WASHINGTON - Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Wednesday that Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, remains unbeatable in her home state despite her opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination - a view at odds with President Donald Trump.
"She's about as strong as you can possibly be in Alaska. Nobody's going to beat her," McConnell told the Associated Press as part of a wide-ranging interview.
Murkowski, whose seat is on the ballot in 2022, last week voted against advancing Kavanaugh’s nomination and voted “present” on the final confirmation vote, calling Trump’s nominee “a good man” but “not the right man for the court at this time.”
That prompted Trump to predict that Murkowski - the only GOP senator to oppose Kavanaugh's nomination - would go down in defeat if she runs for reelection.
In a brief telephone interview Saturday with The Washington Post, Trump said voters in Alaska “will never forgive” Murkowski.
"I think she will never recover from this," he said. "I think the people from Alaska will never forgive her for what she did."
"She's certainly going to recover," McConnell told the AP, pointing to Murkowski's resilience in her 2010 election.
In that race, Murkowski was defeated in the Republican primary by Joe Miller, a tea party candidate backed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. But Murkowski prevailed in the general election as a write-in candidate, becoming the first U.S. senator to do so in more than 50 years.
Murkowski weighed in herself Wednesday, telling reporters at the Capitol that she was not overly concerned by Trump's criticism.
"My barometer is not necessarily what the president says but what the people of Alaska say," she said.
Murkowski said that she had gotten a mixed reaction from constituents since coming out against Kavanaugh but added that would have been the case regardless of how she voted: "I'm not guided by the polling out there, that's for sure, but on this one, Alaskans were pretty much split down the middle. And so you knew going into it that if you vote one way, you're going to make half the people happy and half the people not happy."
"I agonized, I considered, and ultimately I had a decision to make that was based on the best judgment that I had, and I had to follow my conscience," she added. "I did that, and I'm good with where my conscience has taken me."
Later, in a floor speech, Murkowski stuck up for fellow Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who was also undecided until the final days before Kavanaugh’s confirmation but ultimately voted yes - earning her the enmity of liberal protesters.
"I would just urge us all choose our words carefully," she said. "Don't be afraid to speak with kindness towards one another. Don't be afraid to call out the good in somebody else, even though you have voted against them. We are better than we're seeing right now."
Kavanaugh's nomination was roiled late in the process by the emergence of three women who accused him of decades-old sexual misconduct.
Palin suggested last week that she might mount a Republican primary challenge against Murkowski in 2022.
"I can see 2022 from my house," Palin tweeted Friday.
That was a play on words from a 2008 "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which actress Tina Fey, playing Palin, said, "I can see Russia from my house."
Asked Wednesday whether she would run again in 2022, Murkowski brushed off the question: “I don’t have to make that decision for four years.”
The GOP leader also split from Trump to defend Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whom the president accused of leaking a private letter from Ford, the California professor who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were teens.
"I haven't criticized Dianne," McConnell said.
When Trump made his case against Feinstein at a rally Tuesday night, the crowd in Iowa chanted "lock her up." Feinstein has denied that she or her staff released the private letter.
However, McConnell has been highly critical of what he calls the "mob" of protesters who swarmed the Capitol confronting senators over the Kavanaugh vote.
Asked if he considered the crowd at Trump's rally also a mob, McConnell said: "I'm not interested in talking about tweets or what people may say at rallies."
Facing the prospect of a tough midterm election that could sway control of the House, McConnell warned that Democrats will pay a political price if they win and then use their majority to dig into investigating Trump next year. He says it would backfire and help Trump in 2020 the way President Bill Clinton's impeachment cost Republicans two decades ago.
"I think it'll help the president get re-elected," he said. "This business of presidential harassment may or may not be quite the winner they think it is."
If control of Congress does split, he envisions a Republican Senate majority keeping full-throttle on confirming the president's nominees - including another Supreme Court pick if there's a vacancy on the high court. He bemoaned what he considered Democrats tying the Senate in knots with procedural votes on less controversial executive branch nominations.
"Far be it from me to complain about obstruction, I've done my share of it. But never just kind of mindless obstruction," he said.
One key nomination could be for a new attorney general if the president fires Jeff Sessions, as has been hinted, after the midterm elections.
McConnell declined to weigh in on a possible replacement except to say he or she would not be coming from the ranks of his slim 51-seat Senate majority. Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas have been among those mentioned.
"It's not going to be from our caucus, I can tell you that," he said.
He also said he had little information about special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, but hopes it wraps up soon. "I don't know a thing," he said.
Questioned if the Senate leader should play a bigger role pushing back against Trump's more combative rhetoric on minorities and other groups at a time of steep polarization, McConnell dismissed the need for such interventions.
"It's not my job to do a routine sort of daily critique of the president's observations," he said. "I speak up when I think it's necessary."
The GOP leader downplayed the notion of a Senate that has become broken by deep partisanship and touted the accomplishments of this Congress as some of the most substantial ever.
He's expecting a "relatively lively" lame duck session after the election and did not shy away from a possible federal government shutdown over funding for Trump's border wall. He suggested it would be modest since Congress has already provided year-long funding for some 75% of federal operations.
"That episode, if it occurs, would be in the portion of the government we haven't funded," he said. "We're committed to helping the president try to get the wall funding."
McConnell is also preparing for his own re-election in 2020 and, if he is successful, staying on as GOP leader.
He said his approval rating has almost doubled since the Kavanaugh confirmation.
Information from The Washington Post and the Associated Press.