Off to the Races

The Kavanaugh Fight's Midterm Stakes

Whichever side loses the Supreme Court nomination battle may end up with a better political issue for November.

Protesters chant against Judge Brett Kavanaugh as Capitol Hill Police officers make arrests outside the office of Sen. Susan Collins on Monday.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Sept. 24, 2018, 8 p.m.

The eyes and ears of the political world will be on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings this week: Judge Brett Kavanaugh against Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were both in high school in the early 1980s. Roiling the waters still more is a second accusation that emerged Sunday from Deborah Ramirez, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s at Yale University.

I haven’t met Kavanaugh, Ford, or Ramirez, and I wasn't present at any of the occasions in question. I’m not a lawyer. Obviously, I don’t know what did or didn’t happen in either incidence or know who is or isn’t telling the truth. But that hasn’t stopped many people from both the Left and the Right from passing judgment.

It is pretty clear that more people whose political philosophy is left of center seem to believe Ford—and, my guess is, Ramirez—while those to the right of center are more likely to believe Kavanaugh: yet another example of “where you stand depends on where you sit.” It’s reminiscent of the 2000 Florida election-recount drama. Half of the country was going to feel that the election was stolen; the only question was, which half? But the way the Senate testimony plays out, how credible each person is, will make a big difference among the small number of people who are approaching the situation with open minds.

How will these controversies affect the 2018 midterm elections? Going into this mess, Democrats seemed to be considerably more energized and agitated than Republicans. It seems (to me, anyway) harder for Democrats and the Left to get much more motivated than they already are, so the obvious answer to what could change the current dynamic is something that would motivate Republicans, making the Right the more aggrieved party—specifically, Kavanaugh failing a confirmation vote or dropping out.

Given the political environment, a Kavanaugh defeat or withdrawal between now and the Nov. 6 election would be more likely to galvanize the Right than further motivate the Left. Conversely, a Kavanaugh confirmation would further outrage Democrats and the Left, particularly the not-insubstantial ranks of college-educated women, many of whom already have an extremely low opinion of President Trump. But since that group is already pretty torqued up, the change from the status quo might not be that dramatic. A Kavanaugh confirmation might also feed into the complacency we have seen on the Right, something that is already a real challenge for Republicans. So, perversely, whichever party “loses” on the Kavanaugh nomination might actually have more of a winning issue in this election.

In the end, the Kavanaugh fight is not likely to be a true game changer. The dynamics of this election seem to be locked into a direction that has to be terrifying for Republicans. The only question is how bad the outcome will be. It certainly seems very likely that Democrats will take back control of the House, but will they gain 25 to 40 seats (they need at least 23 to take control), or could their wave build higher? Current congressional district boundaries in most states and natural population sorting provide something of a protective wall for the GOP, but if the wave is sufficiently tall, it will breach that wall. It appears to be a wave sufficiently high to translate into a Democratic gain of 50 or 60 seats under past district maps, but the jury is out on whether that can happen this year.

The Senate is where the Kavanaugh outcome might matter more. There is little dispute that there is a wave, and a big one, but the number of competitive Senate seats that are in red states will likely diminish its impact. Of the eight Senate races rated as Toss-Up in The Cook Political Report's ratings, Democratic incumbents Bill Nelson (Florida), Joe Donnelly (Indiana), and Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), along with GOP incumbent Ted Cruz (Texas) and the open-seat contests in Arizona and Tennessee, are in states that Trump won in 2016. Dean Heller (Nevada) is the only GOP incumbent in a state carried by Hillary Clinton. Expand the picture out to the four Democratic-held seats that are rated as Lean Democratic, and only Tina Smith (Minnesota) is in a Clinton state, while Jon Tester (Montana), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), and Joe Manchin (West Virginia) are in Trump states. There are no seats in the Lean Republican column.

So size does matter in the Senate. Is the wave tall enough to tip the bulk of the eight Toss-Up races disproportionately in the Democratic direction, even in states that are pink to deep red in color, and neutralize to some degree their natural Republican tendencies? We may have a better answer to that question when this Kavanaugh saga ends, one way or the other.

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