Probably the hardest task I have as a political analyst is trying to understand what goes on inside the conservative bubble and how Republican lawmakers experience pressure from their own base. On the surface, it seems like the president made a blunder when he decided to mock Dr. Christine Blasey Ford Tuesday night at a campaign rally in Mississippi. It earned rebukes from the three most critical Republican senators Trump needs to see Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to the Supreme Court. From the outside, it looks like Trump both angered them and made it more politically difficult for them to take his side.
But maybe that’s wrong. In ramping up the battle against Dr. Ford, the president is rallying Republicans to the fight which means that the cost of opposing Kavanaugh grows higher than ever for how a Republican is perceived among their own voters. And maybe these senators don’t want to be pariahs in Republican circles and that drives them at least as much as any political considerations.
The three senators are all in unusual situations in their own ways. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona had already been all but excommunicated before the Kavanaugh battle began, and he is not seeking reelection because he probably could not have survived a Republican primary challenge. If he cares about how Republicans feel about him at this point, he’s probably fighting a lost cause. He’ll be a hero to some regardless, but a lot of Republicans who hate Trump still want to see their lifelong dream of a conservative movement majority on the Supreme Court fulfilled. I think Flake is worried about those folks above all.
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has already suffered the indignity of losing a Republican primary, but she managed to bounce back by running a successful write-in campaign. She doesn’t necessarily need a solid Republican base behind her to continue to win reelection. Still, she is from a Republican family and she has so far resisted abandoning the party. It’s possible that this conflict could move her away from the GOP permanently but that’s a decision she’s probably reluctant to make.
Susan Collins of Maine comes from a state that likes to elect independent governors and senators, and it’s split down the middle between a Clinton-Supporting south and a Trump-supporting north. She wins by casting herself as a moderate Republican, and this is testing her like she’s never been tested before. Voting for Kavanaugh will cause some severe erosion of her brand and pretty much destroy her pretense of being pro-choice, but opposing Kavanaugh will cause severe damage with the base she needs to survive in a Blueish state. It’s a no-win situation, so she may ultimately make her decision on conscience. Still, perhaps she thinks more about how the vote will affect her social life among Republican peers than how it will impact her political future.
I confess that I just have trouble thinking like these folks, so it’s very hard for me to predict how they’ll ultimately react to Trump’s disgraceful attacks on Dr. Ford. Maybe it sickens and angers them but it’s still the most effective way to get them in line.