A month ago, an unsigned op-ed in the New York Times portrayed President Trump as an incompetent surrounded by officials, like the unnamed writer, determined to thwart his worst instincts. The writing enraged the president, dominated headlines and could, commentators said, affect the midterm elections.
Sic transit gloria mundi. The memory of Anonymous has dissipated, blown away by the weeks of controversy over Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. That battle has angered and energized the president’s supporters, dominated headlines and could, commentators say, affect the midterm elections.
Perhaps it will. The most recent polls do indicate a boost for Republicans in some Senate contests, and Trump’s overall approval rating — a key measure for the elections — has risen in at least one survey. But like presidential debates, political conventions and op-eds, the impact of news events — even big news events — tends to fade with time; election day remains just over a month away.
The Senate’s vote on Friday morning to close debate on the Kavanaugh nomination sets up a final vote for the weekend, with the outcome still in doubt. At least one key voter, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, announced before the cloture roll call that she would vote to move the nomination forward, but would announce later in the day whether she would vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation. With Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska voting against cloture and saying she would oppose the nomination, Collins holds the deciding vote.
For the past couple of weeks, the drama over the nomination has played out for three audiences: a handful of undecided senators, a restless president and the voting public.
The senators who remained undeclared on Friday morning Republicans Collins, Murkowski and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia have voiced a range of concerns about the nomination.
Flake, who voted for cloture, mostly has worried about public acceptance of the nominee and the process leading up to his confirmation.
“I’m a conservative; he’s a conservative judge,” the senator said last Friday after he forced the White House and the Senate’s Republican leadership to reopen the FBI investigation of Kavanaugh’s background.
“I wanted to support him,” he said. “But I want a process we can be proud of. I think the country needs to be behind it.”
During the week, as White House limits on the inquiry generated additional controversy, Flake intervened again, pushing White House counsel Don McGahn to allow the FBI a freer rein. In the end, the bureau contacted 10 witnesses and interviewed nine, and Flake appeared satisfied.
Republican leaders didn’t want Flake to slow down the nomination, but he may have done them a favor. Democrats harshly criticized the FBI investigation as too limited, but the fact that the bureau interviewed at least the key witnesses and did not find evidence to corroborate the accusations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh gave Republicans a stronger argument.
Flake’s comments on Thursday, signaling acceptance of the FBI report, were a main reason that White House officials expressed confidence that they had gotten through the worst of the battle.
By contrast with Flake, Collins and Murkowski are relative moderates.
Collins’ main concern, as set out in her public statements, has involved abortion. She wanted assurances that Kavanaugh would not rush to overturn Roe v. Wade. Although she did not reveal her vote in advance, she has said several times that Kavanaugh’s statements on that score had reassured her.
Murkowski also supports abortion rights. In addition, she won crucial support for her last reelection from Alaska native tribes, who opposed Kavanaugh because of some of his rulings as an appeals court judge. She has less reason than others to fear anger from the GOP right wing, having won last time as a write-in candidate after losing a Republican primary.
Manchin is a Democrat running for reelection in a state that Trump carried by 42 percentage points. He cast the 51st vote for cloture, but also left uncertain how he will vote on the confirmation.
Kavanaugh this week needed to win over at least two of the undeclared senators. He also had to keep satisfying Trump, who, at several points during the last two weeks, distanced himself from the nominee.
“I don’t even know him. I met him for the first time a few weeks ago,” Trump said at a rally in Mississippi this week.
White House aides said that Trump wanted to see Kavanaugh fight to defend himself. That may have contributed to Kavanaugh’s angry, emotional performance before the Judiciary Committee, which delighted Trump but dismayed Flake and others.
Former Justice John Paul Stevens, now 98, cited Kavanaugh’s comments to the committee when he told an audience in Florida this week that he had changed his mind about Kavanaugh and now opposed his confirmation. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota also cited Kavanaugh’s statements on Thursday when she announced her vote against him.
As David Savage wrote, Kavanaugh’s angry testimony risked undercutting his claims of being an impartial jurist.
As for the public at large, the final weeks of the controversy appear to have solidified partisan feelings on both sides. Overall support for Kavanaugh seems to have declined a bit, but the intensity of Republican support has gone up.
Anger provides a powerful motivation for voting and until now, the Democrats had almost all the anger on their side in this year’s midterm election. Now the GOP has some as well. That could matter — if it lasts.
In the short term, because anger matters, whichever side loses the final vote might benefit politically. In the longer term, of course, Supreme Court justices can affect policy for many more years than the outcome of a single midterm election.
Meantime, as Savage reported, the Supreme Court opened its new term on a quiet note, with eight justices hearing arguments, waiting for a ninth colleague to join them.
DECISION CALIFORNIA — MIDTERM OUTLOOK
With fewer than five weeks to go in the midterm campaign, Republicans face a serious risk of a wipeout in California, according to polls in eight congressional districts conducted for The Times by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies.
In the six districts that the two parties have contested most intensely, Republicans don’t have a single candidate in the lead, the polls found. Those contested districts include four in Orange County, one in northern Los Angeles County and one centered on Modesto in the Central Valley.
But the polls also showed most of the races very close. There’s only one in which the Democratic candidate has a strong lead. If the Democratic tide ebbs just a little, Republicans could easily hold on.
The Berkeley-IGS Poll uses an innovative technique that some pollsters think may be the wave of the future in polling. Read our description of how it works.
Two of the close contests involve incumbent Republican Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Jeff Denham. Joe Mozingo and Jazmine Ulloa teamed up to look at the contrasting ways the two deal with Trump’s controversial policies on immigration.
Another very close contest involves Democratic candidate Gil Cisneros. He’s been dogged by an accusation of sexual harassment. This week, though, the woman who made the accusation retracted it, saying it was a “misunderstanding,” Christine Mai-Duc reported.
One contest that doesn’t seem close is the Senate race between incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein and state Sen. Kevin de Leon, both Democrats. Sarah Wire took a comprehensive look at where the two stand on major issues.
THE NATIONAL MIDTERM OUTLOOK
Beto O’Rourke has captured the imagination of liberal Democrats from Santa Monica to Brooklyn. But can he capture the attention of Latino voters in Texas, where he’s seeking to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz? Evan Halper traveled to Texas to check in on one of this year’s most watched campaigns.
And Noah Bierman headed for Oklahoma, where Sen. Elizabeth Warren was visiting her home state. The Massachusetts senator sounds increasingly like a presidential candidate ready to get back in the fight, Bierman reported.
CLEARING THE DECKS FOR A FIGHT WITH CHINA
As Don Lee reported, the U.S. and Canada reached a last-minute agreement on an updated version of NAFTA, the trade agreement that links the two countries and Mexico.
Trump, who had repeatedly denounced NAFTA, called the agreement a new model for trade, but many trade experts see it as a fairly modest update.
As Jim Puzzanghera wrote, provisions covering the auto industry were a major U.S. focus, but analysts say the changes will have limited impact. California’s wine industry hopes to benefit by uncorking Canada’s market, Geoff Mohan wrote.
A big reason why the administration came to terms on NAFTA: Trump had picked too many trade fights at once. Officials want to resolve most of them so they can focus on the big one — China.
Vice President Mike Pence laid out the administration’s case against China in a speech Thursday in which he ramped up charges of Chinese meddling in the U.S., Lee wrote.
THE BEST OF THE REST
The administration has stopped issuing visas to same-sex partners of foreign diplomats unless they are married, Tracy Wilkinson reported. Officials defend the policy as equal treatment — now that same-sex marriage is legal, gay couples shouldn’t need special treatment, they say.
Critics note that many countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East continue to ban same-sex marriages, and warn that diplomats from those countries will face retaliation. About 105 foreign diplomatic couples will immediately be affected, the State Department estimates, of whom 55 work for international organizations based in the U.S.
Workers’ health costs continue to rise, eroding wages, Noam Levey wrote, citing new survey data.
Federal investigators found many failures in the administration’s family separation policy, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. GAO auditors said the Homeland Security department was unprepared to handle the policy, Evan Halper wrote.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
David Cloud reported from Poland, where officials are trying to tempt Trump to build a permanent military base for U.S. troops. The Pentagon doesn’t like the idea, fearing a multi-billion price tag and increased tensions with Russia. But Polish officials, playing to the president’s vanity, have offered to name the base Fort Trump.
That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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