Of the approximately 3 million controversies that have dominated the news since President Trump was elected, the Supreme Court fight to get Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh seated could be the one that most sticks with voters. That is both good news for Republicans and bad news for Republicans.
There is a growing body of evidence that points to the ugly Kavanaugh fight as a major factor that will possibly help Republicans keep control of the Senate but give Democrats the boost they need to regain the majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010.
How could a singular event be good for some candidates of a party and bad for others? Because the types of voters who will decide each election are totally different.
In the Senate, the winning party needs to win over rural, conservative-leaning voters. (Or, if you are a Democrat, you at least need to win some of those while hoping the rest do not turn out to vote in significant numbers.) That is because races that will determine the Senate majority are happening in states such as North Dakota, Montana, Missouri, West Virginia and Indiana — all states with significant rural populations that lean conservative. All five of those states voted for Trump and Mitt Romney by double digits.
It is a much different picture in the battle for the House, where the winning party needs to secure the votes of independent, female voters, especially those who live in the suburbs of big cities such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver and Miami.
Polls suggest those two groups of Americans — rural, conservative voters and suburban, female voters — see the Kavanaugh fight very differently.
An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll taken after the hearings involving Kavanaugh and his accuser Christine Blasey Ford found that by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio, suburban women do not want Kavanaugh on the court. It was nearly the reverse for rural voters.
Let’s take the battle for the House first. There is evidence that independent voters, especially women, in the suburbs have struggled with supporting Trump as president. He’s got a long record of saying controversial things about women and reflexively standing by men in his orbit who have been accused of behaving badly toward women. Throw in his Supreme Court pick being accused of sexual misconduct, and Republicans are going to find it difficult to win over swing voters in competitive House races, argues Jesse Ferguson, a House Democratic operative.
“Republicans had hoped to suppress that [anti-Trump] energy, but instead they just supercharged it,” Ferguson said.
A new Washington Post-Schar School survey of 69 competitive House races suggests these voters were paying attention to the Kavanaugh fight, too. Eighty-five percent of all voters in these districts say the Supreme Court is either important or extremely important in deciding their vote for Congress this year. That same poll also found women in these districts favor Democrats over Republicans for Congress by 14 points.
So when Trump indicated he thought the allegations against Kavanaugh were a “hoax set up by Democrats,” it was the last thing Republicans trying to keep control of the House wanted to hear.
Rhetoric like that is arguably great for Republicans trying to keep control of the Senate, where a much different base will decide the outcome. That NPR/PBS/Marist poll showed Republican voter enthusiasm surging during the Kavanaugh battle. Around the same time, white male angst burst out in the open: an explicit fear that if Kavanaugh could be hobbled by accusations, so could any white man.
It was a similar strain of grievance that helped Trump get elected. Much of that energy has been concentrated in rural, less-educated areas, and those are exactly the places that could knock off Senate Democrats running for reelection in North Dakota, Indiana, Montana, Missouri and West Virginia. A Fox News poll taken toward the end of the Kavanaugh fight showed Republican challenger Kevin Cramer expanding his lead against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) in North Dakota, despite the fact Cramer made headlines for asking whether what Kavanaugh was accused of should disqualify him from the top court.
“I think in the states we’re playing in, there is more Republican voters than Democrats,” said a GOP operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about Senate races. “This is a put-your-jersey-on rallying cry for both sides.”
That means if Kavanaugh supercharged anti-Trump sentiment in key House races, he also boosted pro-Trump sentiment that will decide control of the Senate.