Two Moderate Senators, Two Very Different Paths

A bitterly split Senate votes 50–48 to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, leaving Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski on wildly divergent courses.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, President Trump, and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

On Saturday afternoon, the upper chamber concluded one of the most bitter nomination fights in modern history. Senators voted 50–48 to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Only one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, crossed party lines. It was a huge victory for Republicans, a favorable close to a chapter on which Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had staked his legacy.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called Kavanaugh’s confirmation “one of the saddest moments in the history of the Senate … a low moment for the Senate, for the Court, for the country.” He said Kavanaugh had given one of the “bitterest, most partisan testimonies ever presented by a nominee … His partisan screed will go down ignominiously in history.”

McConnell called Kavanaugh “a true intellectual who let his record speak for itself,” and lauded him as “among the best our nation has to offer.” He criticized Democrats for stoking “this brief dark chapter in the Senate’s history,” but claimed the institution had still prevailed. “The courts guard our rights, and the Senate guards our courts,” he said, “and that’s why today is such an important day.”

The celebration could be short-lived. We turn now to what electoral consequences Republicans may face in the midterm elections as a result of these contentious two weeks—particularly with women.

Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are two of the conference’s most moderate Republicans. Many of the party’s legislative battles hinge on their support, and they often vote the same way. Kavanaugh’s confirmation, however, represented a pivotal moment in which Collins and Murkowski took opposing views. On Saturday, Collins voted “yea.” Murkowski voted “present” as a courtesy to Senator Steve Daines, a Republican who missed the vote because of his daughter’s wedding.

For Republicans, this split could prove meaningful for their chances in the midterms. The party now has two key female figureheads when it comes to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. There’s Collins, who stuck with her party. And there’s Murkowski, the sole Republican to break rank.

The question now: Who will GOP voters—and, specifically, suburban women—side with in November?

Voters were finally given a window into Collins’s support for the nominee on Friday. At 3:05 p.m., she stood from her seat in the upper chamber to begin the speech that determined Kavanaugh’s fate.

She’d barely breathed a sentence before protesters erupted. “Show up for Maine women! Vote ‘no’!” began their chant. Security swiftly ushered them out.

Collins continued unrattled. Over the next hour, she laid out the reasons she would be voting to confirm Kavanaugh on Saturday as the next U.S. Supreme Court justice. She talked about the sexual-assault allegations lodged against Kavanaugh. She called Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony “sincere, painful, and compelling.” But, Collins concluded, “fairness would dictate that the claims should at least meet the standard of more likely than not.” The allegations, she said, “failed to meet [that] standard.”

Sitting behind Collins during her entire speech were fellow Republican Senators Cindy Hyde-Smith and Shelley Moore Capito. It was a compelling image: these two women, in full view on camera, supporting their colleague as she, in essence, determined the tilt of the Court for the next 40-plus years.

Multiple GOP officials and operatives I spoke to concluded that Collins’s speech may prove the rallying cry GOP women needed—and may have been lacking—to turn out in November. Until Collins’s speech, the faces of the pro-confirmation movement were overwhelmingly male: the Chuck Grassleys, Orrin Hatches, and Lindsey Grahams of the conference. That may be good for ensuring turnout among the traditional Republican base—middle age–to-elderly white men. But many Republicans I’ve spoken to this week have expressed worry that conservative women haven’t had an avatar for their beliefs in this fight.

On Friday, though, Collins may have changed that.

“Collins, backed by two of her female colleagues, gave the vote the female voice Republicans needed,” Doug Heye, former communications director for the Republican National Committee, told me. “No doubt the past two weeks have been contentious, but if the deciding vote and speech had come from a man, there could have been a backlash from independent women voters.”

Conspicuously missing from the chamber as Collins spoke was Lisa Murkowski. The Alaska senator had stunned her colleagues earlier that day by voting “nay” on the motion to end debate on Kavanaugh’s nomination and advance it to the floor. “She was always a reach, but a ‘no’ on cloture is alarming,” one senior Senate GOP aide texted me at the time. “It’s one thing to vote ‘no’ against confirmation. It’s another to essentially vote to filibuster from consideration.”

Republican sources argued Murkowski’s reasoning could prove just as compelling to GOP women come November. As I reported earlier this week, Murkowski used a private lunch with her colleagues to express her frustration not just with the confirmation circus itself, but also with the optics. According to a source briefed on the lunch, Murkowski stood and bemoaned the image of “old white men” ramming Kavanaugh’s nomination through at the apex of the #MeToo movement. It was damaging the party, not to mention the movement itself, in a way many of her colleagues “just don’t get,” Murkowski told the room.

Ultimately, for Collins, to vote against Kavanaugh would be to legitimize the “smear tactics” against Kavanaugh, as well as the abandonment of “fairness” and “due process.” But for Murkowski, confirming Kavanaugh would signal an endorsement of the hyper-polar atmosphere in which the nation finds itself, not to mention Kavanaugh’s own partisan temperament during his hearing.

“I actually think you’ll find Republican women who were satisfied with the investigation and the lack of corroboration of Ford’s claims, and believe she and Kavanaugh are both highly credible and telling the truth as they understand it,” a GOP operative with ties to Senate leadership told me.

“But that wasn’t the deal breaker,” the operative continued. “It was the partisanship on display at the hearing that pushed women like Murkowski to the other side. The take is that judges need to be beyond reproach and can’t just be partisans like the rest of us. He has to meet a higher standard, and he compromised that in his testimony.”

It’s important to note, however, that GOP women who side more closely with Murkowski won’t necessarily be voting for Democrats in November. The more likely scenario, the sources I spoke to told me, is that they simply stay home. Republican officials are hoping that Collins can help mitigate those losses—by giving every single woman who favored Kavanaugh the extra boost needed to get out and vote.

And Republicans will desperately need every one of those voters—not just to make up for any losses within their own party, but also to brace against the progressive outrage that will likely only intensify. The GOP felt its own surge of support in the lead-up to the confirmation, as much of its base began to fear that Kavanaugh’s chances were slipping. But now that he’s confirmed, the left is experiencing its own palpable infusion of support. That support is coming from places both low and high: from everyday citizens protesting and risking arrest on the steps of the Capitol to former National-Security Adviser Susan Rice hinting on Twitter that she might challenge Collins in 2020.

That it all comes down to turnout is cliché for good reason. We won’t know until November whether the progressive backlash against Kavanaugh’s confirmation will translate into votes. Schumer encouraged Democrats on Saturday to channel their anger at the polls. “If you believe the process here in the Senate was a sham,” he said from the Senate floor, “I say there is one answer: Vote.”

We also won’t know until November whether Republican women, the ones who identify with Murkowski, will decide to stay home or, less likely but still possible, vote for Democrats. Finally, we won’t know whether, for other conservative women, Collins’s example will be enough.

What we do know, however, is that Republican majorities, in the House and Senate, will depend on it.