Mitch McConnell’s Legacy Is Riding on Kavanaugh’s Confirmation

The Kentucky Republican became Senate majority leader with an aim to reshape the federal courts and secure a reliably conservative fifth vote on the Supreme Court for decades.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Picture this: Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. Early July 2017, a punishing 86 degrees. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walking alongside his wife, Elaine Chao. His casual comment to her, overheard by a reporter: “I’d really like to get that Kennedy slot.”

Now picture this, one year and three months later. It is Friday morning, and McConnell is up early to prepare for the vote to close debate on the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. It has been a hellish two weeks, this battle to ensconce Kavanaugh in Anthony Kennedy’s vacated seat. Yet in spite of it all—Christine Blasey Ford’s stirring testimony about the day she alleges Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, the drip-drip-drip of accounts of Kavanaugh’s adolescent proclivities, the protests, a last-minute FBI investigation—in spite of all of it, McConnell begins his day with the assured stride of a man very likely to get that Kennedy slot.

Lament it, praise it—it is hard to imagine any other outcome. By the time McConnell gaveled in as majority leader in 2015, President Barack Obama and Harry Reid, then majority leader,  had succeeded in ushering in hundreds of liberal judges, including two Supreme Court justices. So when the Kentucky Republican began drafting his plans for his conference, he did so not with red-hued visions of Obamacare repeal, or immigration reform, or even tax cuts. No, he did so with the chief aim of reshaping the courts. Under Obama, he couldn’t bring conservative judges to the floor, of course. But he could stall consideration of the administration’s nominees—and no one, whether a candidate for a circuit court or the Supreme Court, would be out of bounds.

In the last two years of Obama’s administration, McConnell succeeded in confirming a mere 22 of its judicial nominees, the lowest total in 65 years. In February 2016, news of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death had hardly sparked the wires before McConnell determined, without consulting any of his colleagues, to refuse consideration of Obama’s pick to replace him. It was a breathtaking gamble. Not just on his colleagues’ willingness to withstand the backlash, but also on a Republican’s ability to win the presidency.

It is perhaps a surprise even to McConnell that the full scope of his leadership has been made possible by a man who once posed on the cover of Playboy. Yet the fact is that Donald Trump has allowed McConnell to shape for himself the legacy he’s always wanted. McConnell has shuttled through more circuit-court judges than any recent Congress at this point in a president’s first term. He still has a dozen seats left to fill, not to mention the hundred or so in the district courts. In April 2017, Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court sailed through the Senate. Which brings us to today, where the outcome of Kavanaugh’s nomination could crystallize McConnell’s legacy: either as the shrewd, ideologically ambivalent tactician who set a goal of flipping the courts, and three years later—not even a sexual-assault allegation capable of rattling him—did just that. Or as a leader who, despite his best efforts, just couldn’t close the deal.

“Mitch McConnell’s legacy on judges and advancing conservative causes was already secure,” one senior Senate GOP aide told me, “but overcoming historic opposition, and a minority party with no scruples whatsoever, to confirm Brett Kavanaugh will be his greatest victory yet.”

Senators are set to vote to close debate on Kavanaugh’s nomination at 10:30 a.m. If successful, they will convene Saturday afternoon for the final vote.

Friday’s cloture vote caps off an anxiety-filled week in the upper chamber. Last Friday, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona surprised his colleagues by reversing his commitment to vote for Kavanaugh. After conferencing with Democratic Senator Chris Coons, Flake demanded a week-long FBI investigation into Ford’s allegations before proceeding.

Having signaled his intent to “plow ahead” with Kavanaugh’s nomination in the weeks prior, McConnell was less than eager to indulge him. But Flake had the leverage: Shortly thereafter, Flake’s fellow undecided colleagues, Senators Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, and Joe Manchin rallied behind an investigation. If McConnell wanted their votes, he would have to oblige and ask the White House for its blessing.

For McConnell, however, that brief headache may have proved lucky. On Wednesday, Murkowski made plain in a Senate GOP lunch her disdain for the “plow ahead” model. According to a source briefed on the lunch, Murkowski stood and told her colleagues, forcefully, that the image of “old white men” ramming Kavanaugh’s nomination through, under these circumstances, in the midst of the national #MeToo conversation, was crippling the party. “You just don’t get it,” the source said, paraphrasing Murkowski’s words. The source added that Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska immediately echoed those sentiments, urging his colleagues to view the forthcoming FBI report not as a formality, but as a necessary window into Kavanaugh’s credibility.

Since that lunch, according to multiple senior Senate GOP aides, the mood across the chamber has seemed less frantic, more measured. On Thursday morning, Republicans and Democrats alike spent hours reviewing the interview transcripts, public tips, and other documents the FBI had compiled for viewing. Many Republicans left the tightly guarded room with their votes unchanged. “There is no corroboration” of Ford’s allegations, Senator John Kennedy bluntly told reporters. “I feel more comfortable than I did before,” said Senator Tim Scott.

Yet a number of such Republicans still chose to comb through the 46-page report a second or even third time. “Absolutely zero corroboration. I think they’re saying nothing new,” Senator Bob Corker told reporters gathered outside the doors. “But I just want to listen to every word of the testimony, I just want to have done everything I’m supposed to have done.” Corker said a second reading was “probably not necessary” for him, but he still wanted to make sure he’d “read everything” he could.

McConnell, Majority Whip John Cornyn, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, and Senators Orrin Hatch, Mike Lee, and Thom Tillis opened their press conference later that afternoon in optimistic spirits. It was a decided shift from last week, when those same lawmakers seemed impatient and agitated by any suggestion of delaying the vote. The senior Senate GOP aides told me that new tenor had allowed for several “positive conversations” among undecided lawmakers. By Thursday night, according to a source with direct knowledge, Flake was in a “good place,” looking increasingly likely to vote “yea” on Kavanaugh’s nomination. (Flake, however, has not yet gone on the record with his decision.)

Still, Collins, Murkowski, and Manchin remain toss-ups, giving reporters few hints about where they stood on Thursday. For the majority leader, the stakes of their decisions couldn’t be higher. Ultimately, their votes will be crucial not just in determining the fate of the most controversial Supreme Court nominee in recent memory, but also how history will remember the mark of Mitch McConnell.