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THE WASHINGTON POST OPINIONS

(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

On the Senate floor this afternoon, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell raged at the terribly unfair treatment that is being directed at poor, victimized Brett Kavanaugh. “This shameful, shameful smear campaign has hit a new low,” McConnell said. “Senate Democrats and their allies are trying to destroy a man’s personal and professional life on the basis of decades old allegations that are unsubstantiated and uncorroborated.”

What’s a bit confusing about this is that numerous Republicans have sworn up and down that Christine Blasey Ford’s claims about Kavanaugh (putting side the new ones from Deborah Ramirez) must be taken seriously and that she must be given a fair hearing. As of now, both Kavanaugh and Ford are set to testify on Thursday.

But how are Republicans going to give Ford a serious hearing, if they’ve already decided that her claims are nothing more than ammunition in a smear campaign designed to destroy an innocent man?

For some time now, I’ve assumed that Kavanaugh will get confirmed at the end of the day, and that still seems like the most likely outcome. But Politico reports that this isn’t a sure thing, and what’s interesting is why this is the case:

Republican senators are returning to Washington with “no idea” as to how the Kavanaugh scandal will play out, said one GOP senator. …

Republican leaders are closely watching the reactions of Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Bob Corker of Tennessee to the latest Kavanaugh news to determine whether they can proceed with the nomination, according to GOP senators and aides. …

A Republican senator familiar with internal deliberations said that the electoral calculations of McConnell and other GOP leaders could weigh more heavily on Kavanaugh’s future than a small group of undecided GOP lawmakers. This Republican argued that if GOP leaders can keep the majority, confirming someone other than Kavanaugh would be less of a problem than taking a major political hit in November.

“They care a lot about this nominee. But they care far more about being the majority,” the senator said on Monday. “If I were [Kavanaugh] I would be more concerned with that than the three or four independent-minded senators … his greatest threat is McConnell and Senate leadership if they think this is going against them in the midterms.”

What’s interesting here is that this contradicts (at least in some ways) the spin we’ve heard from Kavanaugh’s conservative backers, who have argued that the single greatest threat to Republicans is failing to confirm Kavanaugh, which could badly demoralize the base. But it now appear that some Republicans fear the opposite — that serious political danger could lie in confirming Kavanaugh.

If Politico’s reporting is right, GOP leaders are trying to gauge which way this is going — and they could end up concluding that confirming him could cost them in this fall’s elections. In this calculus, it might be better if they do not confirm him, provided they hold on to the majority, since they can confirm someone else if they do.

Indeed, the Atlantic’s Elaina Plott reports that this is what’s really going on:

Ultimately, it’s McConnell’s political calculus … that could prove most crucial in determining Kavanaugh’s fate. Whether the majority leader’s apparent stance — that pulling Kavanaugh’s confirmation would harm rather than help his members’ chances in November — holds firm remains to be seen.

As I argued the other day, the Republicans’ strategy throughout this whole affair has been to do the absolute minimum necessary to appear as if they take Ford’s sexual assault claims seriously — while doing all they can to limit the ability of the voters to make a fully informed judgment about Kavanaugh’s conduct themselves.

And so, Republicans have been forced to move from trying to set up only private calls between Ford and Senators, to agreeing to a public hearing for Ford, to pushing that public hearing back a few days when Ford refused to comply with Republicans’ schedule. Republicans have not given ground on allowing more witnesses, but they have clearly been pushed backwards in ways that they didn’t anticipate (and, indeed, infuriated Kavanaugh’s conservative backers).

This balancing act — between wanting to show white college educated and suburban women that Republicans really, truly want to give Ford procedurally fair treatment, and doing everything possible to prevent too much actual detail about Kavanaugh’s conduct from getting through to the voters — has been very tough to sustain. Complicating matters has been that Republicans appear to fear that the GOP base is reacting very badly to any concessions they make to Ford, as if this constitutes surrender.

So McConnell is now lurching towards making the base happy, by portraying Kavanaugh as the true victim here — yet at the same time, the reporting indicates that Republicans could still end up concluding that cutting their losses with Kavanaugh would do more to hold their majority.

I’d still bet that Kavanaugh gets confirmed, but it’s hard to see how Republicans avoid serious political damage no matter what ends up happening.