The emotional battle over sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh burst into the midterm elections after a dramatic week of wrenching testimony and raw partisan rage on Capitol Hill, tossing an explosive and sensitive issue into the final weeks of the closely fought campaign for control of Congress.
Tight races hinging largely on how women feel about President Trump have been further roiled by the emotional appearance Thursday by Christine Blasey Ford and the anger-filled response from Kavanaugh.
The issue is resonating in two distinct ways: It threatens to further erode support for House Republicans struggling to survive in centrist suburban districts, while in Senate races it is giving GOP challengers in pro-Trump states a chance to inspire previously unenthusiastic conservatives.
In Indiana, for example, the Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, who announced his opposition to Kavanaugh following the testimony, released a video over the weekend saying the effort to derail Kavanaugh “tells you how Democrats roll” and calling it a “real eye-opener for folks across Indiana” that Donnelly “takes his instructions from [Democratic leader] Chuck Schumer.”
In heavily pro-Trump West Virginia, where Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III remains undecided on the nomination, the president used a Saturday night campaign rally to laud Kavanaugh’s “brilliant and really incredible character, quality and courage.” In a nod to the pressure from both sides on Manchin, Trump added: “A vote for Judge Kavanaugh is also a vote to reject the ruthless and outrageous tactics of the Democrat Party.”
And in Texas, the Democratic challenger in the 31st Congressional District near Austin mentioned the Kavanaugh battle at a Saturday campaign event as she told her story of how hard it was to come forward after she was assaulted while serving in the military.
“Normally, I say that these national-headline, political-pundit things aren’t what people in this district pay attention to,” MJ Hegar said during an appearance in Taylor, Tex. “This is an exception. Everywhere I went, I saw people glued to TVs, like they’ve been when we’ve had serious crises in this country.”
The controversy has splashed over a midterm landscape that leaders of both parties have seen as generally favorable for Democrats, with Trump’s unpopularity driving a shift in some parts of the country, particularly suburbs, that voted for Republicans in 2016. Polls had shown that Kavanaugh was an unusually unpopular Supreme Court nominee, though he has enjoyed overwhelming support from Republicans.
How the issue plays out in the Nov. 6 elections will depend on the drama that will unfold in the coming week — including whether the FBI turns up any new evidence in its probe and what happens if and when Kavanaugh’s confirmation is put to a Senate vote. If centrist Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska vote in favor, that could influence Democratic fence-sitters running in conservative states, including Manchin and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp.
At stake, at least in the battle for the Senate, is the power to block or affirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominees — perhaps even the current one, if Kavanaugh is defeated and an alternative cannot be confirmed before year’s end. Some House Democrats have vowed that if they win the majority, they would launch an investigation of a Justice Kavanaugh, with impeachment as a potential outcome.
What is certain is that the emotional and cultural debate about Kavanaugh and his accuser has inflamed the national divide over Trump, himself accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, that was already driving the cycle.
“It’s too soon to know,” said Rep. Tom MacArthur, a vulnerable Republican from suburban New Jersey who, like other incumbents in challenging races, is trying to steer clear of the issue. “I don’t think anyone won anything [Thursday]. I think it was an unfortunate day for America.”
The reverberations were apparent nationwide after the events unfolded on Capitol Hill.
Scores of advocates for and against Kavanaugh lined up outside senators’ offices on Friday and jammed congressional phone lines and websites. National campaign committees sought to take advantage by issuing urgent calls for action with emails emblazoned with sirens and “donate” buttons. Candidates issued statements and pressed their opponents to do the same. And the issue spilled into the weekend at town halls, on videos posted to the Web and on Twitter.
For Republicans, the intensity surrounding the confirmation battle offers an opportunity to fire up core voters who, according to recent polls, have not been as enthusiastic as the Democratic base. If Kavanaugh’s confirmation fails, that could further motivate conservative voters.
“I just know for the first time there are signs of life,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican campaign consultant advising in dozens of Senate, House and gubernatorial races. “It is hard to motivate voters who aren’t that motivated in a midterm elections. So to have an external event like Kavanaugh to motivate them, that’s much better than relying on campaigns to do it.”
Some Republicans have skirted the issue of Ford’s credibility, instead focusing on accusing Democrats of sitting on Ford’s allegations until the final days before a Senate vote.
Kavanaugh adopted partisan rhetoric more akin to a GOP campaign speech than a Supreme Court nomination hearing when he said that opposition to him was based on “apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election” as well as a desire for “revenge on behalf of the Clintons and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.”
Other GOP candidates in competitive races, including House incumbents fighting a potential Democratic wave in moderate suburbs, are treading more carefully.
Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), facing a tough challenge in a district that Trump lost in 2016, said Friday that he found both Kavanaugh and Ford credible. Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who is competing against Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema for the Senate seat of retiring Republican Jeff Flake, has cautiously urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to “gather any additional relevant facts, and then act on this nomination.” McSally revealed this year that she was sexually abused by a high school coach.
Democrats, meanwhile, see a chance to galvanize their voters to care about the Supreme Court as much as conservatives typically do.
In 2016, Trump and his GOP allies courted evangelicals heavily with his promise to put conservatives on the bench, with a particular focus on filling the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative hero. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had held the seat open, refusing to allow a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.
Hovering over the Republicans’ complaints about delays in the Kavanaugh nomination have been cries of hypocrisy from Democrats over how Garland was treated.
The issue is even bubbling into the 2020 landscape, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), said Saturday that the Kavanaugh controversy is one reason she is seriously considering a presidential bid against Trump.
“I watched powerful men helping a powerful man make it to an even more powerful position and I thought, ‘Time’s up,’ ” she said at a town hall in Holyoke, Mass. “It’s time for women to go to Washington and fix our broken government, and that includes a woman at the top.”
Erica Werner, David Weigel, Anne Gearan, Aaron Blake and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed to this report.