Kavanaugh Fight Ignites Passions in Both Parties for Midterms

(Bloomberg) -- The most acrimonious Supreme Court confirmation battle in modern times hardened the fault lines in U.S. politics that put President Donald Trump in office but now could give enraged Democratic voters the added motivation to oust Republicans from control of the House.

The fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the nation’s highest court inflamed the voting bases of both parties a month before pivotal congressional elections. Republicans hope to gain in their quest to hold the Senate, as the Kavanaugh fight resurrected a defining issue that links the evangelical base to Trump: dreams of a generational lock on a conservative Supreme Court.

Kavanaugh Fight Ignites Passions in Both Parties for Midterms

Still, backlash politics historically have been the driving force in midterm elections -- it’s the first chance for voters to weigh in on the president they picked just two years earlier. Traditionally, buyer’s remorse has meant the party in the White House suffers significant losses.

“For Democrats there’s been a tremendous amount of motivation brought on by the Trump presidency, and this has taken it over the top. We could not have had a more stark reminder of what’s at stake in these elections,” said Donna Edwards, a former Democratic representative from Maryland. “It’s not going to be forgotten.”

House Seats

Edwards said the Kavanaugh fight would help Democrats flip as many as 20 Republican-held districts with “lots of suburban, college-educated white women,” who polls show are breaking for Democrats by a two-to-one margin. The vulnerable Republican incumbents include Virginia’s Barbara Comstock, Kentucky’s Andy Barr, and Nebraska’s Don Bacon. “You’re going to see an even higher turnout among women, particularly in these suburban districts that are swing districts,” Edwards said.

Fifty percent of those surveyed for a Washington Post-Shar School poll of 69 battleground districts released Monday said they preferred Democratic candidates compared to 46 percent who backed Republicans, in the latest sign of potential trouble for the GOP. The same districts favored Republicans 56 percent to 41 percent two years ago, according to the Post.

Kavanaugh Fight Ignites Passions in Both Parties for Midterms

The Senate is a different picture, with 12 out of the 13 most competitive races in states won by Trump in 2016. Some recent surveys show an enthusiasm boost among Republican voters, as Trump and his party allies have said repeatedly that Kavanaugh was treated unfairly by ideological opponents. If Republican voters stay mobilized, it’s likely to boost the party’s prospects of retaining or expanding its razor-thin 51-49 Senate advantage.

Energized Base

“This has energized our base like nothing we’ve been able” to do, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said in an interview just before the Senate voted 50-48 to confirm Kavanaugh on Saturday. McConnell, Trump and other Republicans repeatedly referred to anti-Kavanaugh protesters as a “mob.” That “ended up being a big political help to us,” McConnell said.

Kavanaugh Fight Ignites Passions in Both Parties for Midterms

The immediate focus is on five Democratic senators running for re-election in states where Trump won by double-digits in 2016: Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Jon Tester in Montana, and Claire McCaskill in Missouri. All but Manchin voted against Kavanaugh.

“Obviously he’s been receiving a ton of pressure from both sides, as one would imagine,” Mike Plante, a Democratic strategist based in Charleston, West Virginia, said of Manchin. “In my time in politics I’ve witnessed a number of Supreme Court confirmations. This one’s been the most contentious -- including Clarence Thomas -- and the most tribal in nature.” With promises to revive the coal industry, Trump won West Virginia by 42 points in 2016, his largest margin of any state.

Kavanaugh Fight Ignites Passions in Both Parties for Midterms

Vulnerable Democrats

Donnelly and McCaskill are depending on high Democratic turnout in urban areas and college towns, including African-Americans who were deeply skeptical of Kavanaugh. Tester and McCaskill emphasized concerns that Kavanaugh’s skepticism of campaign-finance laws could lead to the proliferation of “dark money” in politics. Heitkamp raised questions about the judge’s “temperament, honesty, and impartiality.” All are campaigning on health care, and Kavanaugh’s views about the legality of Obamacare’s consumer protections are in doubt.

The red-state Democrats face a predicament: they need to preserve an image of independence to attract at least some Republican voters, but also need their Democratic base to turn out in big numbers. Midterm elections tend to be low turnout affairs where only about 4 in 10 eligible American voters show up. In an era where the share of persuadable voters has been declining, campaigns increasingly put a premium on mobilizing the party faithful.

But it’s not all good news for Senate Republicans. The Kavanaugh debate contains perils for Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, a state won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. He trails in recent polls and was quickly attacked over his support for Kavanaugh by Democratic opponent Jacky Rosen. In Arizona, where Trump’s winning margin was 3.5 points, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema is narrowly leading in the race for an open seat being vacated by Republican Jeff Flake. Inflaming the Democratic base and alienating suburban women carries big risks for Republicans.

Kavanaugh Fight Ignites Passions in Both Parties for Midterms

Court Tilt

Underlying the early liberal opposition to Kavanaugh was his lengthy record as a conservative jurist on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, leading to fears that he’d lock in 5-4 majorities in cases involving gun rights and validating voting restrictions, while providing a potential fifth vote to weaken abortion rights and LGBT protections, where retired Justice Anthony Kennedy typically sided with the left.

Data provided to Bloomberg News by MobilizeAmerica, a technology company used by hundreds of Democratic campaigns and progressive groups, showed a sharp uptick in activism in the days after the accusation against Kavanaugh was made public. On Sept 27th, the day of Senate hearing on the allegations, there were a record 6,613 volunteer shifts organized through the company’s platform. “Our data suggest it’s motivating all progressive volunteers – but especially women,” Alfred Johnson, the company’s co-founder, said.

At the same time, the National Republican Congressional Committee saw a spike of donations of less that $200, communications director Matt Gorman said.

While #MeToo activists voiced outrage about the sexual assault accusation later leveled against Kavanaugh’s and expressed support for his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, Trump argued that the real victims were Kavanaugh and other men.

Women were “outraged at what happened to Brett Kavanaugh,” Trump told reporters Saturday before speaking at a rally in Kansas. “They’re thinking of their sons, they’re thinking of their husbands and their brothers, their uncles, and others.” The president called it “a very scary time for young men in America.”

Campaign Theme

It’s an extension of the us-versus-them approach Trump used in his 2016 campaign, in which he portrayed the “forgotten men and women” suffering under the dominance of a liberal elite. As he campaigns for Republican candidates this year he’s ramped up the dire warnings of what would happen if Democrats return to power.

“They want to erase our gains and plunge our country into a nightmare of gridlock, poverty, chaos and, frankly, crime, because that’s what comes with it,” he said Oct. 4 in Rochester, Minnesota.

Kavanaugh Fight Ignites Passions in Both Parties for Midterms

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Saturday said Trump was “stooping to new depths” when he mocked Kavanaugh’s accuser at a rally in Mississippi on Oct. 2. On Saturday, Trump said his comments were meant to “level the playing field.”

Just Vote

“So to Americans -- to so many millions who are outraged at what happened here, there’s only one answer: vote,” the New York Democrat said. “If you believe the Supreme Court should uphold women’s rights, vote.”

In 2010, a mid-term backlash against President Barack Obama sparked a red wave that helped Republicans take over the House and pare back the Democratic Senate majority. Much like Obama at the time, Trump is traveling the country urging his party’s base not to be complacent. He has events this week in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky.

“It’s kind of woken people up at this point. I don’t think they’re going to go back to sleep," Brian Walsh, the president of America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC, said in an interview on C-SPAN.

But Edwards, the former Democratic congresswoman, was skeptical that the Republican enthusiasm boost would last. “This is going to be a short-lived burst for Republicans,” she said. “Very similar to Obama, the people who voted for Trump voted for Trump. So they’re not as mobilized around voting for somebody else.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.