie Swetnick, who said she attended parties with Kavanaugh while the two were in high school.
During a private meeting of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 17 — one day after Ford’s detailed allegation was published in The Washington Post — Flake was among a handful of senators, including Sens. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), pushing for a hearing to publicly air Ford’s accusation, according to people familiar with the discussion.
Their message to their colleagues inside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office echoed the thrust of Flake’s speech on the floor Wednesday.
“How can you make a decision when you haven’t heard the testimony?” Flake said in brief remarks to reporters before he gave his midafternoon speech. He added that he hadn’t yet reviewed the new accusations brought by Swetnick, who is represented by celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti.
Collins, in brief comments to reporters, also declined to comment on the latest accusations Wednesday. Swetnick, who is from the Washington suburbs, said in a sworn affidavit that Kavanaugh was physically abusive toward girls in high school and present at a house party in 1982 where she says she was the victim of a “gang rape.” As he has with other allegations, Kavanaugh has vehemently denied it, calling the accusation “ridiculous and from the Twilight Zone.”
Carrying a printed copy of the affidavit, Collins said that “obviously I take it very seriously” but noted that she hadn’t finished going through the document. She again stressed that the highly anticipated hearing with Ford should continue as planned Thursday, even with the new accusation.
“We’ll find out some valuable information,” Collins said.
On the accusation from Ramirez, Murkowski said: “How can I base the credibility based on just what I read coming out of you all? If there are allegations out there, then Ms. Ramirez needs to be willing to come forward with them, just as Dr. Ford has been willing to come forward, albeit reluctantly, and understandably so.”
The elevated pressure on Flake, Collins and Murkowski has come amid a torrent of already heavy lobbying on Kavanaugh’s nomination that has also targeted another small core of undecided Democratic senators. But while Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) are similarly under the microscope, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) doesn’t need those votes unless he loses the support of at least two Republicans.
In recent days, some of the senators have faced more parochial and specific opposition from core constituencies. For instance, Murkowski is dealing with opposition to Kavanaugh’s nomination from the influential Alaska Federation of Natives, which called Kavanaugh’s legal views on Indian rights “troubling” and said they would be bad “for Native peoples, particularly Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.”
And earlier this week, Mormon Women for Ethical Government wrote to Flake and three other Mormon members of the Judiciary Committee, urging them to halt Kavanaugh’s confirmation proceedings until the misconduct allegations could be investigated.
Senior GOP senators and top aides have been in constant communication with the powerful bloc of Republican undecideds, officials said. A lot of the discussions revolve around ensuring that the senators have all the information they need, including the latest status on the investigation by the Senate Judiciary Committee into the accusations. And the undecided senators, in turn, have spoken with one another. Flake said he spoke Saturday with Collins.
“I think we’re all talking to each other on a regular basis,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the party’s chief vote counter, said of the undecideds. As the hearing negotiations continued between Ford’s team and Senate Republicans, those senators “were in the middle of all that, recognizing that we need to get unified support.”
Cornyn added: “We’re trying to make sure people understand that we’re doing our due diligence and we’re treating everyone fairly, both her and Kavanaugh.” The No. 2 GOP senator said Flake, in particular, was “instrumental” in securing a public hearing for her.
“He’s been good,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), another member of the Judiciary Committee who has been a vocal Kavanaugh defender, said of Flake. “He’s tried to be fair. And I think he will be fair.”
Sean Sullivan and Gabriel Pogrund contributed to this report.