SUPREME GAMBLE FOR THE GOP
Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination delay could give Republicans a better chance of keeping Senate control in midterms.
By agreeing to delay Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination in the short term, President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans are making two long-term bets: that a drawn-out confirmation battle will secure a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and that the fight will give them a better chance of keeping control of the Senate in the midterm elections.
With that Senate majority squarely in mind, Republicans are also making a concession to stark political realities. Party leaders have concluded that supporting Kavanaugh’s nomination, in the face of sexual assault accusations against him, will all but ensure that Republicans lose control of the House in November even as their fortunes may improve in some tough Senate races.
The thinking, according to Republicans, is that Kavanaugh’s confirmation would cause a backlash from female and independent voters against Republican candidates in dozens of highly competitive House races – many of which have already been slipping away – and do more damage than in statewide Senate contests. The party has a 23-seat majority in the House.
Even as Trump and Senate leaders acceded to an FBI investigation into the accusations against Kavanaugh, Republicans say they did so grudgingly. Privately, they are determined to press ahead with the confirmation process despite the political risks and the possibility that Republican senators may still defect and oppose the nomination in the end.
If Republicans are able to narrowly seat Kavanaugh, who has angrily portrayed himself as the victim of a Democratic smear campaign, they would quite likely thrill their party’s activist base and give voters on the right a sense of momentum weeks before the midterm elections. By muscling forward with a floor vote next week, Republicans would also imperil several Senate Democrats from strongly conservative states who have opposed Kavanaugh or expressed ambivalence about his nomination.
Yet in doing so, Republicans would energize many Democrats and a share of independents in suburban congressional districts and big-state governor’s races where female voters were already enraged by Trump and polls have shown a gender gap stretching to canyon-sized proportions. Republicans’ ability to keep their thin House majority depends on political moderates who were already skeptical of Kavanaugh before this past week.
Now, Christine Blasey Ford’s searing testimony, and Kavanaugh’s furious response, before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday appears likely to galvanize the grass roots of both parties.
But Republicans, particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appear to be gambling that their majority in the House is already in tatters, and that it is worth trading for a legacy-making appointment to the Supreme Court and the chance to retain their 51-49 Senate majority.
In an illustration of how delicate the issue is in important Senate races, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., released a campaign ad late in the week rebuking her Republican challenger, Rep. Kevin Cramer, for making disrespectful comments about women. Cramer has repeatedly expressed doubt about Ford’s credibility, and about the significance of her story.
But Heitkamp has also not stated how she will vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination. Neither has Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, where Trump was scheduled to appear Saturday night at a rally for Manchin’s Republican rival.
With early voting already underway in some states, it now seems inevitable that the acidly divisive confir- mation battle will ripple through the electorate through November.
“They’ve played to their hard base but that base isn’t big enough for them to carry the day across the country,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., where the governorship, a Senate seat and handful of House seats are up for grabs. “The people they lost by doing this are women they need in the suburbs regardless of what their party registration is.”
The decision of Senate Republicans to move toward the controversial confirmation vote was reminiscent of another moment when conscience, sex and politics intersected and the court loomed large. Two years ago, many lawmakers considered abandoning Trump’s candidacy after he boasted about grabbing women’s genitals, only to largely rally to his side in part because their voters refused to hand Hillary Clinton the presidency and, ultimately, control of the Supreme Court.
Senior Republican strategists said McConnell and the other senators had little choice this time because they risked a backlash within their own party if they walked away from Kavanaugh.
“He understood immediately that if we’re not willing to stand up to the liberal mob in collusion with the media than there’s going to be a whole lot of Republicans asking themselves: ‘Why am I voting for this party?’ ” said Scott Jennings, an adviser to McConnell.
The bifurcated campaign over the Supreme Court nomination came into focus quickly at the end of the week, as Democratic
REPUBLICANS’ ABILITY TO KEEP THEIR THIN HOUSE MAJORITY DEPENDS ON POLITICAL MODERATES WHO WERE ALREADY SKEPTICAL OF KAVANAUGH BEFORE THIS PAST WEEK.
House candidates criticized Kavanaugh, while their Senate counterparts treaded far more carefully.
In districts from suburban New Jersey to Southern California, Democratic challengers issued statements of support for Ford, while several Republican incumbents drew fire by questioning her credibility, sometimes in derisive terms. In a Los Angelesarea district, Harley Rouda, a Democrat, accused Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of treating sexual assault as a “laughing matter” after dismissing the allegations.
And Tom Malinowski, a Democratic challenger in a crucial New Jersey House district, released a digital ad chiding Rep. Leonard Lance, the Republican incumbent, for having said days earlier that he was disinclined to believe the allegations against Kavanaugh.
Democratic candidates for governor, including in important battleground states like Florida and Michigan, sided emphatically with Ford. Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor in Florida, called on Kavanaugh on Thursday to withdraw his nomination.
But Republicans expressed confidence that Kavanaugh’s testimony had rallied voters on the right, shoring up his chances of eventual confirmation and endangering Senate Democrats in red states who vote against him.
Chris Jankowski – one of the lead strategists advising the Judicial Crisis Network, the main group advocating Kavanaugh’s confirmation – said the judge’s testimony had effectively rallied redstate voters behind him. Lawmakers from those states would suffer for opposing the nominee, Jankowski said, though he allowed that Republicans could pay a price in congressional and gubernatorial races for his confirmation.
“After yesterday, no Republican senator can expect to run for re-election having not voted for Kavanaugh,” he said. “Sens. Manchin and Heitkamp must vote for Kavanaugh to have even a glimmer of hope to win in November. The numbers are just that clear.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat who hasn’t taken a position on Kavanaugh, is defending one of the Senate seats most likely to flip to a GOP challenger.