FEATURED:

Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger

Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger
© Getty Images/The Hill photo illustration

One of the most intense midterm election campaigns in recent memory is growing even more vicious in the aftermath of a partisan brawl over Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughEx-lawmaker urges Americans to publicly confront officials Pastor tears into Evangelicals for supporting Trump due to abortion stance Manchin wrestles with progressive backlash in West Virginia MORE that deeply angered conservatives and liberals alike.

Both parties are seizing on the issue, with Republicans in close Senate races going on the attack in red states against Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Overnight Health Care — Presented by Purdue Pharma —Senate debates highlight fight over pre-existing conditions | Support grows for Utah Medicaid expansion measure | Arkansas health official defends work requirements McCaskill campaign says ‘intern’ who filmed campaign had access to voter data MORE (D-Mo.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Overnight Health Care — Presented by Purdue Pharma —Senate debates highlight fight over pre-existing conditions | Support grows for Utah Medicaid expansion measure | Arkansas health official defends work requirements Election Countdown: Small-donor donations explode | Russian woman charged with midterm interference | Takeaways from North Dakota Senate debate | O'Rourke gives 'definitive no' to 2020 run | Dems hope Latino voters turn Arizona blue MORE (D-N.D.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Conservatives bankrolled and dominated Kavanaugh confirmation media campaign Donnelly parodies 'Veep' in new campaign ad MORE (D-Ind.) and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Overnight Energy: Outdoor retailer Patagonia makes first Senate endorsements | EPA withdraws Obama uranium milling rule | NASA chief sees 'no reason' to dismiss UN climate report Trump on 'I love you' from rally crowd: 'I finally heard it from a woman' MORE (D-Mont.), four of the 10 Democrats defending seats in states that President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Gillum and DeSantis’s first debate GOP warns economy will tank if Dems win Gorbachev calls Trump's withdrawal from arms treaty 'a mistake' MORE won in 2016.

Liberals are furious that Kavanaugh, a potentially pivotal vote on abortion rights and other issues, was confirmed despite what they view as credible accusations of sexual assault against him, which he has denied. Democratic candidates for the House believe the issue will help attract the votes of suburban women already moving in their direction.

ADVERTISEMENT

The trend toward a more polarized political landscape has been a long time coming, said Michael Steel, a former adviser to former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerHouston Chronicle endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — House postpones Rosenstein meeting | Trump hits Dems over Medicare for all | Hurricane Michael nears landfall Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger MORE (R-Ohio), noting that the divisions have been driven by demographic shifts, social changes and rapidly developing technology.

But he noted that Trump has exacerbated that increasingly partisan dynamic since the 2016 election. Trump stunned the political world by winning the White House despite a number of controversial incidents, including the leak of the “Access Hollywood” tape that led many in his own party to denounce him at the time.

“The polarization is real. It’s a big historic trend, and President Trump is both a symptom and a cause,” Steel told The Hill, saying he believes the prospect of a Democratic-controlled Congress will drive Republicans to the polls in November.

The Kavanaugh fight has amplified those divisions in the midst of a campaign already characterized by sharp rhetoric and candidates looking to turn out their respective bases.

In the Senate, where Republicans are looking to defend and build on their 51-49 majority, the Supreme Court has become the centerpiece of Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley’s Senate campaign as he looks to unseat McCaskill, who voted against Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Hawley expressed support for Kavanaugh as soon as the judge was nominated by Trump, and he recently doubled down on his messaging, blaming Democrats for what he described as a “circus” surrounding the confirmation process.

After Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the Republican is now warning voters about the ramifications of a Democratic Senate majority.

“The goal of a Democrat majority is to overturn the results of the 2016 election and roll back the results of the Trump Administration,” Hawley said in a statement following a Monday conference call with reporters.

Hawley has called on McCaskill to put “partisanship aside” on this issue and support actions like his request for a special counsel to investigate Democrats’ handling of the allegations. But McCaskill accused Hawley of being the one who’s elevating partisanship in politics.

“This is what a partisan does, and what causes the problem in the first place,” McCaskill said in a recent statement.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation has also become a major flashpoint in other red states. In Indiana’s Senate debate Monday night, the Supreme Court quickly grabbed the spotlight, exposing one of the biggest differences between Donnelly, who opposed Kavanaugh, and Republican Mike Braun.

And Montana state auditor Matt Rosendale, who’s challenging Tester, is running ads against Democratic senators for the “liberal smear” against Kavanaugh.

But the Supreme Court rift could perhaps have the largest ripple effect in North Dakota, where Heitkamp is defending a seat in a state Trump carried by 36 points.

Her Republican opponent, Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Overnight Health Care — Presented by Purdue Pharma —Senate debates highlight fight over pre-existing conditions | Support grows for Utah Medicaid expansion measure | Arkansas health official defends work requirements Election Countdown: Small-donor donations explode | Russian woman charged with midterm interference | Takeaways from North Dakota Senate debate | O'Rourke gives 'definitive no' to 2020 run | Dems hope Latino voters turn Arizona blue MORE, has gone on the attack over her decision to vote against Kavanaugh’s confirmation, positioning himself as a staunch defender of the judge.

In a weekend interview with The New York Times, Cramer called into question the “Me Too” movement, saying it was a “movement toward victimization” and lamenting that “you’re just supposed to believe” women and men who come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct.

Heitkamp responded to Cramer’s remarks, bristling at his suggestion that the movement turned otherwise strong women into victims. She said her own mother had been a victim of sexual assault as a teenager.

“I want you to put this in there, it did not make my mom less strong that she was a victim,” she said. “She got stronger and she made us strong. And to suggest that this movement doesn’t make women strong and stronger is really unfortunate.”

While Kavanaugh is upending deep-red Senate races, Democrats believe it’ll resonate differently in the battle for the House, where party candidates intend to channel the fury over the justice’s confirmation as they look to flip the 23 seats they need to take the chamber in November.

Demonstrators — many who are women — have held several protests that have seized on the growing anti-Kavanaugh furor, which they see as an extension of the Me Too movement.

For Democrats, the path to the House runs directly through suburban districts where moderate and female voters may be turned off by the allegations against Kavanaugh and how some Republicans have dismissed the Me Too movement.

After the confirmation, pro-abortion rights group NARAL launched a $1 million ad campaign hitting vulnerable House Republicans on the issue, including GOP Reps. David YoungDavid Edmund YoungGOP warns economy will tank if Dems win Sanders, Harris set to criss-cross Iowa The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump seizes on immigrant 'caravan' for midterms | WHCA criticizes Trump for praising lawmaker who assaulted reporter | Trump takes harder line on Saudis MORE (Iowa), Peter Roskam Peter James RoskamDems target small cluster of states in battle for House Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger Election Countdown: Big fundraising numbers in fight for Senate | Haley resigns in surprise move | Says she will back Trump in 2020 | Sanders hitting midterm trail | Collins becomes top Dem target | Takeaways from Indiana Senate debate MORE (Ill.), Kevin YoderKevin Wayne YoderSmall-dollar donations explode in the Trump era Election Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach Dems outraising Republicans in final stretch of midterms MORE (Kan.), Claudia Tenney (N.Y.), John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonO'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger Election Countdown: Big fundraising numbers in fight for Senate | Haley resigns in surprise move | Says she will back Trump in 2020 | Sanders hitting midterm trail | Collins becomes top Dem target | Takeaways from Indiana Senate debate MORE (Texas), Jason LewisJason Mark LewisGOP lawmaker once belittled sexual harassment: 'How traumatizing was it?' Paul Ryan to campaign for 25 vulnerable House Republicans How America’s urban-rural divide is changing the Democratic Party MORE (Minn.) and Dave Brat (Va.) — all running in the types of suburban seats Democrats are focusing on.

The rhetoric over Kavanaugh landed in the midst of a midterm election cycle already defined by rampant partisanship. 

An August survey from Pew Research Center found that about 8 in 10 respondents believe that Democratic and Republican voters not only disagree on plans and policies but also on basic facts. And a Pew poll released late last month found that 72 percent of polled registered voters say the issue of which party controls Congress will factor into their vote in November.

During the primary season, both parties nominated a handful of populists from opposite ends of the political spectrum, suggesting an appetite for more ideologically aggressive candidates among the parties’ core voters.

In the gubernatorial races in Florida and Georgia, Democrats nominated two insurgent progressives, Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams, while Republicans tapped former Rep. Ron DeSantisRonald Dion DeSantisFive takeaways from Gillum and DeSantis’s first debate Live coverage: Gillum clashes with DeSantis in Florida debate Miami Herald endorses Gillum for governor MORE (R-Fla.) and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, two hard-line conservatives who have allied themselves closely with Trump.

That same dynamic played out in governor’s races in Kansas and Maryland.

This partisanship has played a role in general election messaging. Candidates are still tailoring their messages to rile up the base, which they believe will ultimately deliver them crucial victories in midterms where turnout is usually lower.

In Arizona’s Senate race, Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyArizona Senate candidate doubles down attacking opponent over Taliban comments Arizona newspaper backs Democrat in dead heat Senate race Trump boosts McSally, bashes Sinema in Arizona MORE (R) has sought to frame her campaign around issues such as crime and immigration, warning voters that both are likely to surge if Democrats win in November. The same goes for Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), who is seeking a second term.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP warns economy will tank if Dems win Ex-lawmaker urges Americans to publicly confront officials O'Rourke on calling Cruz 'Lyin' Ted': 'That wasn't the best phrase for me to use' MORE (R-Texas), a standard-bearer in the conservative movement, has seized on issues such as shootings involving police and national anthem protests in the NFL as he seeks to beat back a tough challenge from Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas).

Meanwhile, Trump, who still elicits sharp divisions among voters, is hardly holding back.

The president planned a series of rallies in the final four weeks of the midterm campaign, where he is expected to double down on his message that voting for Democrats in November is not an option.

As he’s stumped for various GOP candidates this year, he’s made the pitch to elect more Republicans that will enact his agenda, arguing that red-state Democrats who frame themselves as bipartisan won’t actually work across the aisle.

Strategists from both parties say the attack line that Democrats have adopted a radical agenda dead set on obstructing Trump is likely to be touted by more Republicans heading into Election Day.

But Democrats are poised to take the opposite approach, casting Kavanaugh’s confirmation as an affront on female voters and women’s rights.

“The Republicans may have saved themselves the Senate; the Kavanaugh fight did activate the GOP base,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. “The question in the next 28 days is, now that [the confirmation] settles in, is that going to give another jolt to the Democratic base in the same way the fight jolted the GOP base?”