Trump Bets Kavanaugh Fight Will Fire Up GOP Voters
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump is gambling that unflinching support for his imperiled Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, will drive Republican voters to the polls in November and save his party’s control of Congress.
The president and his political advisers are so convinced that Kavanaugh represents an untapped cultural undercurrent that in Mississippi on Tuesday Trump finally dropped any pretense of sympathy for women who have accused the nominee of sexual misconduct. As a crowd at a political rally chanted “we want Kavanaugh,” Trump lit into the judge’s accusers, picking at inconsistencies and gaps in their allegations.
“What neighborhood was it in? I don’t know. Where’s the house? I don’t know. Upstairs. Downstairs. I don’t know. But I had one beer, that’s the only thing I remember,” Trump said as he mocked the account of Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a house party while the two were in high school. The audience responded with laughter and cheers.
“And a man’s life is in tatters. A man’s life is shattered,” Trump said.
The White House has sought a divisive issue to jolt the Republican base, who party leaders fear are apathetic about the midterms. But betting on Kavanaugh is a risk. Supporting a man accused of sexual assault may alienate women and moderate voters while mobilizing Democrats. Trump may also doom Kavanaugh’s chances of winning confirmation, even as he riles up his base supporters.
The president’s Mississippi remarks were condemned by three key Republican senators, including Jeff Flake, who has said he won’t vote to confirm the nominee before the FBI finishes an investigation of the allegations.
“There’s no time and no place for remarks like that,” Flake said on NBC’s “Today” show on Friday. “To discuss something this sensitive at a political rally is just not right. It’s just not right. I wish he hadn’t of done it. It’s kind of appalling.”
Two other Republican senators who haven’t committed to confirming Kavanaugh, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, also criticized Trump’s remarks. Collins said in a statement: “The president’s comments were just plain wrong.” Murkowski told reporters his remarks were “wholly inappropriate.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was merely “stating the facts” about Ford’s testimony. But he was incorrect on at least one point: she told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the assault took place upstairs, contrary to Trump’s characterization.
Trump’s attack on Ford was deliberate. White House officials said they believe they can harness the controversy to energize the president’s core supporters, who regard the allegations against Kavanaugh as a Democratic plot and part of a broader cultural war against white males -- in effect the inverse of the #MeToo movement to hold powerful men accountable for sexual abuses.
The president indicated he knows the feeling of the electorate based on reaction at his rallies.
Before Kavanaugh’s nomination was jeopardized by the allegations, internal polling showed Republican apathy headed into the midterms, one official said. Trump’s efforts to sell his tax law and take credit for the growing economy were falling flat, and the White House and its allies hoped the threat of his impeachment by a Democratic-controlled Congress would drive Republican turnout.
But the rallying cry to defend Kavanaugh has changed the calculus. An NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll published Wednesday found that Republican enthusiasm for the midterms has grown 12 percentage points since July. Eighty percent of Republicans told the pollsters that the November elections are “very important,” compared to 82 percent of Democrats.
“It would be very difficult to script something that would engage and energize Republican voters more than what has happened and how it has happened,” Republican strategist Mike McKenna wrote of the Kavanaugh debate in an Oct. 1 note to clients. “These voters now clearly remember who and what they dislike and the stakes at issue.”
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told Fox Business on Wednesday that “the Kavanaugh hearings have energized our base, highlighted the obstructive nature of Democrats who only want to come to Washington to stop this president.”
But Democrats say they see plenty of signs that the Kavanaugh fight is exciting their voters and helping their candidates. Polls show that the nominee is losing public support, including a survey published Monday by Quinnipiac University that found 48 percent of voters opposed to his confirmation and 46 percent in support. He’s particularly in trouble with two key groups of voters, Quinnipiac said — women and independents.
Joel Benenson, a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign who was former President Barack Obama’s pollster, said last week that the accusations facing Kavanaugh could hurt Republicans with women voters.
“What we are seeing play out on the national stage could have a significant effect in widening the gender gap,” he said in an interview. “In campaigns, the two things you don’t want to do are undermine your strengths or reinforce negative perceptions.”
Since his surprise victory in 2016, Trump has told his supporters they can’t believe polls. Even as multiple surveys this year indicate broad support for Democratic candidates, the president has predicted a “red wave” for the GOP in November.
A private survey conducted for the Republican National Committee and completed on Sept. 2 found most Trump supporters don’t believe there’s a threat that Democrats will win back the House, raising alarms within the party that too many of those voters won’t bother to cast ballots on Nov. 6.
White House aides say that while they expect Democrats to be energized by the Kavanaugh controversy, they already anticipated higher than usual Democratic participation in the midterms. They’re more concerned with motivating their base, almost always a struggle for the party in power.
Trump began adopting a more aggressive tone toward Kavanaugh’s accusers after observing strong support for the nominee at a political rally on Monday in Tennessee. The next day, he told reporters at the White House that "it’s a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.”
Asked whether he had a message for American women, he said: “Women are doing great.”
Then came the Tuesday evening rally in Southaven, Mississippi, a Memphis suburb. Trump mocked Ford and her allegations at length, recounting her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in which she acknowledged she could not remember many details of the assault, including who hosted the party, how she got there or how she got home.
Trump had previously called her testimony “very credible.”
After mocking Ford, he turned his attention to Julie Swetnick, who has claimed in a sworn affidavit that Kavanaugh participated in efforts at high school parties to get girls intoxicated so that groups of boys could have sex with them.
“This woman had no clue what was going on, and yet she made the most horrible charges,” Trump said.
While his attacks on Kavanaugh’s accusers risk angering many voters, Trump thinks he’s come out ahead in past battles over cultural and racial issues, his advisers have said. Those include his criticism of black professional football players who kneel in protest during the national anthem, his advocacy for a ban on Muslim travel to the U.S. and his demonization of Mexican immigrants.
Both sides have used the issue for fundraising. The National Republican Congressional Committee, which sent out a text soliciting donations after Kavanaugh testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, said total contributions were up 175 percent compared to one week before and the average amount of each donation nearly doubled, Politico reported.
ActBlue, the digital fundraising system used by many Democratic candidates and groups, said that on Friday, the day after Ford and Kavanaugh testified, it took in more than $10 million -- its biggest day ever for small-dollar donations. The Democratic National Committee, which has struggled to raise money, said that it had one of its best 72-hour periods of small-dollar fundraising over the weekend, taking in $1.5 million online.
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