Amid Kavanaugh drama, potential 2020 Democratic contenders test their message

PHOTO: Former Attorney General Eric Holder in Washington, D.C., Sept. 15, 2018. | Michael Avenatti in Las Vegas, Aug. 31, 2018. | Sen. Jeff Merkley in Washington, DC., July 17, 2018.PlayAP, FILE | Getty Images, FILE
WATCH Sen. Chris Coons speaks out on what happened behind the scenes with Sen. Flake

The chaos and confusion emanating from the nation's capital has been felt far and wide, and the political and human drama surrounding the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court has gripped much of the country in a way that few major events have in recent years.

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The decision Friday by Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake to withhold his support for Kavanaugh until the FBI is given a week to investigate the claims of sexual assault brought against him ensured that uncertainty will continue to reign over the situation for days to come.

PHOTO: Sen. Jeff Flake after speaking during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about an investigation, Sept. 28, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Sen. Jeff Flake after speaking during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about an investigation, Sept. 28, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

President Trump then ordered the FBI to conduct a supplemental investigation into the allegations, and speaking Friday from the White House called the events of the last few days "an incredible moment" in American history.

"I thought her testimony was very compelling and she looks like a very fine woman to me, very fine woman," Trump said of Christine Blasey Ford, who testified Thursday regarding her claim that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party when the two were in high school in the 1980s. "And I thought that Brett likewise was really something that I hadn't seen before. It was an incredible moment I think in the history of our country. But certainly, she was a very credible witness."

Amid the continuing saga, a slew of prominent Democrats thought to be considering a run for President in 2020 -- including many who made the trip here for the annual Texas Tribune Festival -- framed the episode as a crystallizing moment for why Donald Trump must be denied a second term.

Democrats from a wide variety of political backgrounds weighed in on the drama surrounding Kavanaugh's confirmation process, drama that permeated the mood in the Texas capital, a liberal bastion in an otherwise reliably conservative state.

Flake was slotted to speak at the festival on Saturday, but a spokesperson for the senator told event organizers Friday that he will no longer be attending.

"It has proven to be a crazy week, and I regret to say that it is not going to work out,” a spokesperson for Sen. Flake told organizers. "Since Sen. Flake is a member of the Judiciary Committee, he needs to devote all of his time and energy to the issue at hand."

Attendees at the event discussed the Kavanaugh proceedings and the decision by Flake as they waited in line to hear Michael Avenatti, the lawyer who is representing another woman, Julia Swetnick, who has made additional allegations about Kavanaugh's behavior toward women as a young man.

Kavanaugh, who has denied those allegations as well, called Swetnick's claims a "farce" during Thursday's hearing.

PHOTO: Michael Avenatti, the attorney for porn actress Stormy Daniels walks out of the U.S. Federal Courthouse prior to a news conference in Los Angeles, July 27, 2018. Richard Vogel/AP, FILE
Michael Avenatti, the attorney for porn actress Stormy Daniels walks out of the U.S. Federal Courthouse prior to a news conference in Los Angeles, July 27, 2018.

Avenatti, a legal foe of the president who is best known for his representation of Stephanie Clifford, the adult film star who goes by the name of Stormy Daniels and has claimed she had an affair with Trump, drew a large crowd eager to hear his thoughts on the Kavanaugh proceedings -- and his thoughts on potentially taking on Trump in 2020.

Provided with up-to-the-minute updates, including Flake's decision to call for an FBI investigation into the claims against Kavanaugh, Avenatti sounded optimistic.

"Up until about an hour ago, I thought we had a faint pulse to get to the bottom of allegations before this man is on the Supreme Court for life," Avenatti said of Kavanaugh's potential confirmation. "That pulse just became a lot stronger."

Avenatti also made the argument to a riled up crowd that what matters most for Democrats in 2020 is nominating somebody who can beat Trump, not necessarily the most qualified candidate.

"All of the qualifications and all of the policy depth in the world doesn't mean anything if you can't beat the opponent," Avenatti said. "If the Democrats nominate the individual that would make the best president, you could end up with a repeat of 2016.

"It's like in football," he continued. "You don't win the game if you score more first downs or have more offensive yards. The only thing that matters is the scoreboard, what's the score at the end of the game."

Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkeley, who has made trips to Iowa and New Hampshire in recent months, said Friday that he is "exploring very seriously" the possibility of a presidential run in 2020, and framed the Kavanaugh hearings as a critically important moment in the country.

"At this very moment as we sit here, history is occurring on Capitol Hill, and not a history we'll be proud of," Merkeley said in an interview in Austin with the Nevada Independent's Jon Ralston.

PHOTO: Sen. Jeff Merkley, right, D-Ore., speaks to the media along with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, center, D-Md., in front of the U.S. Customs and Border Protections Rio Grande Valley Sectors Centralized Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, June 17, 2018. Joel Martinez/The Monitor via AP
Sen. Jeff Merkley, right, D-Ore., speaks to the media along with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, center, D-Md., in front of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Rio Grande Valley Sector's Centralized Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, June 17, 2018.

Merkeley went on to criticize Trump as the "Divider-in-Chief," and spoke broadly about the ideals of a country left perhaps more deeply divided this week more than any other in recent memory.

"This is what petty tyrants do around the world to gain power. It's to try to pit one group against the other," Merkeley said. "We have a phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance, 'One nation, under God, indivisible,' and we say that because we know we come from backgrounds all over the world ... We need to reject these politics of division, of bigotry, of hate, of racism that are coming out of the Oval Office. We need to reject it in November and we need to reject it in November 2020."

It was a sentiment echoed by a chorus of other Democrats, from the heart of Texas and back in Washington, D.C.

PHOTO: Sen. Kamala Harris listens as Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 27, 2018. Jim Bourg/Pool Photo via AP, FILE
Sen. Kamala Harris listens as Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 27, 2018.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and California Democrat Kamala Harris, who both sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, walked out of Friday's hearing to proceed on a vote to confirm Judge Kavanaugh, again thrusting them into the middle of the nation's highest political drama.

"This hearing is a sham and Dr. Ford and the American people deserve better," Harris tweeted late Friday morning.

Prior to walking out of the hearing and prior to Flake's decision to ask for a delay, Booker angrily chided his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee. He also cast the Kavanaugh hearings as a key juncture in American history.

"This is where we are in the United States of America. This is not a partisan moment. This is a moral moment in our nation," Booker said. "There are millions of people, men and women, survivors of sexual assault who are watching this body of powerful people and what will happen. This toxic culture, this pernicious patriarchy in this country has to stop. It's real in this country and people are suffering."

Former Attorney General Eric Holder and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also spoke in Austin on Friday. While the latter said he intends to serve out his full term as mayor until 2021, the former said he is "seriously thinking about" running for president in 2020 and will make a decision early next year.

Holder, who is leading an effort to target key races this midterm cycle with an eye on upcoming redistricting processes in states across the country, said that he has his sights focused for now on this November, and also took the time to take a swipe at the man who currently holds his old job.

"If you go to the dictionary and look up the word hypocrisy, you will see a picture of Jeff Sessions," Holder said Friday.

De Blasio, who has also made recent trips to 2020 battleground states like Iowa, said he believes the policies he has implemented as the mayor of New York City are applicable to the nation more broadly.

“America is a progressive nation waiting to happen," de Blasio said.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigeg, another name floated as a 2020 Democratic presidential contender, also spoke in Austin Friday, as did New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Other notable names on the docket this weekend include former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Another senator who emerged as a central figure in the Kavanaugh hearings, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, will also speak Saturday.

Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who is currently locked in a tight race with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for one of Texas' U.S. Senate seats this cycle, is slated to give the festival's closing keynote Saturday evening.

O'Rourke and Cruz were scheduled to debate in Houston on Sunday, but the event was postponed by Cruz due to the ongoing votes related to Judge Kavanaugh.

ABC News' Kendall Karson contributed to this report.