Democratic leaders need a unified caucus to put maximum pressure on a handful of holdout Republicans.
Democrats have all the cover they need to vote in lockstep against Brett Kavanaugh. But a half-dozen of them have refused to go there, even after the pair of sexual assault allegations against the Supreme Court nominee.
Democratic insiders are feeling more bullish than ever that the party’s 49 caucus members ultimately will oppose Kavanaugh. Yet the undeclared bloc of Democratic senators could be a problem for Democratic leaders, who want to put the weight of the nomination entirely on a handful of holdout Republicans.
“I’m very open. I haven’t closed any doors at all on Kavanaugh. I just want to make sure there’s a fair, open and civil hearing,” said Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, perhaps the most conservative Democrat. “The man has to have a chance to clear his name, but these ladies have the complete opportunity to tell their story.”
Manchin said the allegations haven’t made him any less likely to vote against Kavanaugh than he was two weeks ago: “It hasn’t changed anything. I’m still waiting for this hearing.”
The situation, of course, could change quickly after Thursday’s blockbuster hearing featuring Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when both were in high school. Indeed, Democratic leaders are confident that, in the end, the caucus will stick together and vote against Kavanaugh.
The Democratic Caucus’ clutch of moderate senators, who mostly hail from conservative states where voters could punish them for opposing Kavanaugh, is under more pressure than ever from a liberal base furious over the sexual assault allegations.
So most of those intently watched Democrats are deferring their public stance until after Thursday’s scheduled hearing with Ford and Kavanaugh. They’re worried about taking unnecessary political risk by taking a stand amid a swirl of unproven charges and uncertainty about whether the GOP even has the votes to confirm the 53-year-old appeals court judge, according to senators and aides.
Still, Democratic leaders are confident of a unanimous “no” vote against Kavanaugh from their caucus, especially if Ford comes off as credible, according to more than a half-dozen senators and aides.
Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Doug Jones of Alabama and Bill Nelson of Florida, all publicly undecided, are expected to be firmly in the “no” column, those people said.
Tester said Tuesday that, while he’s watching the Thursday hearing closely, he’s also concerned about his inability to set an in-person meeting with the judge.
“We’re getting close to the end here. I don’t know if we’re ever going to find a time or not,” Tester said, adding that he wants to discuss issues such as privacy, campaign finance law and abortion. “If I don’t meet with him, it’s a problem.”
Democrats are similarly upbeat that Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) can be persuaded to vote no, senators and aides said. She supported Justice Neil Gorsuch last year and has been intensely targeted by the GOP to back Kavanaugh. But her opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), created a stir this week when he questioned whether the assault allegations would disqualify Kavanaugh “even if it’s all true.”
She declined to discuss the nomination on Tuesday.
The two biggest wild cards remain Manchin and Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.). Both are paying close attention to how GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine vote, according to one person familiar with their thinking. And the duo has made clear to fellow Democrats that they’re agonizing over the decision.
“They have let us know that their states are still with Kavanaugh,” said one Democratic senator, who said the press-shy Donnelly was particularly vocal about that on Tuesday at a party meeting.
Joel Elliott, Donnelly’s chief of staff, said “Kavanaugh has support in the state, as you would expect. He’s also strongly opposed by a lot of Hoosiers.”
“There’s a lot of overlap, however, between those two groups when it comes to wanting to hear more from Dr. Blasey Ford during Thursday’s hearing,” Elliott said.
Liberals say they are frustrated that a half-dozen Democrats have not been willing to take a risk and oppose Kavanaugh given his beleaguered status, even calling out Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) for not being publicly opposed to Kavanaugh despite his obvious opposition. Kavanaugh’s national polling has dipped significantly recently, but in battleground states Kavanaugh does not seem to have taken as much of a hit.
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill is the only vulnerable Democrat to have come out against Kavanaugh in the past two weeks, and she cited his views on campaign finance, not the assault allegations, as her reason. McCaskill said she’s heard surprisingly little from her constituents about Kavanaugh’s embattled status.
“If a vote on Kavanaugh were actually held today, it’s unclear that even all Democrats would vote no,” said Elizabeth Beavers, associate policy director at Indivisible, a leading liberal group. “We need all Democrats to immediately pledge to oppose, and we need Democratic leadership to work to ensure this happens as soon as possible.”
It would be risky for some red-state Democratic senators to come out against Kavanaugh right now, according to others in their party. If the Ford allegations fall apart, they could look like props of Democratic leadership — precisely the perception they’re trying to avoid in their campaigns.
“Everyone gets that the political reality for the red-state Democrats is tricky,” said Brian Fallon, a former senior aide to Schumer who now runs Demand Justice, a liberal activist group focused on the judiciary. “But if any of them still cannot bring themselves to oppose Kavanaugh when he has been credibly accused of multiple acts of sexual assault, the backlash from young people and women could be quite problematic.”
But on a nomination as important as the Supreme Court, a hard whipping effort simply doesn’t work on individual senators, according to Durbin.
“A couple of them have said to me: The credibility of this exchange between Ford and Kavanaugh have a lot to do with their final vote,” Durbin said. “No one has announced ‘yes.’ That says something of itself. And the people who are announcing ‘no’ do that at some risk.”
It’s somewhat surprising that Jones and Nelson remain publicly on the fence given that they have more liberal voting records than Manchin and Donnelly. Jones has tweeted repeatedly about the importance of a thorough investigation into Ford’s allegation, and said Tuesday that he also would wait until Thursday to announce his decision. “I’m going through the process,” he said.
Nelson, who’s in a close reelection battle against Florida Gov. Rick Scott, said Tuesday he also wants to hear from Ford before deciding. Asked whether he also wants Deborah Ramirez, a woman alleging sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh during his college years, to testify, Nelson replied: “Of course.”
Democratic leaders are not concerned that either will vote for Kavanaugh, according to aides. And Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the No. 4 Democratic leader, said she likes the way the Democratic vote count is trending.
“I feel good about it,” she said. “Overwhelmingly, people are voting no.”
Asked whether there are still really a half-dozen undecided senators, she offered her own internal whip count: “Less, maybe.”
Politico · by Burgess Everett · September 25, 2018