The Memo: Kavanaugh firestorm consumes political world

A woman’s allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in their youth has upended the judge’s confirmation process — and it threatens to have deep political implications for President Trump and his party.

Trump and the GOP have struggled with female voters, and any missteps or perceived insensitivity during the current firestorm could deepen those problems. The midterm elections are just seven weeks away.

Trump has struck an uncharacteristically circumspect tone in response to the controversy so far. 

{mosads}In brief remarks to reporters on Monday afternoon, he left the door open to a delay in Kavanaugh’s confirmation. 

“I wish the Democrats could have done this a lot sooner, because they had this information for many months. … But with all of that being said, we want to go through the process,” Trump said. He added, “If it takes a little delay, it’ll take a little delay.”

Within hours, it was announced that Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, would testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday. It promises to be the most dramatic day on Capitol Hill since former FBI Director James Comey testified about his interactions with Trump last year. 

The hearing also ensures the postponement of a committee vote on the judge, which had been scheduled for Thursday.

Trump appeared to be taking a cue in his more measured tone from key aide Kellyanne Conway, who — in a brief exchange in the White House driveway Monday — told Kristen Welker of NBC News that it was important Ford “should not be insulted. She should not be ignored.” 

Prior to working with Trump, Conway was a pollster who had particular expertise in advising Republican candidates how to avoid alienating female voters.

Her current boss and his party may struggle to do that in the midterms. 

A number of polls have shown Trump’s approval dipping more sharply with women than with men, and party insiders had already been worried about facing a reckoning with moderate, suburban women on Election Day.

A CNN poll released last week indicated that the president’s job performance won the approval of 42 percent of men but only 29 percent of women. A Quinnipiac University poll, also released last week, showed women favoring Democrats in the midterms by a 20-point margin (55-35 percent) while men did so only by a 6-point margin (48-42 percent).

{mossecondads}All of that was before Ford gave up her anonymity at the weekend to allege that Kavanaugh had held her down, groped her and tried to undress her at a party in the Maryland suburbs of Washington in the 1980s, when both were high school students. Ford’s attorney, Deborah Katz, has said that her client considers Kavanaugh’s actions to be tantamount to attempted rape.

Kavanaugh has emphatically denied the allegations, and no witness has corroborated them. The White House has stood with him. 

In a statement released through the White House on Monday morning, the judge said that the allegations were “completely false,” that he has “never done anything like what the accuser describes—to her or to anyone,” and that he was so perplexed by the allegation, which first emerged anonymously, that he did not know who the accuser was until she identified herself.

Still, even Republicans who were relieved by Trump’s modulated initial response worry about the controversy’s capacity to hurt the party politically.

“There are so many moving parts that may make it easier for this to be handled poorly,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee. 

“Even if the [Senate Judiciary] committee does a good job, if the president is not on message and tweeting things that only serve to further excite a Democratic base, that could be a real problem.”

Democrats, opposed to Kavanaugh’s nomination because of his overarching conservative philosophy, are hoping that new allegations may be enough to persuade some Republicans to thwart the effort to confirm him.

“I think there are so many reasons to be against Kavanaugh, but if the Republicans’ fear about the election is the thing that ultimately drives enough of them to pull back, we’ll take it,” said Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen.

“Look, I think if Republicans confirm a sexual harasser to the bench, it will inflame women — and many men — across the country, significantly, in the election. But I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Rosen added.

The bulk of the Senate — in which the GOP holds a 51-49 majority — is expected to vote along party lines on Kavanaugh. 

Attention is therefore focused on Republicans who could potentially oppose him — Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowksi (Alaska) in particular — as well as three Democratic senators who are fighting for reelection this fall in states Trump won by wide margins in 2016: Sens. Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Joe Manchin (W.Va.).

Collins told reporters on Monday that, if Kavanaugh were found to by lying about the incident described by Ford, that would be “disqualifying.” 

In a statement, Murkowski noted that both Ford and Kavanaugh should get the opportunity to testify.

Manchin and Heitkamp share that view, and Donnelly had said that the Judiciary Committee vote scheduled for Thursday should be postponed — a request that has now been met.

But the controversy will also percolate through other key races. 

In Arizona, for example, two female candidates — Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) and Rep. Martha McSally (R) — are competing to fill the seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, a frequent Trump critic who has been lukewarm on Kavanaugh.

In Tennessee, a state traditionally safe for the GOP, former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) is running a very competitive campaign against Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R). The seat is open because of the retirement of another Trump critic, Sen. Bob Corker (R).

Vanderbilt University professor Bruce Oppenheimer pointed to a seeming paradox in the Volunteer State: Whoever lost the battle over Kavanaugh’s nomination was more likely to get an electoral boost, he suggested.

“If Republicans go right ahead and confirm him, I think there will be a cost for that to Republicans running for the Senate, because it will activate women who will feel the charges have not been taken seriously enough,” he said.

But he added that if Kavanaugh were derailed, that might also allow Republicans to paint his Democratic critics as overly dogmatic or partisan.

For now, however, everything is in a state of flux. 

The political world is bracing for Monday’s hearing — and the fierce fight that will inevitably follow.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Bob Corker Donald Trump Heidi Heitkamp James Comey Jeff Flake Joe Donnelly Joe Manchin Kellyanne Conway Marsha Blackburn Martha McSally Supreme Court Susan Collins

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