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Whatever happens with the Kavanaugh confirmation, Minnesota Republicans see a midterm election boost

Conservatives have overwhelmingly rallied to the defense of Kavanaugh.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh
Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Win McNamee/Pool via REUTERS

If you’ve been paying attention to the fight over confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, chances are you’re angry — either over how the sexual assault allegations against him have been handled, or over how his accusers have been treated as Republicans and others rush to Kavanaugh’s defense.

But it’s possible that this widespread and deep anger over the high court fight — and the explosive debate about sexual misconduct and the #MeToo movement it provoked — could be an unexpected boost to Republicans, who are fighting to keep their majorities in the U.S. House and Senate in the midterm elections that loom on November 6.

Conservatives have overwhelmingly rallied to the defense of Kavanaugh, the federal appeals court judge who is accused by several women — including Christine Blasey Ford, who testified in the Senate last week — of sexual assault. They have raised questions about the timing of the allegations, suggesting they were intended to sink Kavanaugh’s nomination, and have painted Democrats as perpetrators of a witch hunt, hungry to block a qualified judge over allegations they say are unsubstantiated.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has been loudly critical of the Senate’s handling of the allegations against Kavanaugh, told a D.C. audience on Wednesday that this shared anger has fired up the party. “I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as I do right now,” he said. “Republicans across the board — country club, Tea Party — believe this was way over the top.”

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In Minnesota — where #MeToo politics have been complicated by the ouster of Sen. Al Franken and the allegations against Rep. Keith Ellison — Republicans like U.S. Senate candidate Karin Housley and 2nd District Rep. Jason Lewis are sounding similar notes on Kavanaugh.

Some Republicans are hopeful that this outrage will translate into increased support for GOP candidates up and down the ballot, and give conservative-inclined voters a reason to turn out in November. Some early polling has indicated this may be the case, fueling hope the party can counter a wave of Democratic voters, who, while angry over Kavanaugh, are already fired up over opposition to Trump.

A ‘sad circus’

The Kavanaugh issue has featured most prominently for Minnesota in the special election for U.S. Senate, in which Sen. Tina Smith — appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton to fill the seat when Franken resigned in January — is facing off against Housley, a two-term state senator.

In the wake of the allegations against Kavanaugh, Housley has made the issue a central talking point for her campaign — mainly because the #MeToo discussion has given her an avenue to try to paint Smith as a hypocrite on Kavanaugh because of what the Democrat has and has not said about Ellison, the DFL’s candidate for attorney general, who was accused by his ex-girlfriend of physical and verbal abuse.

Smith has appeared at campaign events with Ellison since those allegations broke in August, and the senator has generally stuck to the DFL line on the controversy: deferring to an internal investigation of the claims against Ellison, as well as backing up the congressman’s own call for an investigation by the House Ethics Committee. (That internal investigation, the results of which were made public on Tuesday, did not find evidence of wrongdoing on Ellison’s part.)

Housley is talking about the Ellison issue in relation to Kavanaugh seemingly daily: she’s appeared on two top-rated Fox News programs, those of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, to discuss. Her campaign has also run online ads hitting Smith on her handling of Kavanaugh and Ellison.

Senate candidate Karin Housley
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Senate candidate Karin Housley
The Republican told MinnPost that “The double standard the Democrats had when they were attacking Judge Kavanaugh and ignoring the domestic abuse charges against Keith Ellison, the hypocrisy of Tina Smith and the continuing to campaign with Ellison and believing him because he categorically denied, yet she’s calling on a full and complete investigation by the FBI — that hit home with people.” (Asked whether further investigation would be appropriate for the 20 women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, Housley said “there’s a process in place… all sexual harassment, whether it’s the president, the mayor of a city, a doctor at a hospital, all allegations need to be investigated.”)

In a statement responding to Housley’s line of attack, Smith said “I believe that allegations of misconduct always need to be taken seriously — and I’m glad they finally are. I’ve also always believed that we need to take time to look into accusations and that everyone deserves a process so that we can get to the truth.” (Smith opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation before the sexual assault allegations broke; afterward, she called for a “quick and thorough” investigation and said Republicans would “stop at nothing” to get Kavanaugh on the court.)

Pending the results of the F.B.I. investigation, Housley said Kavanaugh should be confirmed. “I was really sad for our country that this is where we’ve come,” she said. “We spend more time looking at someone’s high school yearbook page than opinions he rendered as a judge. I kept thinking of my husband, my son — that anybody can throw an accusation like that and to have it be so publicly heard was really, really sad.”

Minnesota’s senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and has played a central role in the Kavanaugh hearings. She’s on the ballot in November herself, but is expected to coast to an easy win over GOP state Rep. Jim Newberger. Nevertheless, Newberger sent out a fundraising release capitalizing on Kavanaugh, saying Klobuchar has “no qualms about destroying [his] career and causing his family pain with no evidence of wrongdoing on his part.”

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Among Minnesota’s top Republican candidates for U.S. House, Lewis was the only one to broadcast his disgust with the Kavanaugh episode. He sent out a press release describing it as a Democratic “‘search and destroy’ mission to shred the reputation of another human” and framed its impact in existential terms.

“It should now be clear to anyone watching this entire, sad circus that if Democrats regain control of this country the societal glue that holds us all together will dissolve and in the process no individual will be safe from deliberate smears solely designed to attain political power,” he said. “And neither will be their loved ones.”

Whipping up the base?

GOP candidates like Housley are unequivocal that the Kavanaugh controversy — particularly the spectacle of the federal judge’s hearing on Capitol Hill last week — is angering the party’s base voters and inspiring them to vote.

Housley said she noticed a big difference in her interactions with voters before and after the September 27 hearings, which she said “completely changed” moods on the ground. “Everybody is talking about it… It has energized the base to go out and do what’s right.”

She said the Kavanaugh episode has fired up not only loyal Republicans, but independents and moderate Democrats, too. “It really, just extremely upset Republicans, and even independents and suburban moms were completely disgusted with the hearings and the way they attacked Judge Kavanaugh,” she said.

Some Minnesota Republican operatives were reluctant to predict that the Kavanaugh fight would be a significant boost to the GOP’s fortunes in key races, but several said that the issue is resonating to a noticeable degree.

Gregg Peppin, a longtime Republican operative, said he believes that if the Kavanaugh controversy has any major impact, it would be in favor of Republicans — partially because Democratic base voters are already so motivated.

“I don’t know if it’s a motivating factor for Democratic or left-leaning voters; I’d question whether that’s going to provide any more gas in the liberal tank than what’s already there,” he said. “I think it can be a galvanizing issue for conservatives.”

According to Andy Brehm, a former aide to former Sen. Norm Coleman, Democrats’ handling of the Kavanaugh issue could be something that helps inspire Republican-leaning voters to the polls. “I do think in Republican circles, there is a real concern about Democrats in Washington and their respect for due process,” he said. “It’s something that’s very concerning. Will that motivate people to the polls? Probably some.”

“My experience with Minnesota voters, both conservative and liberal, is that they’re very intellectual and discerning. I don’t think one particular issue is going to push them one way or the other,” he cautioned. “I do think Republicans are very alarmed by it… I do hear a universal concern.”

After a period of reticence about the Kavanaugh allegations, the president himself is now freely amplifying the concern that he and other Republicans have been feeling. Bloomberg reports that Trump and his team increasingly believe that focusing on Kavanaugh will help rev up the president’s base — an older, whiter, and maler group already wary of #MeToo — to the GOP’s benefit in the midterms.

A day after a rally in which he mocked Ford’s emotional testimony on Capitol Hill, the president tweeted that “VOTERS ARE REALLY ANGRY AT THE VICIOUS AND DESPICABLE WAY DEMOCRATS ARE TREATING BRETT KAVANAUGH! He and his wonderful family deserve much better.”

Minnesota Democrats, meanwhile, view the Republican arguments on Kavanaugh cynically. Darin Broton, a veteran DFL operative, said the apparent strategy is designed to “whip up” working-class white men. He predicted that could have a big impact on the races in Congressional Districts 1 and 8, two Trump-heavy districts where Republicans like their chances to win.

“This messaging and strategy could play well in Minnesota, especially when you have Ellison on the ballot,” he said. “If the Senate confirms Kavanaugh this week or next week, the impact on whipping up Trump’s base will likely diminish, except in Minnesota where the Ellison allegations will continue to haunt him.”

Polling finding a possible boost for Republicans

Early polling of the public’s attitudes about the Kavanaugh allegations indicates that Trump and the other Republicans who are making the controversy part of their midterm messages may be on to something.

A new poll from PBS NewsHour and Marist College found that the so-called “enthusiasm gap” between Democratic and Republican voters — which describes the share of people in both groups who believe the upcoming elections are “very important” — has significantly narrowed in the wake of the high-profile Capitol Hill hearings last week.

In June, Democrats had a 10-point advantage in the enthusiasm-gap metric; the newest poll found that advantage has narrowed to just two points: 82 percent of Democrats believe the November elections are “very important,” while 80 percent of Republicans do. Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, said the poll’s big takeaway is that the result of the Kavanaugh hearings is that “at least in short run, is the Republican base was awakened.”

Another new poll from Politico and Morning Consult found that support for Kavanaugh strengthened among Republicans over the last week: before the hearings, 58 percent of GOP voters backed the Supreme Court nominee. As of Monday, 73 percent did.

Tim Lindberg, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota-Morris, said that it’s been relatively easy for Republicans to build a persuasive case that Kavanaugh has been treated unfairly by Democrats.

“It’s really easy to play up, particularly among people who didn’t watch the hearing,” he said. “It’s easy to pump up outrage… What happens if we dig up what happened with everyone in high school?”

Lindberg said the controversy could continue to make a big impact on the election. “It’s hard to say this won’t make the difference, when it really could. A really big impact would be Republicans coming out to vote who aren’t already,” he said. “I don’t think there will be more Democrats who are going to come out.”

A larger question of the controversy’s impact on the midterms, Lindberg says, is if it will break through to people who are not politically polarized. “It only takes one or two percent of people to change their minds, to come out to vote, to make the difference in these elections.”