The women cornered Sen. Jeff Flake in the elevator, effectively trapping him in the stationary car while they demanded he answer their question. Did he believe Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s denials that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted a woman while they were in high school?
Flake, an Arizona Republican, had minutes before announced he was voting to confirm Kavanaugh and all he could do this Friday morning in the elevator was cast his eyes downward. “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” demanded a woman who said she was the victim of sexual assault. “You’re telling me that my assault doesn’t matter, that what happened to me doesn’t matter.”
Flake was clearly rattled. When he arrived minutes later in the Judiciary Committee room, he looked sullen. Several times, he left the room to huddle privately with colleagues. After several delays, Flake returned to his seat and said he would support moving forward with Kavanaugh’s nomination to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court—but only if the FBI were allowed to spend a week looking into the accusations.
After a closed-door meeting, GOP Leadership reluctantly agreed to Flake’s demand and delayed votes for a week to give the FBI a chance to follow-up with potential witnesses. It’s still unclear if the outcome of the FBI’s probe would change support for Kavanaugh’s nomination itself.
That means the fate of Kavanaugh’s nomination, and potentially the make up of the Supreme Court, rest with a handful of Senators who are weighing politics, due process and their own moral considerations ahead of the votes.
It has clearly been a terrible week for them. In private conversations, they have said they simultaneously found credible the allegations from Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, and Kavanaugh’s denial of them compelling. Many of the lawmakers looked around in disbelief that Washington was moving so quickly and so decisively—in the face of very serious allegations—to reshape the Supreme Court.
For Flake, it has clearly been hard. “He has wrestled with this,” fellow Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said of Flake. The first-term Senator harbors ambitions for a White House run. He has a scheduled a Monday speech at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, a must-hit stop for those with eyes on the White House. The title? “After the Deluge: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.” Running in a Republican primary with a record of blackballing a Trump nominee for the Supreme Court would be a fool’s errand. (There is also speculation that Flake could run as an independent; no one who has done so has been successful.)
It has hardly been easier for Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who even before the sexual assault allegations were made public was seen as a potential no vote. Along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Collins is one of two women in the Senate GOP who supports abortion rights. But Collins’ political career could be at risk. Maine’s voters are some of the most supportive of abortion rights in the country—only New Hampshire and Vermont poll higher—and a vote to confirm Kavanaugh could imperil Collins’ support from abortion rights groups that have had her back in the past. Collins has a reputation as a moderate who can buck her party from time to time, but on a matter as severe as a Supreme Court nominee, it’s not clear that this was her fight.
Murkowski, too, was seen as a swing vote, although less on the issue of abortion than that of Alaskan natives, who make up 14% of her constituents. The Alaska Federation of Natives has told Murkowski that it is strongly opposed to Kavanaugh’s nomination because of his views on tribal law. That pressure could get to Murkowski, who had the support of the natives’ council when she ran in 2010 as a write-in candidate. She told reporters on Friday that she, too, wanted the FBI to look into the allegations.
Then there were the Democrats, especially those seeking re-election this fall in states where Trump won two years ago. Five of them hail from states Trump won by double-digits. They faced a difficult choice, especially because national Democrats were publicly pushing their lawmakers to stand united against the nomination. Planting a public warning flag, the chairman of one of the biggest Democratic super PACs tweeted: “I will never personally or professionally support any Democrat who votes to confirm Kavanaugh.”
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia huddled on Thursday with Flake, Collins and Murkowski to discuss the nomination. Manchin’s state voted for Trump by a 43 percentage-point margin in 2016 and Manchin is in a tough fight for a third term. Trump is heading there Saturday for a campaign rally. Outside groups have spent more than $6 million against him, while roughly that same sum has been spent to boost him. Rumors that he was a yes vote on Kavanaugh sent his staff scrambling late Thursday. On Friday, Manchin joined Flake’s call for an FBI probe.
Sen. Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat who voted to confirm Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, similarly faced pressure. Donnelly won his 2012 election with a bare 50% of the vote, and four years later Trump won the state with 56% of the vote. Indiana is one the Democrats’ worry spots; an August poll from NBC News put Donnelly up 6 percentage points, while a Fox News poll from early September showed Republican nominee Mike Braun up 2. Donnelly released a statement Friday saying he would not vote for Kavanaugh.
It was a similar scenario elsewhere: Wisconsin, Missouri, North Dakota and Florida are all looking to keep a Democrat in the Senate in tough races. Democrats see the potential to claim the majority after November’s elections, particularly if they can pick up seats in Arizona, Nevada and maybe even Texas. If that happens, Supreme Court confirmation hearings with a Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee would be markedly different.
For these lawmakers, their personal convictions ran headlong into their political ambitions. As is wont to happen in the Senate, a handful of strong-willed personalities defined the discussion because, in a body with a slim 51-49 Republican majority, those on the edges could tip decisions. Which is why so many protesters—overwhelmingly female—flooded the Capitol this week, looking to pressure lawmakers like Flake to change course.