Off to the Races

Kavanaugh Drama Adds Fresh Uncertainty to Midterms

The race for the Senate was already difficult to handicap before an allegation threatened to derail Trump's Supreme Court pick.

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh waits to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the third day of his confirmation hearing Sept. 6.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Sept. 17, 2018, 8 p.m.

This election is taking on many of the aspects of a three-ring circus. Not only are wild and unexpected things happening, but if you focus too much on what is going on in any one ring, you miss what is going on in another.

For the first time, the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh seems to be in jeopardy. As long as the last-minute allegation of sexual assault from Kavanaugh’s high school days was anonymous, it didn’t seem to be much of a threat. The presumption of innocence and seeming unfairness of someone having to refute a three-decade-old, anonymous charge worked in Kavanaugh’s favor, but now that the alleged victim has come forward, and reportedly passed a polygraph test administered by a former FBI expert, the charges have gained sufficient credibility to call the nomination in question.

It now looks like the outcome will be determined by a pair of GOP senators who are not up for reelection, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, and a handful of Democratic senators whose names will be on the ballot in ruby-red states, where President Trump’s approval ratings are less toxic. These senators—Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Jon Tester of Montana, all in states that Trump won by 19 points or more—have had to walk a tightrope between two groups: out-of-state donors and in-state activists who are militantly opposed to Kavanaugh, and many voters who voted for and often are still supportive of Trump and are more open to his nomination.

Midterm elections are almost always referenda on the incumbent president, and while Trump’s numbers have been quite low by historic standards—usually the lowest of newly elected presidents since World War II—his numbers have been less volatile than many seem to believe. A great deal of attention has been given to recent surveys, notably by CNN and Quinnipiac University, that have shown Trump slumping significantly, but most surveys and the averages have shown less of a decline. The new weekly Gallup poll, released Monday afternoon with interviews through Sunday night, puts Trump’s job-approval rating at 38 percent, a single point below his 39 percent Gallup average since taking office. Trump’s lowest weekly Gallup approval was 35 percent, and his highest 45 percent, but in 86 weekly averages, in fewer than a dozen has it dropped to as low as 35 or 36 or gone as high as 44 or 45 percent. The RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight averages are 41 and 40 percent, respectively. They suggest that in recent weeks Trump has given up the modest gains he picked up in the spring, most likely from favorable economic news. Basically, if Trump were a stock, he would have a very narrow trading range, albeit a low one.

The Republican challenge of holding onto their tenuous House majority seems unrelenting; something could happen to alter the apparent trajectory of this election, but right now it seems headed for Democratic gains of between 20 and 40 seats, most likely more than the 23 necessary to tip control.

Similarly on the state level, the losses could be quite high. Keep in mind that three-quarters of the nation’s governorships and four-fifths of the state legislative seats are up in this midterm-election cycle. As Democrats learned in 2010 and 2011, having catastrophic losses in the last midterm before redistricting ends up being the defeat that keeps on defeating for the rest of a decade. We could see GOP net losses of at least five and as many as 10 governorships and between 400 and 550 state legislative seats, perhaps with control of 10 or 11 legislative chambers flipping from red to blue.

In the Senate, meanwhile, we don’t even know the direction of any shift that will take place. With about 14 seats in play, 10 held by Democrats, four by Republicans, the uncertainty could not be much greater. For all intents and purposes, the Senate is being fought in a different country or year than for these other offices, the result of this being the most one-sided Senate map in history.

The key variable is just how much energy and intensity really exists in the Democratic base and just how unenthusiastic Republican voters are. All that uncertainty was already present before the latest allegation against Kavanaugh. Now we’ll need to watch how Republicans handle a potential new round of hearings with Kavanaugh and his accuser, with women voters in particular—already a tough demographic for the GOP—paying close attention.

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