Kavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger
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 Kavanaugh 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 McCaskill (D-Mo.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), four of the 10 Democrats defending seats in states that President Trump 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.
The trend toward a more polarized political landscape has been a long time coming, said Michael Steel, a former adviser to former Speaker John Boehner (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 Cramer, 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 Young (Iowa), Peter Roskam (Ill.), Kevin Yoder (Kan.), Claudia Tenney (N.Y.), John Culberson (Texas), Jason Lewis (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 DeSantis (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 McSally (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 Cruz (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?”
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.