WASHINGTON – The first allegation against Brett Kavanaugh left Republicans rattled and nervous. The second left them angry and ready to fight back.
The GOP punched back hard Monday, seeming to cast aside — for now — worries that President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee could turn off female voters and sink their hopes of holding complete control of Congress following the November midterms. Rather than peel away from Kavanaugh, many GOP senators seemed to stiffen their resolve.
The decision was in part based on the details of a new allegation. Many Republicans dismissed a report published late Sunday in The New Yorker magazine as weak and unsubstantiated — allowing them to turn their aim on the media, a well-worn and effective tactic. And some Republicans worried that not doing enough to push Kavanaugh across the finish line would hurt their standing with the GOP base heading into the midterms.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took the lead role in the fight. His resolve was evident in both public and private, according to those who were around him. He began his day at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, where he told confidants he didn’t intend to back down.
“I sensed absolute determination,” said Scott Jennings, a longtime McConnell strategist. “He was not going to give up on Brett Kavanaugh.”
Back in Washington a few hours later, McConnell went to the Senate floor to blast “Senate Democrats and their allies” who he said “are trying to destroy a man’s personal and professional life.”
GOP leaders were already grappling with an allegation from Christine Blasey Ford, who said Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both teenagers. But McConnell and some others were especially incensed by a second allegation in which a student who attended Yale with Kavanaugh said he exposed himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust his penis in her face and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away.
The accusation was “another orchestrated, last-minute hit on the nominee,” McConnell said.
Kavanaugh has vehemently denied both allegations.
Jennings said The New Yorker story strengthened a consensus among many Republicans that they were contending with an orchestrated effort by Democrats to take down Kavanaugh’s nomination.
“When that thing hit, rank-and-file Republicans dug in and said, ‘We are not going to let the mob get away with this,’ ” Jennings said.
That sentiment was echoed by Doug Deason, a prominent donor close to Trump.
“Certainly women deserve to be heard, but not 30, 40 years later when there’s all the drinking and they don’t remember most of it,” he said. “It’s a conspiracy from the left-wing loonies.”
Ford and Kavanaugh are expected to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The showdown comes six weeks before Election Day, with early voting already underway in a handful of battleground states. Some polls suggest Republicans are already likely to lose the House majority and increasingly confident Democrats now see a path to the Senate majority as well.
That has helped fuel a hard-line political strategy aimed squarely at the GOP base.
Evangelical conservative leader Ralph Reed said the accusations against Kavanaugh are “firing up conservatives and faith-based voters” across the country.
“We’ve had an enthusiasm gap,” Reed said. “This could close it.”
Shrugging off the risks, Republicans are digging in for a messy confirmation fight.
McConnell’s allies warned that any delay in the process will merely open the president’s pick to a never-ending loop of rumors and accusations. But holdouts, including retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, whose vote on the committee is needed to ensure Kavanaugh’s nomination moves favorably to the full Senate, remain in flux.
Along with Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Flake’s views on the latest development may determine next steps. Flake was central to weekend talks to ensure an agreement was reached for Ford to tell the committee her story, according to a GOP aide familiar with the talks but unauthorized to speak publicly. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity.
Flake’s reaction to the new allegations will be central to whether the hearing Thursday proceeds.
Trump confidant Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on Monday set the tone for GOP leaders with a series of tweets blaming Democrats for “wholesale character assassination” and urging fellow Republicans to push forward with Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
“What we are witnessing is the total collapse of the traditional confirmation process for a Supreme Court nominee,” Graham tweeted. “The process needs to move forward with a hearing Thursday, and vote in committee soon thereafter.”
Another Trump ally, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, struck a similar script. “The Democrats are engaged in a campaign of delay and character assassination against Judge Kavanaugh. It’s time to vote this week,” he said.
Collins’ constituents in Maine warned the four-term senator that women are paying close attention.
“I’m speaking to people on a regular basis — people who have voted for her in the past and are very, very agitated,” said Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby.
Asked if she believes Collins is on the side of Maine women, Townsend responded: “It’s hard to tell.”
There were signs that Murkowski was also struggling under the weight of the Kavanaugh fight back home as well.
Jeff King, one of the world’s most successful professional dogsled racers, has campaigned alongside Murkowski before. It’s unclear if he’ll do so again.
“Alaska stood firm for you, and I ask that you trust that we’ll have your back if you make the right decision,” said King, a four-time Iditarod champion, during a recent Alaska protest calling for Murkowski to block Kavanaugh’s nomination. “You’re our senator, Lisa, not Trump’s.”
Neither Collins nor Murkowski is up for re-election this fall. But hundreds of other Republicans are.