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Kavanaugh Drama Risks Driving Moderates, Women Away From GOP

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 9/20/2018 Steven T. Dennis and Erik Wasson
Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, right, talks with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) © Jacquelyn Martin/ AP Photo Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh, right, talks with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

(Bloomberg) -- The sexual assault accusation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is forcing its way into the midterm campaign, undercutting one of the GOP’s strongest issues for its base and risking a further erosion of support from women and independent voters who will be crucial to deciding which party controls Congress after November.

Republicans have been treading carefully in dealing with the accusation by college professor Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh attacked her while they both were in high school. That’s been evident in the careful statements from President Donald Trump and GOP lawmakers as they try to give Republican voters the conservative court majority that they want while not antagonizing women, who polls show already heavily favor Democrats in the election.

Trump, who is known for delivering harsh rebukes to critics, had a mild reaction Wednesday morning as uncertainty swirled about whether Ford would testify at a Judiciary Committee hearing next week.

"I really would want to see what she has to say,” Trump told reporters after saying the circumstances are unfair to Kavanaugh, who he called “an outstanding man.”

Voters Divided

Trump’s nomination of Kavanaugh already had become a flashpoint for the November election, highlighting some of the nation’s widest cultural divides. Polls show voters as split on Kavanaugh as they are on a variety of other political issues. A Sept. 10 Quinnipiac University national poll released before the sexual assault allegations were made public found that 41 percent of registered voters supported Kavanaugh and 42 percent opposed.

The fight over the nomination is taking place against the backdrop of the growing #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and misconduct, and a widening gender gap that is dragging on Republican candidates.

Six in 10 likely female voters said they prefer the Democratic candidate in their congressional district, according to a CNN poll conducted Sept. 6-9. By comparison, a plurality of men, 49 percent, said they preferred the Republican candidate. A Quinnipiac poll conducted at the same time found a similar disparity in preferences for Congress.

Motivating Republicans

There is some peril for Democrats as well. Along with the gender gap, Republicans are suffering from an “enthusiasm gap” compared with Democratic voters heading into the midterms, said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, who has worked on state and national campaigns. But that could be closed if the party’s base views the 11th-hour allegations as an unfair tactic by Democrats.

“There is a risk for Republicans if they appear to be insensitive to the accusations, especially among suburban women,” he said. “but if this plays out as an ambush set up by Democrats, it will help Republicans in getting voters to turn out."

The political battle will play out in a handful of Senate contests on the ballot in November, but the impact may be wider in House races.

Democrats are counting on female voters and independents in suburban areas motivated in part by anger at Trump to help them flip control of the House and, potentially, the Senate. The party has recruited a record number of women for congressional races across the country who are central to that effort.

‘Fired Up’

"This is just about the last issue Republicans wanted to have in the lead-up to the election, something that would upset women even more than they are upset," said Frances Lee, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland. “You already had women fired up.”

Lawyers for Ford have told the Judiciary Committee she wants the FBI to investigate her claims before she appears at a hearing. Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said it’s up to the Senate to investigate, not the FBI, and that the invitation for Ford to testify on Monday still stands.

If Senate Republicans proceed on course to vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination next week, the spotlight will be turned on a handful of senators from both parties who have remained publicly undecided.

Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana all are running for re-election in states that Trump won handily in 2016. They are wrestling with the prospect of rejection from core Democratic voters if they back Kavanaugh’s confirmation -- and a riled up Republican base if they vote to defeat him. All three voted to confirm Trump’s previous high court pick, Neil Gorsuch.

Toss-Up Races

Democratic Senators Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Jon Tester in Montana, two other incumbents running in Trump states, also will be in tough spots. All but Tester’s race are rated as toss-ups by the independent Cook Political Report.

"Just having a new reason to vote against Kavanaugh does not make them safe at home," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at Cook. "For Republicans, the Supreme Court is right up there as the No. 1 or No. 2 issue."

The Supreme Court fight could also factor in races for Republican Senate seats targeted by Democrats -- those left open by Jeff Flake in Arizona and Bob Corker in Tennessee as well as in Nevada, where Dean Heller is running for re-election in a state won by Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Heller’s challenger, Representative Jacky Rosen, has made Kavanaugh’s nomination and preserving abortion rights a campaign issue.

‘Delaying Tactic’

In Tennessee, Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn, who is running for Corker’s Senate seat, has called the revelation of Ford’s allegation a "delaying tactic" by Democrats. She said on Hugh Hewitt’s syndicated radio show that the Judiciary Committee should vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation as originally scheduled. Her opponent, Democrat Phil Bredesen, who was leading Blackburn by 5 points in a recent CNN poll, called for a careful review of the accusation.

"If U.S senators are not going to give a careful and thorough consideration of Supreme Court nominees, then I don’t know what they think their job is," he tweeted.

The Arizona race for Flake’s seat features two women seeking to move from the U.S. House to the Senate, Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. Both have said the allegations against Kavanaugh merited further investigation, according to an NPR compilation of reaction from candidates in competitive races.

The new hearing gives fence-sitting Democratic senators a reprieve for now: they can hold off on announcing a final decision before hearing from a quartet of Republicans whose votes are in play -- Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Flake and Corker. A yes vote could be less upsetting to the Democratic base if Kavanaugh already had 50 Republican Senate votes -- but that is looking far less certain in the wake of the allegation.

In the 51-49 Senate, two Republican defections would sink Kavanaugh if Democrats all vote no. Flake, who is retiring and has been at odds with Trump, is a member of the closely divided Judiciary Committee and said he will vote against Kavanaugh if he believes the allegations after the hearing.

--With assistance from Laura Litvan and Arit John.

To contact the reporters on this story: Steven T. Dennis in Washington at sdennis17@bloomberg.net;Erik Wasson in Washington at ewasson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at kwhitelaw@bloomberg.net, Joe Sobczyk, John Harney

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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