With the midterm election now four weeks away and the fight over Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation receding into the past, President Trump and his party have embarked on an effort to keep conservative anger fresh, even at the potential cost of further alienating some women voters.
The approach reflects a judgment that with an energized Republican base, the party has a chance now to lock down key races for the Senate, protecting its majority there. If the necessary tactics drive some House races more firmly into Democratic hands — increasing the odds that Republicans lose control of that chamber — that’s a risk the party appears increasingly willing to run.
On Monday morning, Trump denounced the sexual assault accusations against Kavanaugh as a “hoax that was set up by the Democrats,” and warned that his opponents would try to impeach the newly confirmed justice if they won control of Congress.
Democrats “have shifted so far left that we’ll end up being Venezuela. This country would end up being Venezuela,” he added in comments to reporters before leaving Washington for Florida, where he appeared with the Republican candidate for the Senate, Gov. Rick Scott.
Later he returned to Washington to preside over a high-profile, ceremonial swearing-in for Kavanaugh, who already took the judicial oath over the weekend.
At the ceremony, Trump declared that he wanted to apologize to Kavanaugh “on behalf of our nation” for what he and his family had gone through.
“In our country a man or woman must be proved innocent unless or until proven guilty,” Trump said. “You, sir, under historic scrutiny, were proven innocent.”
As Trump shifted to a harder-edged approach, so too did some Republican Senate candidates.
In Missouri, for example, state Atty. Gen. Josh Hawley, who has made his support for Kavanaugh a major part of his campaign against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, said in a call with reporters that he agreed with Trump “that this process was a sham, and it was a disgrace.”
“It’s a very scary time for the rule of law,” Hawley said.
Over the weekend, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, running against Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, criticized the #MeToo movement, labeling it in an interview with the New York Times as a “movement toward victimization.”
Those sorts of comments could increase the anger of women who feel that Republicans in the Kavanaugh fight belittled the experience of sexual assault victims, said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg.
The GOP strategy involves “significant risk,” Greenberg said. “Anything that boosts women’s turnout just strikes me as really, really bad for them,” she added. “At the House level, it’s a huge problem for them.”
Republican strategists say they see less downside.
Democratic voters “are already at a 10” in intensity, said veteran Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. “They can’t go to 20. They can’t vote twice.”
In any case, Republicans may see the risk as justified if it prolongs the current trend of higher levels of interest in the election on the part of their voters.
“The Kavanaugh hearings polarized rather than shifted opinion,” said Charles Franklin, a professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee and a longtime polling expert. “In other words, both favorable and unfavorable views increased,” he wrote in an email.
“On balance, I think that helps Republicans, who had shown some signs of a weakening embrace of Trump,” he added.
The problem for Republicans is that the impact of such events tends to fade quickly.
“In the current news cycle speed, it is remarkable that the court nomination held center stage, dominating news, for two whole weeks,” Franklin said. “It has been rare this year for an issue or event to dominate for two whole days.”
The Republican strategy of maximizing party turnout could pay off in the conservative states in which key Senate races are being fought this year, said Mike Murphy, the longtime Republican strategist who now serves as co-director of USC’s Center for the Political Future.
“In states where you have a strong red advantage, playing red doesn’t hurt,” Murphy said.
That approach, however, has fewer benefits in less solidly Republican areas because it has little appeal to independent voters, Murphy added. In those areas, “the idea that if both sides turn out, we’ll win by an inch” doesn’t work because “the coalition of Democrats and independents is a bigger group of people.”
The GOP may have little choice, however, given Trump’s deeply ingrained approach to political fights, added Murphy, who is a persistent critic of the president.
“Trump only has one strategy, whatever the occasion, which is to appeal to Republican primary voters,” he said.
The reason the Kavanaugh issue potentially could help Republicans in the contest for the Senate, but hurt them in House races, involves the very different contours of the fight over each chamber.
In the House, where Democrats need to add 23 seats to their current total to gain the majority, the most contested races mostly are taking place in suburban districts where college-educated white women have turned heavily against Trump. Nearly 70 House districts around the country are up for grabs this year, and the vast majority of them are held by Republicans. That gives Democrats a long list of targets.
Nationwide, women in the most contested House districts favor the Democratic candidate by 54% to 40%, while men split much more evenly, favoring Republicans 51% to 46%, according to a new poll of 69 battleground House districts released Monday by the Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia.
Trump carried 48 of those 69 districts in 2016, but today voters in those districts who disapprove of his performance in office outnumber those who approve, 51% to 43%, with 47% strongly disapproving of him, the poll found.
By contrast — and by Republicans’ luck of the draw — control of the Senate mostly turns on states where Trump supporters outnumber opponents, including North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana, where incumbent Democratic senators face difficult contests, and Montana and West Virginia, where Democratic incumbents have remained in the lead despite the conservative leanings of the states’ voters, according to recent polls.
In several of those Senate races, the Kavanaugh hearings probably improved Republican chances by “accelerating the process” of people “getting back to their partisan corners,” said Mark Mellman, a longtime Democratic pollster. The Kavanaugh fight “moved voters on the center and left toward the Democrats, but moved the center and right toward the Republicans,” he said.
Strategists in both parties say that despite the improvement in Republican voters’ enthusiasm over the last couple weeks, Democrats continue to hold an advantage in the House, with a good chance of picking up a net of 35 or more seats.
But that outcome is far from certain — most of the contests remain very close. In the five most hotly contested Southern California districts, for example, recent polls for The Times by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found only one in which the Democratic candidate had a clear lead. In two others, the Democrat had an advantage that was within the poll’s margin of error while the remaining two were dead heats.
The Republican strategy in those districts for most of the last year was to try to focus on local issues and the national economy, avoid a referendum on Trump and hope that independent voters who have often sided with the GOP will return to the fold, despite their antipathy toward the president.
Trump has repeatedly gotten in the way of that effort, and a focus on keeping alive the partisan feelings about Kavanaugh probably would continue to prevent it.
For now, the battle over Kavanaugh has noticeably increased Republican interest in the election, which should pay off in higher turnout, Newhouse said.
“There’s been a big intensity gap, now it’s even,” he said. But, he added, “The problem is, we’re 29 days out. There are several political lifetimes between now and then.”
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