The Slatest

Flake, Murkowski, and Collins Will Decide Kavanaugh’s Fate. So Why Are Outside Groups Targeting These Other Six Senators?

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito greets Judge Brett Kavanaugh prior to a meeting.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito greets Judge Brett Kavanaugh prior to a meeting on July 12 in Washington. Alex Edelman/Getty Images

The available evidence says that Brett Kavanugh’s confirmation now rests with just three Republican senators: Arizona’s Jeff Flake, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, and Maine’s Susan Collins, all of whom joined forces last week to demand the GOP give the FBI a week to investigate the sexual misconduct allegations against the Supreme Court nominee. Senate Republicans hold a narrow 51–49 advantage—with Vice President Mike Pence in their back pocket as the potential tiebreaker—so they can’t afford to lose more than one of those three and still confirm Kavanaugh along party lines.

And yet as the Senate waits for the FBI report, it’s noteworthy that Flake, Murkowski, and Collins aren’t the only senators being targeted by heavy-spending outside groups pressuring them to vote one way or the other on Kavanaugh. A half-dozen other senators have also found themselves the subject of at least one big-dollar ad blitz announced in the past two days alone.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is opposing Kavanaugh, unveiled a $1 million campaign on Monday with a target list that includes Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Republicans Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.

And then on Tuesday, the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, which has reportedly already spent more than $10 million supporting Kavanaugh, announced its own plan for another $400,000 in advertising to keep the pressure on Manchin and fellow red-state Democrat Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, both of whom voted to confirm Donald Trump’s previous SCOTUS pick, Neil Gorsuch, and both of whom are up for re-election in states Trump won in landslides.

So what, exactly, is going on here? Are there really that many senators who could be the deciding vote for whether Kavanaugh is confirmed?

Barring a major surprise in the FBI’s findings, the answer is almost certainly not. If the GOP ends up with the votes to confirm Kavanaugh along party lines, it’s possible that Heitkamp and/or more likely Manchin break ranks to prove their independence to Trump voters back home, but it’s nearly unthinkable either would be willing to be the deciding vote on their own. (Manchin, for one, has already reportedly discussed voting as a bloc with the GOP trio.)

Meanwhile, while the four other GOP senators on the ACLU’s list have claimed that they’ll wait until the investigation is done before they make up their minds, each has happily taken a back seat to Flake, Murkowski, and Collins. There’s no reason to suspect that’s going to change. Gardner is the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, for instance, and Fischer is up for re-election in a dark-red state. (The ads targeting Capito and Sullivan, meanwhile, can be explained in part by the ACLU trying to get the most bang for their buck. If you’re going to pay for airtime in Alaska to reach Murkowski, you might as well make it a two-for-one by tacking on Sullivan’s name to the kicker.) Even if the FBI uncovers something more damning than the current allegations against Kavanaugh, no one expects any of the four to jump ship before Flake, Murkowski, and/or Collins do.

Still, this 13th-hour ad blitz isn’t just about running up the score, or scoring a few early points ahead of 2020. There is safety in numbers in politics, and it would be far easier for Flake, Murkowski, and Collins to vote to confirm Kavanaugh if Manchin and Heitkamp are right there with them. (Likewise, it’d be easier for Heitkamp to vote for Kavanaugh if Manchin does, and vice versa.) On the flip side, voting against confirmation gets a little bit easier for the GOP trio in the unlikely event another Republican or two are willing to defect as well. Don’t expect any of these six senators to be the swing vote, then—but should any of them be willing to break with their party, that might help swing Flake, Murkowski, and Collins in one direction over another.