2020 primaries loom over GOP senators on Kavanaugh

2020 primaries loom over GOP senators on Kavanaugh
© Greg Nash

Two key players in the battle over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — moderate Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsProgressive Jewish group endorses Biden Poll: Gideon leads Collins by 8 points in Maine Senate race The Hill's 12:30 Report - Speculation over Biden's running mate announcement MORE (R-Maine) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell warns control of Senate 'could go either way' in November On The Money: McConnell says it's time to restart coronavirus talks | New report finds majority of Americans support merger moratorium | Corporate bankruptcies on pace for 10-year high McConnell: Time to restart coronavirus talks MORE (R-Ky.) — face primary concerns in the next election cycle that could hinge on the outcome of this month’s confirmation fight.

Collins is likely to face a primary challenge in 2020 if she votes against Kavanaugh and runs for reelection, predicted one veteran Maine Republican on Tuesday, though it’s not yet certain whether she intends to seek another six-year term.

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Collins, 65, has already served four terms in the Senate. She reported having $1.3 million in cash on hand in her reelection account, prompting speculation she may retire.

“I certainly think that because of the manner in which this has risen and the stakes at play that it would result in a primary challenger,” said Andre Cushing, a Maine county commissioner and former state senator, when asked about the political effect if Collins votes against Kavanaugh.

Amy Fried, chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Maine, said Collins is under pressure from both sides of the political spectrum.

“A lot of Republicans would be unhappy with her if she voted against Kavanaugh,” Fried said. “And it would probably reduce her overall approval ratings if she did vote for Kavanaugh, because if you look back to the exit polls of 2014 she won significant numbers of Democrats.”

Maine has a closed primary, meaning only Republicans can vote for GOP candidates, but voters who are “unenrolled,” or independent, can change their registration on election day and vote in the primary as a Republican.

Annie Clark, a spokeswoman for Collins, declined to comment on her boss’s reelection plans.

“We’re not talking about 2020 until 2020,” she said.

McConnell would like to have President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE’s endorsement ahead of his own primary in 2020, and right now he’s on thin ice with the president, who reportedly chewed him out late last month for letting the nomination process drag on without a confirmation vote.

McConnell beat back a credible conservative challenger in 2014, former businessman Matt Bevin, who was later elected governor. But a failure to secure Trump’s endorsement could leave the 76-year-old leader open to another challenge.

Trump last year publicly blasted McConnell for the GOP’s failure to repeal ObamaCare, and there’s a chance he would blame Senate Republican leaders again if Kavanaugh is not confirmed.

Al Cross, a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky and a longtime commentator on state politics, said that if Kavanaugh goes down in flames, it creates a dangerously unpredictable political environment for McConnell and Senate GOP candidates.

“He realizes that the Kavanaugh confirmation has probably become the No. 1 motivating factor for the Trump base,” Cross said of McConnell.

He warned that if Kavanaugh is defeated and Republicans run out of time to confirm another Supreme Court nominee before Election Day, “the Republican base would just be in turmoil.”

“If the Republican base was in such turmoil that Republicans lost the Senate, I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump would publicly demand the ouster of McConnell as Republican leader,” he added. “McConnell has always had a ginger relationship with Donald Trump, and Trump read him the riot act 10 days ago about how this is being handled.”

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHillicon Valley: Facebook removed over 22 million posts for hate speech in second quarter | Republicans introduce bill to defend universities against hackers targeting COVID-19 research | Facebook's Sandberg backs Harris as VP pick Republicans set sights on FBI chief as Russia probe investigations ramp up The Hill's 12:30 Report - Speculation over Biden's running mate announcement MORE (R-S.C.), who is one of Trump’s closest allies in the Senate, said the Kavanaugh nomination has unified the Republican Party like few other issues.

“This is the first time the country club Republican and the Trump Republican has come together,” he said, noting that Kavanaugh served in the Bush administration and is considered an establishment Republican.

Scott Jennings, a McConnell political adviser, agrees that Kavanaugh’s fate has become a top issue for Republican voters, something he said the GOP leader understands very well.

“For Republicans, I’ve not seen an issue that has galvanized ‘Never Trumpers,’ lukewarm Trumpers, the MAGA people, the Bush people,” he said. “The consequences of walking away from Kavanaugh would be for a whole bunch of Republicans to look up, look out their window, stare off into the sky and wonder ‘why am I voting for this party if they won’t stand up to the mob.’ ”

“I think McConnell understood that from Day One,” he added.

Republican senators confirmed that. McConnell delivered a stern message to GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to get the nominee confirmed after Christine Blasey Ford went public with her sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh.

“McConnell’s message was, ‘Get it done!’ He said there are a few issues that voters care about and the Supreme Court is one of them,” said one Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The question then becomes: What’s the political fallout if the nominee fails because of a shortage of GOP votes?

Cross, of the University of Kentucky, said any falling out between McConnell and Trump, such as the one in 2017 after the failed ObamaCare repeal effort, could open the door for Bevin, McConnell’s previous primary challenger.

While Bevin says he will run for reelection as governor in 2019, he faces a tough fight, and Cross isn’t ruling out the possibility that he or another conservative challenger might take another shot at McConnell, who would be 78 on Election Day  in 2020.

“You can look ahead to 2020,” Cross said. “There is a chance that Bevin on reelection could immediately declare against McConnell.”

“If Bevin thinks he could get Trump’s endorsement for a primary against McConnell, I think he might very well do it,” he added.

McConnell has long been a target of criticism among conservative activists, and a Morning Consult/Politico poll earlier this year ranked him as the least popular member of the Senate, with 56 percent of respondents in Kentucky saying they disapproved of him.

Jennings, the McConnell adviser, described the prospect of Bevin challenging McConnell in 2020 as far-fetched.

“He has announced he is running for reelection in 2019,” Jennings said. “He’s going to have a fight on hand and it’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out in 2019, but I would think the governor committing to running for reelection means he’s not running in 2020.”

Jennings predicted that if Kavanaugh falls short on a confirmation vote, McConnell won’t get any blame.

“McConnell’s going down to the Senate floor every morning and delivering these absolute on-message statements every single day,” Jennings said. “He is in lockstep with the White House on getting this done.”

He said Trump and McConnell will need each other when they are both up for reelection in 2020.

“I’ve argued for some time their political fortunes are very much tied to each other. They’re both on the ballot in 2020,” Jennings noted. “Trump’s successes are McConnell’s are Trump’s.”

But whether McConnell’s failures are also Trump’s is another matter. If the past is any indicator, Trump won’t be eager to share any blame if Kavanaugh gets voted down.