President Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court beams an even brighter spotlight on the handful of red-state Democratic senators who were already facing blistering pressure from both the left and right.
Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) were under intense scrutiny even before Trump tapped Kavanaugh, a veteran appeals court judge. But they quickly began feeling the pinch as more than a half-dozen prominent liberals in the caucus joined Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in opposing Kavanaugh as a hard-line conservative minutes after the nomination was rolled out — even as the White House and Senate Republicans began trumpeting the nominee as a “mainstream” pick.
The moderates, who face tough reelection campaigns this fall in states Trump won by whopping margins, largely refrained from jumping into the fray.
“I have no doubt that many members of Congress and outside groups will announce how they stand on the nominee before doing their due diligence and instead just take a partisan stance — but that isn’t how I work,” Heitkamp said.
Manchin also declined to take an immediate position on Kavanaugh, though he said on Monday night that he is “particularly” interested in Kavanaugh’s views on health care, one of two issues — alongside abortion rights — that Democrats and progressive groups are building their Supreme Court messaging around.
“The Supreme Court will ultimately decide if nearly 800,000 West Virginians with pre-existing conditions will lose their healthcare,” Manchin said in a statement. “This decision will directly impact almost 40% of my state, so I’m very interested in his position on protecting West Virginians with pre-existing conditions.”
Kavanaugh has faced criticism from some on the right for an opinion that, while offering no definitive ruling on a challenge to Obamacare, aligned with the reasoning behind Chief Justice John Roberts’ ultimate decision to uphold the constitutionality of a health care law maligned by many conservatives. But top Democrats and party activists view Kavanaugh as “hostile to Obamacare,” as Demand Justice executive director Brian Fallon put it in a statement on the nomination.
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) — all potential challengers to Trump in 2020 — came out against Kavanaugh on Monday night. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) were among the other Democrats joining them.
Booker and Murphy also previewed specific arguments against Kavanaugh that promise to pick up steam as Democrats shape their campaign against him.
Booker cited Kavanaugh’s “long-established view that a president should not be subject to civil litigation or criminal investigation while in office” as a danger to the integrity of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Murphy, meanwhile, slammed him as a “Second Amendment radical” in light of his 2011 dissent on a case that upheld D.C. limits on semi-automatic rifles.
But Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who like his three red-state colleagues declined an invitation to attend the Kavanaugh announcement at the White House, tweeted only that he would conduct “a thorough vetting of” the nominee’s record. Donnelly similarly offered paltry clues in a statement about what would sway his vote.
Meanwhile, the Republicans challenging Manchin, Heitkamp, and Sen. Claire McCaskill in November’s midterms each pushed their foes to endorse Kavanaugh.
“If Sen. Joe Manchin had his way in 2016, Hillary Clinton would now be nominating her second radical anti-Second Amendment, pro-abortion nominee to the Court,” Manchin’s GOP opponent, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, said in a statement Monday night.
Among potential swing-vote Republicans, Maine Sen. Susan Collins issued a statement touting Kavanaugh’s “impressive credentials and extensive experience,” though she offered no position on the nominee, a former George W. Bush administration official who serves on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), eyed by Democrats as potential opponents given their support for abortion rights and the prospect that Roe v Wade could be overturned with Kavanaugh on the court, also declined invitations to the White House on Monday night.
Murkowski said little in her own response to the Kavanaugh nomination beyond reiterating her “rigorous and exacting” approach to the confirmation process.
However, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), long absent from Washington while he fights brain cancer, indicated that he would likely support the president‘s pick if he were to return to the upper chamber for a vote. McCain hailed Kavanaugh in a statement as “a fair, independent, and mainstream judge who has earned widespread respect from his peers.”
On the airwaves, the battle to shape public opinion of Kavanaugh began just after Trump announced him. The conservative Judicial Crisis Network unveiled a $1.4 million cable and digital ad campaign, focusing on four states: Alabama, North Dakota, Indiana, and West Virginia. The ads were coupled with a “Confirm Kavanaugh” website to amplify positive messages about the pick.