Collins’ Kavanaugh Decision Rests on ‘More Likely Than Not’

(Bloomberg) -- Senator Susan Collins had to know her decision on Brett Kavanaugh’s U.S. Supreme Court nomination would reverberate in a country gripped by a vicious confirmation battle that hinged on allegations of sexual assault at the height of the “Me Too” era.

So the Maine Republican turned to a legalistic argument to justify a political decision to back the embattled nominee. In a speech on the Senate floor Friday, she ultimately concluded that allegations against Kavanaugh were serious but didn’t meet her own burden of proof -- whether the accusations were "more likely than not."

"I do not believe that these charges can fairly prevent Judge Kavanaugh from serving on the court," Collins said.

Her 44-minute address offered a contrast to the emotionally charged politics surrounding a nomination that could define her, her party and the Supreme Court for a generation. And her declaration of support put Kavanaugh over the threshold of votes needed when chamber meets to confirm him on Saturday.

By waiting until the final hours to announce her position, and waiting until the end of her Senate floor speech to make clear how she’d vote, Collins added to the drama that has captivated the nation during two weeks of high-stakes legislative maneuvering.

She said she closely examined Kavanaugh and his credentials, devoting much of her speech to her own efforts to gauge how the nominee would approach legal principles like executive power and privacy rights. She detailed why she was confident Kavanuagh wouldn’t upend protections for abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act that she’s long cited as evidence that she’s independent from Republican orthodoxy.

Collins’s decision has already made her a political target. Progressive groups said they have raised more than $2 million for a Democrat to run against her in 2020, providing she follows through and votes to back Kavanaugh.

Collins has repeatedly become the center of political attention by becoming a swing vote in an increasingly polarized Senate. She bucked her party by voting not to repeal Obamacare in 2017.

During her Senate floor speech, Collins said she found the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, the California college professor who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a high school gathering, to be sincere and compelling. But she said she saw a greater risk in rejecting a nominee over 36-year-old allegation that weren’t corroborated.

By contrast, Democrats said they found the Ford’s accusations against Kavanaugh to be credible, and they raised questions about his temperament when he attacked Democrats during a hearing.

Collins’s explanation of her thinking about the allegations seemed a concerted effort to draw a stylistic contrast with the male-dominated political showdown that has engrossed Washington ever since Ford testified last week at a public Judiciary Committee hearing.

Collins spoke flanked by two of the five other Republican women in the Senate -- Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia -- and opened her remarks by denouncing a confirmation process she said resembled "a caricature of a gutter- level political campaign."

The contrast was only heightened when she was interrupted early in her speech by protesters chanting encouragement to vote against the nomination. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested Thursday in Washington, and Republican lawmakers have complained that they feel targeted and harassed by those opposing the nomination.

Collins "did more to expose the ugliness of the controversy" around the nomination than any other senator, Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, tweeted. She "rejected mob rule and embraced the Rule of Law," said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

Collins’s presentation also appeared to be an implicit rebuke of President Donald Trump, who earlier this week mocked Ford’s testimony at a political rally and said he is worried boys in America face a climate of unfair abuse accusations.

For Collins and Republicans, the question remains whether her approach did enough to offset potential political damage from the planned elevation of Kavanaugh.

For women of “Me Too” generation, the vote likely solidifies the notion that Trump speaks for the party on issues of sexual harassment and abuse. And for moderates and independents who side with Collins on the need to protect health-care subsidies and abortion access, Kavanaugh is likely to quickly face tests that will demonstrate whether her faith was misplaced.

The next test for the GOP will be Nov. 6 elections that will determine control of both chambers of Congress.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.