The secretly apostate Republican senators have two choices: They can support a president they think is a threat to American democracy while also violating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s invented 2016 rule about not confirming justices in an election year, or they can oppose Trump, enraging both him and their progressively cultish base while giving up what might be their last chance to secure a conservative majority for a generation.
For McConnell, this is principle versus power, and the golden rule is “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” And it’s happening as the next generation of ambitious Republicans looks to a future in which Trumpism remains a dominant force within the party no matter what happens in November.
Read: What Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death means for America
Don’t expect many Republicans—even those who want to stick it to Trump—to be direct with their commitments. “If they try to shove something through, I think you’re going to see some of these Republicans who hate Trump fall on the horrible sword of ‘This country is dangerously divided right now; the hypocrisy is horrible; if we do something like this, it will tear the country apart,’” says Joe Walsh, the former Republican representative from Illinois, who briefly ran a primary campaign against Trump that went nowhere earlier this year. Based on conversations he’s had, Walsh estimates that, of the current Republican senators, “if you put a gun to their head privately, I would say more than 40 of the 53 would like to see him lose.”
Walsh insists that Republicans didn’t want this vacancy—not now. “This is political death for the Republicans,” he told me.
This is not the time for Republicans to insist that they haven’t “seen the latest tweet.” This is where they either will or will not give Trump the boost that he needs weeks before the election. Now, more than ever, they are either with him or against him. “This,” Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democrat, said on CNN last night, “is my colleagues’ moment of reckoning.”
Just hours before Ginsburg’s death, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said, “I would not vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee. We are 50-some days away from an election.” (We’re actually 45 days out.) That left the decision in the hands of just three Republican senators.
Susan Collins, the senator from Maine who is famous for prevaricating statements about Trump but who voted for both of his Supreme Court picks, wouldn’t even say last week whether she will be voting for Trump this fall. She had to more explicitly back away from Trump today, announcing that she doesn’t think there should be a nominee before the election. Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado is facing a tough reelection race, but given the composition of his state, he will almost certainly need voters who will be going with Biden. Senator Martha McSally of Arizona, in a similar position in the polls, already said yesterday that she wants to push ahead with a confirmation.