When President Donald Trump chose to mock Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in Mississippi on Tuesday night, The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake speculated that Trump “could be rallying the GOP base that until recently had lagged behind the Democratic base on enthusiasm.”
Who knows why Trump says what he says, but Blake’s hypothesis rings true. The controversy surrounding the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh may have long-term negative ramifications for our nation and the Republican Party. In the short term, however, it is likely to benefit the GOP’s midterm chances—especially when it comes to the U.S. Senate.
First, let me give you the lay of the land:
Senate Democrats are defending seats in six Trump states that Republicans believe could potentially flip—Montana, Indiana, North Dakota, Missouri, West Virginia, and (although it’s more purple than red) Florida.
The important thing to know is this: For Democrats to take the Senate, they must hold all six seats and also flip two out of the four Republican states―Texas (Ted Cruz), Tennessee (open), Nevada (Dean Heller), and Arizona (open).
In the wake of the Kavanaugh controversy, this scenario seems increasingly unlikely.
“From that very bad day in August (when Paul Manafort was found guilty and Michael Cohen made a deal) until last week, things were really bad,” one top Republican strategist told me. He added that now, “… there is a Kavanaugh bump of intensity… There were a whole bunch of Republicans who were becoming unhinged from the GOP, and the needle just swung rapidly back in the other direction.”
One of the underrated aspects of the Kavanaugh controversy is that it unites Trump fans with more establishment conservatives, supporting Trump’s tribalistic narrative that the media and the Democrats are out to get us all.
“Out here, we don’t think of a Trump appointment; this is something that Bush would have done,” North Dakota-based public affairs strategist Brian Lunde told me. “This vibe people get is that this is a reasonable person.” And when it comes to the allegations against Kavanaugh, “… you’ve got to go 35 years back, and people just don’t like that here.”
This observation is not merely anecdotal. A poll commissioned by NBC North Dakota shows Sen. Heidi Heitkamp losing to Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer. It also shows that 60 percent of likely voters support Kavanaugh, and 21 percent said Kavanaugh’s confirmation was their most important issue.
Lunde, a former executive director of the DNC turned head of “Democrats for Bush,” said Heitkamp was already "without a political home out there... and then the Kavanaugh thing now becomes the final blow."
If we assume that Heitkamp has already lost, as Lunde does, that means Democrats would have to run the rest of the table and flip three Republican seats. The problem: The Kavanaugh battle makes these Democratic machinations harder, too.
Consider the state of Tennessee, where Democrats hope to replace retiring Sen. Bob Corker.
“The Kavanaugh fight is definitely helping Marsha [Blackburn] and hurting [Phil] Bredesen,” says a Republican strategist based in Nashville, “particularly since Bredesen won’t take a stand and Marsha is saying she 100 percent would support and vote for Kavanaugh.”
In this instance, Kavanaugh serves as a sort of wedge issue. According to my source, the liberal base is punishing Bredesen for failing to take a stand against Kavanaugh—even though doing so would likely doom his chances with moderate voters.
A recent CNN poll suggests Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, despite her opposition to Kavanaugh, is winning. The only problem is that, according to the survey, “the entire sample was weighted to reflect Census figures for gender, race, age, education, state region, and telephone usage.” Turnout numbers never reflect the Census. This is especially true in midterm elections.
This survey should actually scare McCaskill. Even if you buy into the implausible notion that the methodology behind this survey is realistic (I don’t), this poll still shows that McCaskill’s lead is within the margin of error. She is a wily political operator, but make no mistake, she is in serious danger of losing—and Kavanaugh makes her challenge that much more difficult.
Without a doubt, the safest red state Democrat is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin—the one and only red state Democratic senator who hasn’t publicly come out against Kavanaugh (Manchin said he was waiting for the results of the FBI investigation before deciding how he will vote).
It would be super interesting to see what Manchin does if, say, retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) were to vote no, forcing Manchin to decide. That would make it 50-50, in which case, Vice President Mike Pence would cast the tie-breaking vote for Kavanaugh.
To be sure, nothing is as obvious as it seems. Democrats are raising gigantic amounts of money off Kavanaugh. Some of that money can be funneled toward turnout efforts in these states. Still, if you believe the argument that midterms are about turnout, “The question is whether the Kavanaugh fight will do anything about [Democratic] intensity,” says Republican strategist Dan Hazelwood. Even before the fight over Kavanaugh, “Democratic intensity was probably already at maximum intensity, and it’s clearly helping Republican intensity.”
G. Elliott Morris, a data journalist at The Economist, seems to agree. “Could be noise, but the share of Republican voters in our poll saying they will ‘definitely’ vote in the midterms rose from 72% last week to 76% this week. Dem turnout flat at 74%. 59% of either party say they are ‘more enthusiastic’ about voting than last time.”
What we are witnessing can only be described as ironic: The ugly fight over Kavanaugh might do more than any other single event to ensure that, should Trump get a third Supreme Court pick, a Republican-held Senate would decide that nominee.
NOTE: Matt Lewis’ wife previously advised the campaigns of Patrick Morrisey (WV) and Josh Hawley (MO).