Kavanaugh confirmation fight tests McConnell’s ability to play his long game

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has two things that have driven him throughout his 34 years in office — winning elections and confirming judges.

Capturing Senate seats and tilting the courts toward the right top the agenda of the Kentucky Republican. Nothing animated the author of “The Long Game” autobiography more than those two issues converging in 2016 when he blocked consideration of any Democratic Supreme Court nominee, turning that vacancy into a political rallying cry that helped preserve the GOP majority and boost Donald Trump to the presidency.

Now, however, there’s a real question about whether those two interests are diverging for McConnell. Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination and subsequent allegations of sexual misconduct have become the latest flash point in a political and cultural controversy that sparked nearly two years ago with revelations of Trump’s bragging about forcing himself on women. The judge has denied all the allegations against him.

Democrats have seized on the issue in Senate races in Nevada and Arizona, and so have House candidates in suburban districts where they believe a backlash is building, particularly among women appalled by the president. Moreover, two years from now, GOP senators running in several states with large suburban populations — including Colorado and North Carolina — might have to defend themselves on a vote that could reverberate.

The long game, so to speak, might not be best served by forcing a tough vote on his own senators when the easier route might be to have Trump send up a different nominee to be confirmed before Thanksgiving.

McConnell disagrees. “We’re going to be moving forward; I’m confident we’re going to win,” he told reporters Tuesday after a closed-door meeting of Republicans.

McConnell and his leadership team have decided that surrendering on Kavanaugh would infuriate the conservative base and make the November midterm elections more painful, deflating turnout among their most loyal voters.

“There’s a risk that, if we don’t move through the process and have a vote on Judge Kavanaugh, I think there are a lot of folks who would otherwise vote in the midterm elections who may not vote. Given the importance of turnout and intensity of the vote on both sides, that could be critical,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), one of McConnell’s top deputies the last decade, said Tuesday.

For now then, the plan is to see what transpires at Thursday’s highly anticipated hearing, where Kavanaugh and his main accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, will testify about her allegation of sexual assault at a party in 1982 when both were in high school. If the Republicans are satisfied with Kavanaugh’s testimony, McConnell will march the Senate through the procedural hoops toward confirming the next justice by early next week.

It’s a high-risk, high-reward moment, something that could seemingly backfire if Ford presents a more believable case.

Such a scenario might lead to an implosion of Kavanaugh’s support among a handful of Republicans, forcing him to withdraw and then deflating the conservative base while further energizing an excited liberal base.

Republicans say they have no choice in this case because the allegations are vague enough that, to fold on Kavanaugh now, would deflate their base and open up future nominees to what they consider scurrilous charges.

“Just an accusation — you can’t tell the person when it happened, or where it happened — God help the rest of the nominees,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a veteran member of the Judiciary Committee.

The short-term reward, politically, for pushing through Kavanaugh’s confirmation might come in a handful of deeply conservative states where Trump won by landslides two years ago and Democratic incumbents are running for reelection.

Some Republican nominees in those states have struggled to connect with enough conservative voters, the ones who like Trump and also like the authentic nature that Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) espouse.

In this scenario, a big clash on Kavanaugh might help McConnell defeat some of these red-state Democrats and shore up wavering Republican candidates in Texas and Tennessee. This would likely boost his majority above the current tally of 51 seats, the narrowest possible, and fortify GOP chances heading into a 2020 season when Republicans will defend 21 seats to just a dozen for Democrats.

But one side effect of this battle could be to place House Republicans in deeper jeopardy of losing their majority. While the Senate battles are playing out almost entirely in Trump country, the House races are being fought predominantly in suburbs where the president is not popular.

Democrats are working to connect the allegations against Kavanaugh to Trump in those battleground areas. Jason Crow, the Democratic nominee in the suburbs east of Denver, issued a statement Tuesday supporting a Colorado resident, Deborah Ramirez, who alleges that while they were undergraduates at Yale University, Kavanaugh exposed himself to her.

“I’m also troubled by the reaction to these allegations from President Trump and his allies in Congress,” Crow said. He’s trying to push his opponent, Rep. Mike Coffman (R), into a position that would either hurt him with centrist voters or deep conservatives.

The cost of the Kavanaugh fight could play out for a few years.

Should he defeat Coffman in such a key district in Colorado, Democrats might look to Crow — an Army Ranger combat veteran — to challenge Sen. Cory Gardner (R) in 2020.

But those are longer-game issues that Republicans have decided have to be dealt with later.

For now, the focus is on the short game. It’s to get through the hearing without having any politically damaging moments, see how Ford and Kavanaugh perform, then move forward with the confirmation.

“So that’s really our task. We need to treat Dr. Ford with respect, and we will, and then we need to do our job in a dignified and responsible way,” Cornyn said. “I think that’s, to me, the key to the puzzle.”

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