Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator running for reelection in red West Virginia, was amiably ambling down the street last weekend at a pumpkin festival when some of his constituents decided to speak their mind:
“Vote for Kavanaugh!”
“Are you going to vote for the judge?”
“If you don’t vote for him, I won’t vote for you.”
To which Manchin replied: “I get that a lot.”
Meanwhile, in red North Dakota, where Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp is on the autumn ballot, current poll support for Brett Kavanaugh is so strong—60 percent yes, 27 percent no—that Heitkamp’s Republican challenger, Kevin Cramer, has paid no price for shrugging off Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual-assault allegation. He says Kavanaugh deserves to be confirmed “even if it’s all true.” In fact, he has opened a 10-point lead over Heitkamp, who has stayed conspicuously mum about President Donald Trump’s nominee.
Some Republican operatives are seizing on such incidents as proof— albeit debatable—that the Kavanaugh confirmation fight will drive angry conservative voters into the booth in sufficient numbers to nix the widely anticipated blue wave. Trump isn’t on the ballot this year, so perhaps Kavanaugh will be his doppelgänger. Even if he’s ultimately confirmed, perhaps he can still function as a symbolic victim of a feminist-Democratic-media conspiracy—with sufficient power to rewrite the November narrative.
But Jennifer Duffy, who has been handicapping races for the nonpartisan “Cook Political Report” since the 1990s, is frankly skeptical. She tells me, “Some strategists on both sides think they’re seeing some new Republican intensity. But they all need for the noise to calm down a little bit before determining whether this is real or just a blip.” The best Republican scenario, which Duffy doesn’t necessarily buy, is that Kavanaugh-driven conservatives could narrow the enthusiasm gap because “they have more growing room. How much growing room is there among [Democratic-leaning] women? They’re already angry.”
Growing room, courtesy of Kavanaugh. That’s essentially the buzz among Trump-allied Republicans. It may be a vain hope, but perhaps their relentless messaging can make it real. Josh Holmes, an ex-aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, tweeted his hope: “It’s impossible to overstate how important the Kavanaugh hearings have been to [conservative] voters. Like dropping a grenade into the electorate.” Cesar Conda, an ex–chief of staff to Senator Marco Rubio, told NBC News, “The GOP base will be energized to stop the Democrats from taking over Congress.” Indeed, the latest Pew Research Center poll says that 59 percent of Republicans now describe themselves as “more enthusiastic than usual” about midterm voting—a higher share than in the red waves of 2010 and 2014.
And Trump apparently believes that tripling down for Kavanaugh, at the expense of his most visible accuser, is shrewd midterm politics. His extended riff last night during a rally in Mississippi, where he mocked and mimicked Ford (“‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’ ‘Upstairs? Downstairs? Where was it?’ ‘I don’t know. But I had one beer. That’s the only thing I remember … I don’t remember, I don’t remember’”) prompted audience laughter, eerily mirroring Ford’s memory of “uproarious laughter” at her expense.
Perhaps his behavior will further stoke grassroots Republican anger, but it’s just as likely that it will boomerang to the detriment of Republican candidates. The GOP’s strategy these past two weeks has been to restrain Trump’s impulses and treat Ford—and, by extension, all sexual-assault victims—with at least a modicum of respect. Women are driving the threat of a blue wave, and Republicans would prefer not to alienate more of them.
But Trump blew up that strategy last night, and thus risked stoking even more opposition ire. Nor did he help the cause on Monday, when he personally insulted a female ABC News reporter (“I know you’re not thinking. You never do”). The same Pew poll that reports robust Republican interest says that Democratic enthusiasm is even higher—67 percent, nearly double the blue party’s enthusiasm share in 2010 and 2014. Six in 10 midterm voters say their decision will be an expression of opposition or support for Trump; the poll says that opposition voters lead supportive voters by a margin of 14 points.
Granted, there’s anecdotal evidence that some Trump loyalists are bullish for Kavanaugh. Radio Iowa News Director O. Kay Henderson told MSNBC on Monday that the state’s evangelical community was “absolutely incensed by the [Ford-Kavanaugh] hearing last Thursday. Some of them even volunteered, without my asking, that they would go help in other states to campaign against Republican senators who dare to vote against Kavanaugh. This has really roiled the base … It’s motivating Republican voters in a way that might not have been seen a couple weeks ago.”
Perhaps that will prove true in some of the red-state Senate races where Democratic incumbents may be imperiled. On the other hand, the incumbent Joe Donnelly of red Indiana announced last Friday that he’ll vote no on Kavanaugh, clearly calculating that he’ll have sufficient support from suburban and Republican women. He’s drawing on his experiences in 2012, when women voters deserted his Republican opponent, Richard Mourdock, who had expressed the view that when a woman is impregnated during a rape, “it is something that God intended to happen.”
And John Weaver, a longtime Republican strategist and frequent Trump critic, doesn’t believe that Kavanaugh will be Trump’s miracle weapon. (Especially on the House side, where women in the suburban districts outnumber Trump-Kavanaugh loyalists.) Weaver tells me: “Any increase in turnout by members of Trump’s base will be more than offset by a further increase by center-right to center-left voters who are incensed by a whole host of matters, Kavanaugh just being one of many. The cake is more than half baked at this stage.”
So in advance of actual balloting, everyone is stuck debating scenarios. If indeed the GOP defies low expectations and recaptures both congressional chambers, it may be possible to argue that a pro-Kavanaugh surge made the difference. Conservative voters are traditionally motivated by an issue that Democrats rarely prioritize: the composition of the Supreme Court. Duffy tells me, “Democrats still have a problem wrapping themselves around the fact that the Court matters so much to Republicans. Republicans are invested not only in the abortion issue, but in religious freedom, eminent domain, gun rights, and they’re convinced that the only way they can win is with a conservative Supreme Court.”
They can still get a conservative court without Kavanaugh—the Federalist Society stands ready to offer nominees with less baggage—but in this hyper-partisan climate, losing to the enemy is deemed intolerable. In the end, however, there will likely be unintended consequences. In Duffy’s words, “If Kavanaugh goes down—and I can see a scenario where a floor vote fails—it could ultimately be a win for Republicans, because the base’s anger could be whipped up for the midterms.” And conversely, if Kavanaugh is confirmed, it could be a loss for Democrats, but an ultimate win on Election Day, fueled by voters eager to avenge that defeat and rebuke Trump for all perceived sins. Bipartisanship in politics may be dying, but irony lives on.