As many Democrats and activists worked to stop Gina Haspel from becoming CIA director this spring, Sen. Joe Manchin derailed them with one move: blurting out his support for the controversial pick in a TV interview, effectively clinching her confirmation for President Donald Trump.
Now Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer faces the monumental task of defeating Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and he’s counting on Manchin and a half-dozen other vulnerable Democrats to keep any hint that they might support the high court nominee to themselves.
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“All Chuck ever says in caucus [meetings], it’s pretty well known: ‘Keep your powder dry. Don’t commit. Stay as neutral as you can, as long as you can,’” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “It gives him some room to maneuver.”
Manchin is meeting with Kavanaugh on Monday afternoon, the first test of whether he can hold his poker face deep into the summer. And if the moderate West Virginia Democrat and his centrist colleagues can remain on the fence for several more weeks, it boosts Schumer’s long odds of beating the nomination.
Schumer’s strategy starts like this: Hold his caucus in line and force Republicans to cough up 50 votes on their own.
While his red-state members stall in the face of attacks from their GOP challengers, Schumer hopes to place massive pressure on moderate Republicans by raising damaging questions about Kavanaugh’s views on abortion, health care and presidential power. His top GOP targets are Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Libertarian-leaning Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky was also publicly wavering until he announced his support for Kavanaugh on Monday.
The longer that some Republicans stay undecided, leaving Kavanaugh short of the simple majority needed to get confirmed, the better Democrats believe their chance is of prevailing — while also giving cover to endangered Democratic incumbents.
“If you’re in the business of trying to defeat Kavanaugh, then of course it’s helpful to have Democrats who are undecided keep their powder dry for as long as possible,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We’re trying to make sure that people have the space in our caucus to do the right thing for their states.”
Even if Kavanaugh is eventually confirmed, the party’s base is demanding Schumer and his colleagues wage a knock-down, drag-out fight.
Still, how long at-risk Democrats can or should hold out is a complicated political equation that could affect their survival in November. As long as they remain undecided, deep-pocketed conservative groups like the Judicial Crisis Network and Americans for Prosperity will continue pounding them with pro-Kavanaugh ads and activism in their states.
A spokeswoman for JCN said it would pull ads when and if Democratic senators come out in support of Kavanaugh and shift to thanking the nominee’s supporters. Meanwhile, GOP opponents, who expect some of these Democrats to ultimately support Kavanaugh, are hitting them for their supposed indecision.
GOP leaders are betting that dynamic will prove untenable for Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, all of whom voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch last year.
Schumer is “waiting to see us put 50 on the board and then he’ll cut his folks loose that need to vote for him,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader and frequent Senate gym buddy of the Democratic leader. “I don’t think [red-state Democrats] can hold out very long.”
Republican challengers are making as much hay of the issue as they can. Mike Braun, who is running against Donnelly, says he has “no doubt Donnelly will wait until the liberal wing of his party gives him permission to support Judge Kavanaugh.” Patrick Morrisey, Manchin’s GOP foe, said on Fox News that “the longer Joe Manchin waits, the more it’s clear he’s only in this to appease his liberal donors.”
And Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who is running against Heitkamp, said that “she has no choice but to vote for Brett Kavanaugh.”
“The best thing she could do for herself politically would be to announce her support for him very early and not have to be viewed through the cynical lens of a last-minute trick,” Cramer said in an interview earlier this month.
For now, Manchin, Donnelly, Heitkamp and Doug Jones of Alabama are nowhere close to announcing where they stand. Donnelly said he will wait at least until after he’s met with Kavanaugh on Aug. 15 to decide; the other three say they want to process Kavanaugh’s hearing, which has not been scheduled yet.
“The only timeline I have is that I have to watch the hearings,” Heitkamp said.
Manchin said he might even request a second meeting with the high court nominee after his hearing. Asked how long he might wait to announce a position, Manchin challenged a reporter to make it interesting: “How are you betting? What’s the odds?”
“I think after the hearings I’m going to know, because I’ll have another meeting, probably, if there are any discrepancies from his first meeting and the hearings,” Manchin said. “I’m not dragging.”
Other vulnerable senators viewed as less likely to support Kavanaugh are taking a similar tack. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said he will likely schedule an interview with the nominee after Judiciary Committee Democrats meet with the appellate court judge, while Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said he would likely wait until after Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.
And typically chatty Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) doesn’t even want to talk about Kavanaugh until she’s decided how she will vote.
“I’m not going to speak about it until after I’ve learned more and have made up my mind,” McCaskill said.
Both Democratic and Republican leaders believed Paul was likely to support Kavanaugh sooner rather than later, but Collins and Murkowski might take their time. Each has yet to schedule an interview with Kavanaugh, and each says the Democratic pressure campaign won’t factor into their decision. Demand Justice, a new liberal group, is running ad campaigns in their home states urging them to reject Kavanaugh.
Murkowski even delayed a meeting with Kavanaugh this month so that she could concentrate on the spending bill she oversees as it was moving on the Senate floor. When the Alaskan does meet with Kavanaugh, she said in an interview, she wants a conversation as long as two hours — far longer than most GOP senators have demanded — and she may also request a second meeting after his hearing.
“I have to do my own due diligence as a senator. And if that means that I take longer than others, I’m OK with that,” Murkowski said. “I don’t make any apologies for being too thorough.”
The longer Murkowski holds out, the better chance Kavanaugh could have of being defeated. But so too will the pressure increase on red-state Democrats. Already Republicans are whispering of a confirmation vote in mid-to-late October to make Democrats squirm as they attempt to remain publicly undecided for another two months.
Republicans would be happy to see a member of the minority party cave first, just as Manchin did on Haspel earlier this year, but they’d also welcome a decision from their own three swing-vote senators. With the biggest confirmation vote of the year on the line, they want 50 votes as soon as they can, however they can get them.
“If you’re running for reelection in a red state won by President Trump … your priority is going to be survival,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. “I would assume that people would begin to say: ‘Based on my review, based on my meeting with the judge, I’m comfortable supporting him.’”