Supreme Court nomination hearings are ostensibly one of the few moments when senators set aside politics and review a president’s pick for one of the most consequential jobs in the land on his or her merits.

But that is so not the case here. The Senate’s hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh start Tuesday, in a uniquely hyperpartisan political moment, just two months before congressional elections and two years before another really big election for president.

In other words, it’s a safe assumption that almost everyone in the room will be driven by their own political narratives. Aides on both sides of the aisle say to expect fireworks.

So let’s break down some of the big players and their motives to understand what to expect in the Kavanaugh hearings.

Kavanaugh: Avoid pitfalls, and say as little of substance as possible

Let’s start with the most obvious player, who perhaps has the most obvious motive. Kavanaugh wants this job, and he is fully aware that nearly half the room doesn’t want him to get it. He’s also possibly aware of how thin is the ice he stands on. If all Senate Democrats vote against him, Republicans can afford only one or two “no” votes, depending on when the vote happens and when John McCain’s replacement arrives in the Senate. Kavanaugh knows he has no room for error.


Expect that caution to manifest in an avoidance of any questions about how he would decide certain cases, especially on hot-button issues like abortion, terrorism and presidential powers. Justice Neil Gorsuch perfected this say-nothing strategy in his confirmation hearings last year, when he wouldn’t even give his opinion on something like the Second Amendment, saying it would be improper for him to come to a case with a publicly stated predetermined opinion.

 Potential 2020-ers: Get noticed

Perhaps no committee is as chock-full of rumored Democratic presidential candidates as the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., are all potential 2020 candidates who will have a moment in the spotlight questioning Kavanaugh.

There are any number of ways these senators can leverage this moment, but a big one will be by trying to pin down Kavanaugh on his views about presidential powers as they pertain to President Trump. Once downright angry about President Clinton’s misdoings, Kavanaugh has since written that criminal investigations of sitting presidents aren’t in the public interest.

Brett Kavanaugh

These Democrats can juxtapose any sympathy Kavanaugh might express for the president with just how little of it they themselves feel for Trump. Given that there are factions of the Democratic base that want Trump impeached, that might be a smart strategy to get noticed.

 The never-Trump Republicans: Decide how much they want to needle the president


There are two to four Republicans on the committee who could be classified as antagonists to Trump to some degree. Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina has introduced a bill to stop Trump from firing special counsel Robert Mueller III. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska is a reliable critic when Trump steps outside Republican orthodoxy. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is an enemy turned golf buddy of Trump who is not afraid to criticize the president on occasion.

But it’s Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona who may have the most to get off his chest in this hearing. The hearings come little more than a week after Flake’s friend and colleague, McCain, died – and Trump showed zero interest in honoring McCain as the rest of Washington saw fit. How much does he want to use this hearing to express his displeasure with the president and honor his late friend?

Senate Democratic leaders: Try to win over skeptical Republicans to sink Kavanaugh’s nomination

There are few undecided votes on the Kavanaugh nomination. But if Democratic leaders on this committee, like Senate Democrats’ No. 2, Richard Durbin, think there is an opening to pick off a couple of Republican votes, expect them to hit hard on how Kavanaugh feels about abortion. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have said they want a justice who will respect that abortion is legal.

That might be a lost cause, though. Collins and Murkowski have both given indications they’ll support Kavanaugh.

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