Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski voted against advancing the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, while Democrat Joe Manchin backed it -- a sign that the final outcome will come down to a slim margin given the intense pressure on both parties.
Murkowski and Manchin both broke with their parties in Friday’s 51-49 vote on Kavanaugh, whose nomination by President Donald Trump has become emblematic of the nation’s deep political divide.
“In my view he’s not the best man for the court at this time,” Murkowski told reporters after her vote. “This has truly been the most difficult evaluation of a decision that I have ever had to make.”
Alaska’s Murkowski has supported abortion rights, and officials in the state have raised concerns about Kavanaugh’s views on tribal rights, an important issue in her state. Alaska’s governor and lieutenant governor, both of whom are running for re-election as independents, had announced their opposition to Kavanaugh.
The Alaskan has staked her political career on being attentive to local concerns and interests. In 2010 she won her Senate re-election race as a write-in candidate, a rarity, after she was defeated in the Republican primary by a conservative Tea Party candidate.
While Murkowski won’t have to run for Senate again until 2022, Manchin is up for re-election Nov. 6 in West Virginia, a state Trump won by a wide margin. Manchin has remained popular in the state in part by cultivating an image of independence. The few polls of West Virginia voters ahead of next month’s vote have shown him with a significant lead over Republican Patrick Morrisey, the state’s attorney general.
Another Democrat facing a tough re-election battle in a Trump state, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, announced Thursday she’d vote against Kavanaugh. Her opponent, Republican Representative Kevin Cramer, accused her of deciding to “vote with Chuck Schumer, and not the people of North Dakota.” Schumer is the Senate Democratic leader. Two polls taken in the state last month showed Cramer with a comfortable lead.
The other four Democrats in toss-up re-election contests -- Florida’s Bill Nelson, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly and Montana’s Jon Tester -- also voted against advancing Kavanaugh. But in a sign of the delicate political balance, Democrat Phil Bredesen, who’s running in a close race for an open Senate seat in heavily Republican Tennessee, said they he would vote “yes” on Kavanaugh’s confirmation if he were in office.
Two other closely watched senators, Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, voted to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination. However, a vote to advance doesn’t bind a Senator to vote in favor of confirmation.
Collins said she’ll announce her decision on whether to vote to confirm Kavanaugh later on Friday. Flake, who’s retiring from the Senate at the end of the current term, told reporters that he’ll vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation when it comes to a vote on Saturday.
As the Senate roll call proceeded on Friday, Murkowski knew the outcome wasn’t in doubt by the time it came to her. She looked down for a while, closed her eyes, then looked up and seemed to have resolved any doubt on how she would vote. She then stood up, and softly said “no.”
Kavanaugh’s nomination was destined to come in the middle of an election year partisan fight, but the intensity accelerated after a California college professor accused him of sexually assaulting her when they both were in high school. Kavanaugh has vehemently denied the charge, as well as accusations of sexual misconduct by two other women.
Both parties have reported a surge in donations and voter interest since the accusations against Kavanaugh became public just weeks before midterm elections that will decide control of Congress. While Democrats are in good position to take the House majority from Republicans, the party has a more difficult path in the Senate.