WASHINGTON >> As Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s dramatic confirmation process lurches forward, all eyes are on five moderate, and as yet undecided, senators who will either send him to the nation’s highest court or deal a stunning defeat to President Donald Trump and the Republican Party by derailing his nomination.
Their calculations were upended weeks ago when Christine Blasey Ford came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a party in high school, which he has unequivocally denied.
Now, not only must the senators grapple with whether to confirm Kavanaugh based on how his qualifications square with the attitudes of their constituents, but they must also weigh something more politically treacherous: his credibility and temperament in the #MeToo era in the face of multiple accusations of sexual misconduct.
Three are Republicans: Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Jeff Flake of Arizona, none of whom are facing the political pressures of re-election this year. And two are Democrats fighting to keep their seats in red states: Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Here is how each senator will weigh his or her vote.
SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI, R-ALASKA
Murkowski, together with Collins, has cultivated a reputation as a moderate Republican who is unafraid to break from her party in pivotal moments, including over abortion rights. She and Collins emerged last year as key votes that sunk a repeal of the health care law.
But in weighing whether Kavanaugh should be confirmed, Murkowski, who is not up for re-election until 2022, has set up her own test.
“We are now in a place where it’s not about whether or not Judge Kavanaugh is qualified,” Murkowski said last week in an extended interview at the Capitol. “It is about whether or not a woman who has been a victim at some point in her life is to be believed.”
Murkowski must also take into account the vocal opposition that Alaska Natives, who make up one of her key constituencies, have to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Kavanaugh’s views on indigenous rights came to the fore during his confirmation hearings after Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, who released a previously secret email in which Kavanaugh questioned Native Hawaiians as a protected group.
Alaska Natives have been strong supporters of Murkowski. The Alaska Federation of Natives, representing 186 federally recognized tribes in the state, raised $1.6 million and grassroots support for her in 2010, when she ran a write-in campaign for re-election after a Tea Party challenger beat her in the Republican primary.
Murkowski was the second Republican to join Flake last week when he called for the FBI to investigate allegations against Kavanaugh.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-MAINE
Although Collins supports abortion rights, she has indicated that she believes Kavanaugh would uphold Roe v. Wade, citing a discussion they had in which he assured her that he believes Roe is “settled law.” She also dismissed an email he sent in 2003 that Democrats tried to use as evidence that the judge is anti-Roe. In it, Kavanaugh wrote that he was “not sure that all legal scholars refer to Roe as the settled law of the land at the Supreme Court level since Court can always overrule its precedent, and three current Justices on the Court would do so.”
Previously, Collins voted for Kavanaugh in 2006 when he was nominated by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
But Collins is one of the senators who has faced the most pressure from protesters to vote against Kavanaugh. A group of liberal activists created a crowdfunding campaign that has raised more than $1.75 million that donors pledged would be given to her opponent if she votes for the judge’s confirmation. Still others have sent thousands of coat hangers to the senator’s office in Maine.
That pressure might have a different effect than intended: Collins has hotly criticized those efforts, describing the crowdfunding as “the equivalent of an attempt to bribe me.”
SEN. JEFF FLAKE, R-ARIZ.
Flake, a frequent critic of Trump, is retiring from the Senate this year, after deciding not to run for re-election. As a result, his vote is shielded from the political pressures faced by his peers.
Last week after the hearing, Flake said that listening to Kavanaugh and Blasey testify left him with “as much doubt as certainty.”
The senator has made clear that he is inclined to vote for Kavanaugh unless the FBI investigation reveals that the judge either engaged in sexual misconduct or lied to the committee. And only hours before Flake dramatically fought for the FBI to investigate the allegations facing Kavanaugh, the senator had announced that he would support the judge’s confirmation.
“I want to support him. I’m a conservative, he’s a conservative judge,” Flake told reporters on Friday. “But I want a process we can be proud of and I think the country needs to be behind it.”
But before then, Flake had offered his own simple test: “If you believe her, you vote no.”
SEN. JOE MANCHIN, D-W.VA.
Manchin and Heitkamp are in tough re-election battles in red states, and they are trying to demonstrate to voters that they are not blindly aligned with the Democratic Party.
In 2017, Manchin voted to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, and a vote for Kavanaugh could aid the senator’s campaign.
But the chief issue for the West Virginia senator is health care: Manchin, who has repeatedly voted against attempts to repeal the health care law, has stressed that he wants the courts to conserve the act’s protections for people with pre-existing health conditions.
After meeting with Kavanaugh, the senator said in a radio interview in July that he was not leaning in a particular direction, but found the judge to have “all the right qualities.”
As accusations against Kavanaugh came out, Manchin stayed tight-lipped. Last week, however, he released a statement calling the confirmation process “partisan and divisive,” but also supporting delaying the process to accommodate an FBI investigation.
In an interview Monday with WV News, a local news outlet, Manchin said he would base his vote on the findings of the investigation.
“If there’s nothing conclusive,” he said, “then it’ll be based on the merits of him being qualified.”
SEN. HEIDI HEITKAMP, D-N.D.
Heitkamp is facing a competitive challenge from a close Republican ally of the president, Rep. Kevin Cramer, in a state Trump won by 36 points in 2016.
Weeks before three women came forward to accuse Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, Heitkamp, who voted for Gorsuch’s confirmation, told reporters that she had not yet seen any red flags in his record. In July, she said he seemed like a “fairly standard conservative judge” and “highly qualified.”
But Heitkamp has since made comments suggesting she is uneasy with the allegations against Kavanaugh.
At a campaign stop Friday in Grand Forks, North Dakota, she told The Associated Press that “there are a lot of lawyers in America who can sit on the court” and noted that the standard for judging Kavanaugh’s nomination should not be “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Heitkamp is playing the careful foil to her opponent’s incendiary remarks. Cramer, taking a page out of Trump’s playbook, has denounced Blasey’s allegations as “even more absurd” than Anita Hill’s allegations against Judge Clarence Thomas in 1991, adding that “it was supposedly an attempt or something that never went anywhere.”
The senator seized on those remarks, attacking the congressman for displaying “a stunning lack of empathy for victims and the trauma they experience.”