Off to the Races

The Kavanaugh Aftermath

The Supreme Court fight may well have helps Democrats' chances of winning the House and the GOP's chances of holding the Senate.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
Oct. 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

There was never any danger of me becoming a physics major but I remember, from my one class on the subject, Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In terms of the impact of the Brett Kavanaugh nomination fight, there was what happened inside the hearing room and what happened outside the room that may have moved in an opposite direction. We will have to wait and see whether they will equal each other.

It’s a decent bet that what happened inside the room helped Democrats in a lot of places, particularly in urban and suburban areas, further enraging liberals and many women. It may help Democratic chances in the House. But what happened outside the room may have equally stiffened and powered an outrage that may well help Republicans, particularly those taking on incumbent Democrats in ruby-red areas—notably those five states where Republicans are seeking to unseat Democrats in states that President Trump won by 19 points or more.

The net effect might be that the Kavanaugh matter may have helped Democratic chances to pick up the House and score substantial gains in gubernatorial and state legislative races, particularly in those states with substantial suburban populations. But in more rural, small-town, and conservative states, like those where the fight for the Senate is mostly happening, it could increase the odds of the GOP holding onto the upper chamber.

To some, the hearings reflected a woman badly treated by the system, feeding into a narrative of a misogynistic Republican Party that has little interest in the careers and best interests of women. But the over-the-top, mob-like environment outside of the hearings may well galvanize the very same voters that unexpectedly put Trump into the White House. What many people in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia saw on television news may not have helped Democrats win those key Senate contests.

Keep in mind that of the 17 Senate races where there is any doubt about the outcome, 14 are in states that voted Trump in 2016. The only exceptions are Minnesota, where Sen. Tina Smith is running for a full term after being appointed to succeed Al Franken; New Jersey, a very Democratic state in a Democratic year but where Bob Menendez is facing a race that is getting closer after the scandal over his alleged corruption; and Nevada, where GOP incumbent Dean Heller is running in a state that went narrowly for Hillary Clinton in the last election. Particularly in the five states that voted for Trump by 19 points or more, the increase in GOP intensity could make lives even more difficult. That’s true even in West Virginia where Democrat Joe Manchin ended up voting in favor of confirmation. For Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Jon Tester in Montana, and Joe Donnelly in Indiana, this is making a tough situation even tougher.

As is the norm for midterm elections, this is a referendum on the president—in this case, a very polarizing president who evokes strong emotions, both positive and negative. For over a year I’ve been seeing the midterms as a tale of two elections, one for the House, governorships and state legislatures that looks to be a very challenging situation for Republicans. Trump’s national approval ratings are comparable to those of presidents preceding previous midterm-election disasters, like President Clinton’s in 1994, President George W. Bush’s in 2006 and President Obama’s in both 2010 and 2014. Even with more congressional and state legislative boundaries drawn to benefit Republicans than Democrats, this blue wave looks taller than the Republican sea wall of boundaries and natural population patterns.

In the governorships, where district lines are not applicable, it is enormous GOP gains in 2010 and 2014 that leave Republicans overexposed, with only one way to go: down. Democrats have surprising chances of picking up Republican governorships in some normally very red states like Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota, not to mention some other places like Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin. In some of these states, it is state spending cuts, particularly on education, that is causing some voters to move in ways that might not be normally expected.

How did we get into this mess? Having lived in Washington for 46 years since coming to town in September 1972 as a college freshman, four months later starting on Capitol Hill as a Senate elevator operator and intern, I have never seen the bitterness, the level of partisan vitriol that we are seeing today, and that period encompasses two impeachments, two very unpopular wars, and scores of momentous political and legislative battles. Our country is more divided today that at any time since Reconstruction, the period of the late 1860s, 1870s, and early 1880s immediately after the Civil War. Conservative commentator and former Education Secretary William Bennett speculated that things were more badly divided than at any time since just before that war.

What is most alarming today is that our judiciary, the one branch of government designed to be the least political, has now become equally politicized. It's now a legitimate question about how long will it take a Supreme Court nominee picked by a president of one party to again be confirmed by a Senate controlled by the opposite party.

The GOP majority in the House was very likely to fall to Democrats regardless of what happened with Kavanaugh, but while Republicans could lose their majority in the Senate, it would appear to be a bit less likely today than two months ago.

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