Republicans are bracing for political aftershocks from the sexual assault accusation against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, with some expressing fear that the coming investigation will refocus the nation’s attention on an issue that could drive up the Democratic vote in the midterm elections.
The initial hope that the conservative Kavanaugh’s appointment would encourage turnout by grateful GOP voters this fall has been tempered by new fears that more voters, especially independent women, might head to the polls with fresh anger about Republican handling of sexual impropriety after a new round of public hearings.
“It’s not just about Kavanaugh but more about the midterms,” Rick Hohlt, a Republican lobbyist and veteran strategist, said of the party’s concerns. “With more women running for public office than ever before and the majority of them being Democrats, we could have a 1992 situation.”
That’s a reference to the elections in 1992, dubbed the “Year of the Woman” after the number of women elected to the House nearly doubled, to 47, and the number of women elected to the Senate tripled, to six. The election came one year after Justice Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite allegations that he had sexually harassed a subordinate, Anita Hill, in the workplace.
Even before the accusation against Kavanaugh surfaced, polls showed women preferred Democrats more than men did and were more likely to disapprove of President Trump, who faced accusations of sexual misconduct by 19 women before his 2016 election. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in late August found 58 percent of female registered voters intended to cast a ballot for a Democrat for Congress, compared with 45 percent of men.
In an illustration of the changing dynamics, Democratic candidates for the House and the Senate enthusiastically expressed support for Kavanaugh’s accuser Monday, while calling for delays in the confirmation process to investigate the claims. Republican leaders pledged to properly look into the matter “by the book,” despite vocally expressing frustration over the timing of the claim.
“I believe she is credible,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said of Kavanaugh’s accuser during an appearance Monday on ABC’s “The View,” a show that targets a female audience. “We have to get to the bottom of this.”
Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University in California, told The Washington Post in an article published Sunday that Kavanaugh had pinned her to a bed, groped her over her clothes and attempted to pull off her bathing suit at a house party in Montgomery County, Md., in the early 1980s. Both were then teenagers.
Kavanaugh has denied the accusation. “This is a completely false allegation,” he said in a statement Monday. “I have never done anything like what the accuser describes — to her or to anyone.”
Despite more than $8 million in spending on targeted ads meant to influence Senate votes of Kavanaugh, there has been little evidence to this point that his nomination would have much of an impact on the fall’s political landscape.
While the nomination excited activists in both parties, pollsters say those forces largely negate each other, and some data suggests voters are less engaged about Kavanaugh than they were about the nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court pick. Democratic senators who voted for Gorsuch from three states won by Trump — North Dakota, Indiana and West Virginia — have so far withheld judgment on Kavanaugh’s selection, without any negative impact on their polling.
Democratic strategists say the dynamic could change in the coming weeks, especially if Republicans mishandle the investigation of Ford’s allegations.
“This is not just Kavanaugh that is on trial. It is the Republican majority that is on trial,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who has been working on Senate races. “There is certainly a significant danger for Republicans if they are seen as railroading the nomination through at this stage or not providing a real public airing of the facts.”
Most Republicans said Monday that they were willing to allow more time to vet the claims by Ford, with Trump predicting “a little delay” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) praising the Judiciary Committee’s plan to follow “standard practice and regular order.” The committee planned a new round of public hearings with Kavanaugh to investigate the allegation.
Two Republican candidates in tight Senate races did express impatience Monday.
“I don’t think the vote should be delayed,” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Republican Senate candidate in Tennessee, said in a Monday morning radio interview before McConnell and Trump spoke. Rep. Kevin Cramer, the GOP’s Senate candidate in North Dakota, called for Kavanaugh’s confirmation, “absent significant evidence being brought forth immediately.”
Democratic strategists were keeping careful track of the statements, in the hopes that they could use them against candidates and contend that Republicans are little more than a rubber stamp for Trump.
“Before now, the argument was that the midterm politics played in Republicans’ favor, based on the idea that red-state Democrats would feel pressure to support Kavanaugh because Trump is popular in their states,” said Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice, a group that opposes the Kavanaugh nomination. “But now, if Republicans set out to smear a sexual assault survivor to steamroll Kavanaugh through, it will only further repel suburban women voters, who are already powering the November wave.”
Several Democratic House candidates running in suburban districts, where they hope college-
educated female voters will help them to victory, released statements Monday emphasizing their respect and admiration for Ford in coming forward.
“I stand with Christine Blasey Ford, and I commend her for her bravery and seriousness with which she takes her duty as a citizen,” said Katie Hill, a Democratic candidate for Congress in a district north of Los Angeles.
Jennifer Wexton, a Democrat running for Congress in Northern Virginia, tweeted that she believed Ford, while Sean Casten, a Democrat looking to take a suburban Chicago seat, wrote that any senator who votes for Kavanaugh after these allegations “is endorsing his behavior.”
If Kavanaugh is forced to withdraw, the political dynamic of the Supreme Court could be scrambled once again, officials from both parties said. Republicans could argue that the future of the Supreme Court really was at stake in the hope of mobilizing the Republican base, which polls show is less excited about the coming elections.
“If he doesn’t make it, it could be way more helpful as a rallying cry for our base turnout,” said one Republican consultant working on the midterms, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal polling. “The Democratic base is already excited. If their base gets any more excited, they might have a stroke.”