How will the Kavanaugh controversy affect US midterms?

Washington, DC – With the vicious Senate battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh concluded by a 50-48 vote, focus now turns to the upcoming midterm elections.

Early indicators are that the Republican base was energised by Kavanaugh while female voters, who already favour Democrats by nearly a 2-1 margin, were polarised even more than they were before. Early poll numbers suggest modest gains for Republicans within an overall environment that remains negative for the party of President Donald Trump, analysts say.

Saturday’s confirmation came after a limited FBI investigation into accusations of sexual assault and other sexual misconduct that were made against the judge. Among the allegations were those of Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of groping her and trying to remove her clothing when they were both teenagers in the 1980s. Kavanaugh denied the allegations.

Prior to the Kavanaugh battle, Democrats were widely favoured to win control of the House of Representatives and Republicans were expected to retain command of the Senate, albeit narrowly. That odd and seemingly contradictory scenario in which the two chambers of Congress move in different directions remains the most likely scenario. Differences in gender and attitudes on sexual assault amid the #MeToo movement are likely to be critical.

“The initial effect I thought it would have was that, whichever side won in the confirmation would have a relative loss in the election, that the opposite party was going to be mobilised to show up,” said Richard L Pacelle Jr, head of the political science department at the University of Tennessee. “But multiple polls are showing that this has really energised the Republican voters,” he told Al Jazeera. “Right now, I think it’s really unclear what’s going to be the result of this.” 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Kavanaugh fight will help Republicans on November 6.

“We’d been trying to figure out how to get the base excited about this election, and nothing unifies Republicans like a court fight,” McConnell told the Reuters news agency on Saturday, just before the vote.

But the anger over the confirmation, particularly among women, may further galvanise the Democratic base.

Will voters show up?

Voter enthusiasm, a measure of how inclined registered voters are to go vote on election day, favoured Democrats over Republicans, according to a mid-September survey by Pew Research Center. Driven largely by opinions of President Donald Trump and interest in who controls Congress, 67 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Republicans – record levels for both parties – told Pew they were more enthusiastic about voting this year.

“There was a huge enthusiasm gap between Democrat and Republican voters going into the midterms. That has all disappeared in three weeks and it has disappeared in just about every single poll,” Pacelle said. “I would expect it to rebound slightly to the Democrats advantage. Democrats right now are kind of licking their wounds, wondering what’s next, what can we do. If they get over that and show up at the polls, that will help [their numbers].” 

Voter enthusiasm favoured Democrats over Republicans, according to a mid-September survey by Pew Research Center [File: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo]

Trump’s job approval rating, which had declined in September, bounced back with the Kavanaugh hearings, but remains negative. An October 1-7 survey of 1,500 adults nationwide by Gallup, which tracks Trump’s approval, found a negative 10-percentage-point spread between 53 percent who disapprove and 43 percent who approve. The disapproval spread was as wide as 18 percentage points in the Gallup poll of September 16.

“The president’s numbers are a little bit better now than they were in September. Part of it is because the president seems to do better when he is not dominating the news. We will have to see if that changes in the closing weeks here,” said Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “The jury is still out,” he said. “But as of this point, if your initial outlook was Democrats favoured in the House, Republicans favoured in the Senate, we haven’t seen a whole lot to change that.”

The effect on Senate races

The Kavanaugh controversy will likely affect Senate races more than those of the House because of the Senate’s constitutional role in confirming judges. Much of the focus during the debate on Kavanaugh was on positions of female Republican senators and Democrats seeking re-election in states where Trump does well with Republican voters. The battle for control of the Senate is being waged in 10 states where Democrats and Republicans are in competitive contests. 

One Democrat senator running for re-election, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted for Kavanaugh. Every other Democrat voted “no”. Senator Joe Donnelly, an anti-abortion rights Democrat running for re-election in Indiana, voted against him, as did Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who is struggling to hold onto her seat in North Dakota. Likewise, Democrats competing in close races in Florida, Missouri and New Jersey felt safe enough to vote against Kavanaugh. 

Kavanaugh plays differently depending on regional variations in how particular electorates view issues of government control of women’s reproductive rights, whether they believe women are discriminated against more than other groups, and how sexual assault accusations are viewed.

Key questions analysts are wrestling with in assessing what the Kavanaugh episode means in US politics revolve around gender, attitudes towards the #MeToo movement and whether a reactionary backlash stoked by Trump will show up on election day.

In Texas, where Senator Ted Cruz has been facing an unexpectedly strong challenge by Democrat Beto O’Rourke, how Republican women respond to the Kavanaugh debate, whether they stay home or turn out to vote, could potentially make a difference.

“The strategic assumption of a candidate like Ted Cruz running state-wide in Texas is that – however well Beto O’Rourke is doing at potentially motivating new Democratic voters and bringing new people into the process – the scale of the Republican advantage is such that if Ted Cruz can simply mobilise all or most of the Republican voters, they can absorb the new turnout generated by even a wildly successful O’Rourke campaign,” James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, told Al Jazeera.

In Tennessee’s senate race, Republican Marsha Blackburn immediately supported Kavanaugh and jumped to an eight-percentage-point lead over Democrat Phil Bredesen, according to a new CBS poll. Bredesen, a former two-term governor of the state, is seeking to claim the seat of retiring Senator Bob Corker and had been leading in the polls. 

“He declined to really say how he would vote on Kavanaugh if he was there,” Pacelle said. “That race has turned a little. She is running many more ads than he is. It’s starting to have an impact. She’s hitting him hard. He has been pretty quiet in response.”

The Senate balance hangs on a knife’s edge. In Arizona, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema leads narrowly by three points, and in Nevada Democrat Jacky Rosen leads incumbent Republican Dean Heller by four points. In Florida, incumbent Republican Bill Nelson only leads his Republican challenger by one point.

#NovemberIsComing

In the lead-up to Kavanaugh’s confirmation, thousands of women and their supporters took to Capitol Hill to protest against the nominee. Hundreds were arrested during the demonstrations, which saw women leading sit-ins in Senate buildings, occupying the steps of the Capitol building and confronting Senators in the hallways and elevators, in an attempt to persuade them to change their vote on Kavanaugh.

After the confirmation, much at that attention turned to encouraging women and others to get out to vote next month, with many using #NovemberIsComing on Twitter to encourage women to go to the polls.

Hundreds of women were arrested during the protests against Kavanaugh [File: Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts introduced an action plan to respond to the Kavanaugh confirmation.

“It hurts every survivor of sexual assault who has been ignored,” Warren told protesters just before the Senate vote took place.

She encouraged demonstrators to “take back the House … take back the Senate”, adding, “We have forged a bond that will make us stronger in the next fight.” 

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