GOP sees Kavanaugh as boost for Senate, danger for House

GOP sees Kavanaugh as boost for Senate, danger for House
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The fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is energizing the conservative GOP base even as it appears to have thrown the House Republican majority into greater doubt.

Republicans say the attacks on Kavanaugh are resonating with GOP voters in their districts and states, and that the fight could boost GOP candidates in Senate races in red states like North Dakota, West Virginia and Indiana.

But that is of little consolation to vulnerable House Republicans such as Rep. Leonard LanceLeonard LanceOn The Money: Why the tax law failed to save the GOP majority | Grassley opts for Finance gavel, setting Graham up for Judiciary | Trump says China eager for trade deal | Facebook reeling after damning NYT report Tax law failed to save GOP majority New Jersey New Members 2019 MORE as he tries to hang on to his suburban New Jersey swing district.

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Republicans acknowledge that the fight over Kavanaugh’s nomination could dampen their prospects of holding onto the House majority, which is already an uphill battle this cycle. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school threatens to hurt the party with female and moderate voters who are key in swing seats.

But they maintain it’s a boost in the Senate where they’re fighting to protect their slim 51-seat majority by targeting deep-red seats where voters overwhelmingly backed the president.

“This is not a net positive for House Republicans, probably a drag on suburban Republicans who need to thread a very tight needle in order to hang on this environment,” a national GOP strategist told The Hill. “It’s the complete opposite in Senate races especially in West Virginia.”

Democrats have long boasted a sizable enthusiasm gap in a year where the party in power faces significant electoral headwinds. But new polls in the wake of the battle over Kavanaugh’s nomination appear to be giving Republicans a renewed interest in the midterms.

A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marish survey released Wednesday shows the Democratic advantage has basically vanished. Once a 10-point margin for Democrats in July is now only a 2-point gap between Democrats and Republicans who consider the elections “very important.”

Polling released from Harvard CAPS/Harris on Monday showed that registered Democratic voters are slightly more likely to vote than Republican and independent voters based on the battle over the Kavanaugh nomination, which could provide some comfort to the party. Half of Democratic voters say they’re more likely to vote, compared to 46 percent of GOP voters.

GOP polling shows that Kavanaugh’s nomination is still a top priority for voters in deep-red states. One GOP strategist told The Hill that private polling found that the Supreme Court nomination is tied with jobs and the economy as the top issues for voters in West Virginia and North Dakota — home to two hotly contested Senate races that could decide which party controls the upper chamber.

Sens. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampTrump to nominate former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as next EPA administrator North Dakota New Members 2019 2020 politics make an immigration deal unlikely in lame-duck MORE (D-N.D.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSotomayor: Kavanaugh now part of the Supreme Court ‘family’ Trump to nominate former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as next EPA administrator Schumer reelected as Senate Democratic Leader MORE (D-W.Va.), who both voted for Trump’s first Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch, are under a mountain of pressure over their decision on Kavanaugh’s nomination. Both Democratic senators are up for reelection in states that Trump overwhelmingly won in 2016. They’ve said they won’t announce their decision on Kavanaugh until after the FBI completes its investigation into the sexual assault allegations.

Republicans believe the Kavanaugh fight could also hurt Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyTrump to nominate former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as next EPA administrator Indiana New Members 2019 2020 politics make an immigration deal unlikely in lame-duck MORE (D-Ind.), who announced last week that he won’t vote for Kavanaugh. Donnelly also voted for Gorsuch and is running for reelection in a state that Trump won by double-digits.

Some GOP Senate candidates like Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley are leaning heavily into the nomination. In a new ad released Wednesday, Hawley says he’ll “fight” for the Supreme Court and criticized his opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillJosh Hawley will defend the First Amendment and religious liberty Missouri New Members 2019 2020 politics make an immigration deal unlikely in lame-duck MORE (D-Mo.), who isn’t supporting Kavanaugh, for siding with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerFacebook reeling after damning NYT report Schumer warns Trump to stay out of government funding negotiations Schumer predicts Nelson will 'continue being senator' if 'every vote counted' MORE (D-N.Y.).

But Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC says it has conducted 24,000 interviews in states with Senate races since Thursday that shows the Kavanaugh nomination is not the game changer the GOP claims. The group says it hasn't moved the needle in horse-race polling in Trump states, arguing that health care is still the top issue.

A big question for both parties is how independent voters will respond to the Kavanaugh issue.

“It looks like the court thing evened up a little bit the turnout models and enthusiasm, but we still don’t know what it does to independent voters,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who was chairman of the National Republican Congressional Campaign (NRCC).

But Davis also suggested Republicans are in a better position today than they were a few weeks ago, in that instead of a fight over Trump, they’re having a fight over Kavanaugh.

“I think the ideological fight is a better fight for Republicans right now than making it a referendum on the president,” he said.

Trump made waves on Tuesday night at a Mississippi rally with comments that mocked Ford for not remembering key details about the night in 1982 she said Kavanaugh tried to rape her at a high school party — allegations the judge has vehemently denied.

In recent weeks, Trump had treaded carefully when asked about Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh, saying he wanted to hear her tell her story to the Senate last week and wants to see what the FBI turns up in its investigation this week.

Some GOP lawmakers and strategists cringed at Trump attacking an alleged sexual assault victim in such a public way, even as some said it would help with parts of his base.

Trump’s attack on Ford “fires up a faction of the base,” said a senior House GOP aide. “I don’t personally like it, but I think the base is fired up about Kavanaugh. [And] what we’re seeing in a lot of races is representatives underperforming with the base.”

But while Trump’s attacks on Ford could excite the base, many believe it could do lasting damage with independents and female, suburban voters whose support endangered House Republicans will need if they are to survive in November.

Democrats need a net 23 seats to recapture control of the House.

“I’m very critical of what the president did last night. Any sexual assault is an extremely traumatic event and that person should be treated with respect and dignity,” Lance, the New Jersey Republican in a tough reelection fight, said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We should let the FBI investigation continue.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have already been energized by what appears to be a backlash against the mercurial president, especially among female voters and candidates, who are running in record numbers this cycle.  

“The women of America are very energized — and they started to be energized on the 21st of January 2017. It has not dissipated,” Rep. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerMarcia Fudge under spotlight as Pelosi Speaker fight heats up Pelosi and her opponents voice confidence over Speakership battle Clyburn says some critics are using race to oppose his leadership bid MORE (D-Md.), the Democratic whip, told a small group of reporters in his Capitol office.

“And while I believe there’s some energy on the other side as well, I don’t think it matches the energy that was created on our side, which was already at a high level.”

If the Kavanaugh nomination is derailed, Republicans like Freedom Caucus Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) believe the defeat will deflate the base and depress turnout in November. But others argue it could mobilize GOP voters — at least in Senate races.

“I think that pours jet fuel on fire,” the national GOP strategist said. “It’s hard to imagine anything more sort of invigorating to the base than a chance to make a change they know will directly affect the court. ...They’re already motivated by the turbulence.”