Just minutes after President Donald Trump announced he’d nominate Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court on Monday night, the fight for his confirmation began, a bruising showdown that will test the resolve of both parties to stay united and will ultimately reshape the Supreme Court for decades to come.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s focus now turns to holding his sometimes-fractured Republican conference together and charging ahead with the nomination in a way that won’t threaten Republicans’ chances in the midterm elections. With a narrow majority and GOP Sen. John McCain back in Arizona fighting cancer, McConnell cannot afford to lose a single Republican vote without convincing Democrats to cross the aisle and back a candidate who is largely seen as a conservative nominee.
In recent days, the Kentucky Republican – who oversaw the successful confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch last year – has played a significant behind-the-scenes role, consulting the President and his team daily on strategy and the political realities that await any nominee. It was McConnell, according to one GOP official, who suggested that Arizona’s former Sen. John Kyl should act as the “Sherpa,” the person responsible for guiding the nominee around Capitol Hill as they begin the work of meeting with senators individually.
McConnell warned Trump earlier that Kavanaugh could be more difficult to confirm given his long history and paper trail, The New York Times reported over the weekend, and sources in both parties have said it could be difficult to move the nomination quickly.
On Monday night, however, McConnell applauded Trump’s announcement.
“President Trump has made a superb choice. Judge Brett Kavanaugh is an impressive nominee who is extremely well qualified to serve as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States,” McConnell said in a statement. “Judge Kavanaugh has sterling academic credentials. He is widely admired for his intellect, experience, and exemplary judicial temperament. He has won the respect of his peers and is highly regarded throughout the legal community. And his judicial record demonstrates a firm understanding of the role of a judge in our Republic: Setting aside personal views and political preferences in order to interpret our laws as they are written.”
Still, it’s unclear if McConnell will be able to hold his conference together.
Republican swing votes in the spotlight
Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine are considered swing votes on the Republican side of the aisle – two members who voted against GOP-led efforts to repeal Obamacare last year – and have expressed concerns about any action to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion ruling.
Collins committed to “careful, thorough vetting” of Kavanaugh’s record but her statement released in the wake of the announcement did not suggest how she would vote.
“Judge Kavanaugh has impressive credentials and extensive experience, having served more than a decade on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals,” Collins said. “I will conduct a careful, thorough vetting of the President’s nominee to the Supreme Court, as I have done with the five previous Supreme Court Justices whom I have considered. I look forward to Judge Kavanaugh’s public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and to questioning him in a meeting in my office.”
Republicans say they are confident they can approve the nominee and that the next few weeks shouldn’t bring their party to the brink. Instead, they say it should be easy to hold Republicans together on an issue that mobilizes the base and provides a pathway to expand the conservative reach on the courts.
“I don’t think it will be hard. Republicans will all be there,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a Republican member of the leadership team, told reporters Monday night ahead of the announcement.
Democrats face their own test
Democratic unity, meanwhile, will be tested. Immediately, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York announced his opposition to Kavanaugh and encouraged other Democrats to vote with him.
“I will oppose Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination with everything I have, and I hope a bipartisan majority will do the same. The stakes are simply too high for anything less,” Schumer said in his statement. “This nomination could alter the balance of the court in favor of powerful special interests and against working families for a generation, and would take away labor, civil, and human rights from millions of Americans. We cannot let that happen. If we can successfully block this nomination, it could lead to a more independent, moderate selection that both parties could support.”
But with just four months until the midterms, all eyes are on Democrats running for re-election in states Trump carried in 2016. Three of them, North Dakota’s Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Indiana’s Sen. Joe Donnelly and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, voted for Gorsuch last year and face re-election in 2018.
“I think they also want to be re-elected and those three are running in red states where President Trump did very well. So they are going to be torn, no question. But it’s their responsibility,” Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, said before the announcement. “My assumption is once they voted for someone like Neil Gorsuch, it’s not such a great leap to vote for one of these four who are in the pool being considered by the President.”
Four red-state Democrats turned down invitations from the White House to attend Trump’s Supreme Court nominee announcement. Red state Democrats released statements Monday night saying they wanted time to examine the nominee’s record, meet with him and see his confirmation hearing before making up their minds.
“I take my constitutional duty to screen the President’s nominees very seriously, and in the coming weeks I look forward to meeting with Judge Kavanaugh,” Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, said in a statement. “Montanans have a lot on the line with this next Supreme Court Justice so I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to put politics aside and do what’s best for this nation.”
Democrats are expected to cast Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a referendum on the future of the Affordable Care Act and abortion, issues that may make it harder for a handful of moderate Republicans to stick together.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who is up for re-election in Florida, said in a statement that he will carefully review Kavanaugh’s record on health care.
“I look forward to meeting with the president’s nominee in the coming weeks to discuss his views on several important issues such as protecting women’s rights, guaranteeing access to health care for those with pre-existing conditions and protecting the right to vote, just to name a few,” Nelson said. “I will make my decision after that.”
Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat facing re-election in Pennsylvania this year, announced he was opposed to Trump’s pick for the court hours before it was even announced – though it had by that point been narrowed to four finalists.
“I will oppose the nomination the President will (make) tonight because it represents a corrupt bargain with the far Right, big corporations, and Washington special interests,” Casey said in a statement.
Kavanaugh is expected to visit Capitol Hill on Tuesday and begin meeting with senators.
CNN’s John King, Phil Mattingly, Ted Barrett and Manu Raju contributed to this report.