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Kavanaugh becomes September surprise for midterm candidates

Kavanaugh becomes September surprise for midterm candidates
© Greg Nash

Sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have delivered a September surprise for Senate and House candidates less than 50 days before the midterms.

That is particularly the case with Republicans, who may be forced to balance intense party pressure to send another conservative to the country's top court, without alienating the suburban women voters expected to be pivotal in this year's midterms.

Centrist Democrats defending seats in states won by President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE in 2016 must also tread carefully, however, as the allegations enveloping Kavanaugh threaten to turn into a political firestorm.

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The Kavanaugh allegations dropped like a bomb on Sunday after Christine Blasey Ford, a college professor, came forward publicly for the first time, accusing the Supreme Court nominee of assaulting her at a party in the 1980s when both were high school students, though Kavanaugh has strongly denied it.

That claim, coming in a year where the "Me Too" movement has placed the issue of sexual misconduct front and center, landed in the midst of Kavanaugh's nomination.

Kavanaugh and Ford are both expected to testify in public next Monday, effectively postponing a vote by the Judiciary Committee scheduled for Thursday. 

On top of how candidates navigate the nomination process, scrutiny on how they end up voting on Kavanaugh will likely be intense, at a time when Republicans have already seen support slip among suburban women — many of whom have traditionally voted with the party but view the president unfavorably.

Women have been front and center as candidates, too, as a record number of female candidates have won major party nominations, leading 2018 to be called the “Year of the Woman.”

For now, most Republicans were playing it safe, avoiding taking a public position on the issue.

Several high-profile GOP candidates were more upfront, saying Ford deserved a chance to be heard, while also making clear they did not think Kavanaugh's confirmation should be derailed as they accused Democrats of playing politics with the nomination.

Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnGOP senator gets into nasty Twitter spat with Chinese journalist Republican senators introduce bill to protect government workers from being targeted at home Time to bring federal employees home for every holiday MORE (R-Tenn.) was one of the first GOP candidates to weigh in, saying Ford should have a chance to be heard, but also expressing confidence that Kavanaugh would ultimately be confirmed, according to an interview with Tennessean.

"I think Judge Kavanaugh is eminently qualified," she said. "I do believe he is going to be confirmed."

Blackburn is in a tight race against former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) in Tennessee's Senate election.

Likewise, Minnesota's state Sen. Karin Housley (R), who’s challenging Sen. Tina SmithTina Flint SmithSenate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls Smith wins reelection in Minnesota Democrats expand Senate map, putting GOP on defense MORE (D-Minn.), said that the Judiciary Committee should hear directly from Ford, while warning against any delays.

Housley also laced into Democrats for what she called selective outrage over abuse and misconduct allegations, pointing to the party’s defense of Democratic National Committee Deputy Chairman Rep. Keith EllisonKeith EllisonProgressives unveil Biden Cabinet wish list Officers involved with George Floyd killing will stand trial together in Minneapolis, judge decides Trump lashes out at state officials over virus restrictions at Minnesota rally MORE (D-Minn.), who’s facing domestic abuse allegations, which he's strongly denied.

“It’s complete hypocrisy,” Housley said. “When it’s convenient for them politically, the standard changes.”

Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Pressure builds as UK approves COVID-19 vaccine Republican frustration builds over Cabinet picks Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE (R-N.D.), who’s challenging Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates Grassley suggests moderate Democrats for next Agriculture secretary Major unions back Fudge for Agriculture secretary MORE (D-N.D.) in a top Senate race, also believes the confirmation process should continue, saying allegations should be taken “seriously,” while noting he found it hard "not to be skeptical considering the timing and history of the allegations.”

Other key GOP candidates are calling for both Kavanaugh and Ford to testify without citing a specific timeline, including Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, both of whom are challenging incumbent Democratic senators in red states.

Meanwhile, Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyGabby Giffords congratulates Mark Kelly with throwback photo of her own swearing-in Mark Kelly sworn in to Senate seat Sen.-elect Mark Kelly visits John McCain's grave ahead of swearing-in MORE (R-Ariz.), who’s running in an unexpectedly tough race against Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) in Arizona's Senate race, called on both Ford and Kavanaugh to testify as “a sensible way forward.”

But beyond the nomination process, a vote on Kavanaugh's nomination also presents potential landmines.

Kavanaugh's confirmation, and the prospect of shifting the court to the right for decades, was expected to be a centerpiece of GOP campaigns.

The allegations against Kavanaugh now threaten to put those candidates in a difficult position of supporting a judge that could end up proving politically toxic.

Republican candidates can ill afford another hurdle at a time when they are already on defense, with Democrats increasingly seen as likely to take the House in November and having a realistic, but narrow, shot at the Senate.

Republican strategist Liz Mair said she expects most GOP voters to likely side “pretty strongly” with Kavanaugh, but acknowledged that Senate candidates could be placed in an uncomfortable situation ahead of the November election.

“This isn’t exactly moving things in a Republican favorable direction,” Mair told The Hill. “At best, it’s going to have no impact on the situation. At worse, it’s going to have a much more adverse impact on the situation. We just don’t know which applies at this particular juncture.”

But the allegations enveloping Kavanaugh also could put Democratic senators in a tough spot. On Monday, most Democratic incumbents and candidates in red states said the allegations should be investigated and Kavanaugh’s accuser should be able to testify.

That is especially the case for Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyBiden and Schumer face battles with left if Democrats win big Harris walks fine line on Barrett as election nears The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Showdown: Trump-Biden debate likely to be nasty MORE (D-Ind.), Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSmall businesses don't need another stimulus — they need customers Congress faces late-year logjam Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms MORE (D-W.Va.) and Heitkamp, who are also seen as key votes, with all three calling for both Kavanaugh and Ford to testify.

All three senators broke with Democrats to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch last year, and face an even tougher vote on Kavanaugh as they seek reelection in states that Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016.

Voting for Kavanaugh now threatens to put centrist Democrats in between the more conservative states they represent and a Democratic base keen not to deliver a Supreme Court victory to Trump, as well as women groups who expressed alarm at Ford's claims.

Already on Monday, groups such as EMILY's List said they expected Kavanaugh to be another motivator to turn more women to the polls.

“I think women are going to decide this election. Women voters are already riled up. I don’t think this week is going to make them any less riled up,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock told reporters at a press briefing on Monday.

“Not that they needed more, but on top of what’s going on with Kavanaugh, they’re going to be ready to go in all force.”

— Melanie Zanona contributed.