How the battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation is affecting campaigns in Minnesota

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifying during the second day of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A web ad posted by a Republican U.S. Senate campaign urges voters to support the confirmation of a U.S. Supreme Court nominee.

A DFL candidate for statewide office tweets that “President Trump’s brand of justice is on the ballot.”

A media call by two state GOP candidates condemns Democrats on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee for “obstructionism.”

A press conference by a U.S. senator at which she pledges to vote against the nomination because of the threat it poses to reproductive rights.

While the confirmation hearings for the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court are taking place in Washington, D.C., the drama and politics have extended into campaigns in Minnesota.

But will the battle over the court resonate as a campaign issue among unaffiliated and undecided voters in the state — or is it just a way to motivate each party’s already committed base?

Playing to the base

“One of my general rules for politics is that if you’re arguing about process, you’re losing,” said Katharine Tinucci, a public affairs consultant and former senior staffer to Gov. Mark Dayton.

Republican U.S. Senate campaign web ad
Republican U.S. Senate campaign web ad
Yet the confirmation fight might pose an exception to that rule, Tinucci says. Democrats didn’t fight the process that allowed Republicans to ignore the Obama appointment of Merrick Garland in 2016, and now they regret it. “We lost on process,” she said. “So I think a lot of Democrats are thinking we need to fight back on process a little bit.” The progressive and activist base of the party not only expects DFL officeholders to resist the Kavanaugh confirmation, they are demanding it, she said.

Gregg Peppin, a GOP campaign consultant involved in both legislative and congressional races this year, agrees that Democrats like U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, both of whom are on the ballot this year, are facing pressure from DFL activists about Kavanaugh.

Klobuchar, who has a reputation for cautiousness, “is going out of her way to try and elbow her way to be heard on this, which — given some of the theatrics — is being a little bit tough,” Peppin said.

“There is a certain amount of playing to the base,” Peppin said of both Republican support for, and Democratic opposition to, Kavanaugh. And while Peppin said he thinks Kavanaugh likely will appear to average voters as a reasonable nominee, he said his nomination has become a proxy for bigger battles over issues such as gay marriage, abortion and executive power.

Not a political issue?

Smith returned to the state Friday and stood with leaders of Planned Parenthood, the nonprofit reproductive health care provider, to warn that a court with Kavanaugh threatens reproductive rights as well as access to health care in general.

“As I have talked with Minnesotans all over the state, they are paying close attention to this Supreme Court decision, as they think about how this judge can shift the balance of the Supreme Court … certainly on reproductive health care but also on many other issues,” said Smith, who was Planned Parenthood’s executive vice president of external affairs in Minnesota before becoming chief of staff to then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. “That’s why this is so important.”

Afterward, she acknowledged that most voters are worried about issues like how they’re going to get their kids to school and when they might get a raise in pay. “They are thinking about their basic lives,” she said. “They’re not thinking about what party they’re affiliated with. (But) this issue of choice or more basically access to high-quality, affordable health care is an issue I hear people all across the board talking about. And that’s really what is at stake here. It is an issue that resonates across the broad swath of Minnesotans.”

Sen. Tina Smith
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Sen. Tina Smith speaking at Friday's rally with Planned Parenthood regarding the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Smith’s GOP opponent, state Sen. Karin Housley, has made support for Kavanaugh a campaign issue. One web ad asked voters to click “Vote Now” to show their support for the confirmation … and to visit her campaign webpage.

“The president had barely uttered Judge Kavanaugh’s name and Tina Smith was railing against his nomination from the steps of the Capitol,” Housley said in a press statement last week. “That sort of baseless, blind opposition and partisan obstruction is a disservice to Minnesotans.”

Meanwhile, during a conference call with media last Thursday, GOP attorney general nominee Doug Wardlow and U.S. Senate nominee Jim Newberger criticized Democratic opposition to Kavanaugh. Newberger even called for his election opponent, Klobuchar, to be removed from office if she was complicit in the public release of documents declared to be “committee confidential.”

And Newberger said the hearings up to that point had displayed “blatant disrespect and obstructionism.”

“This is the U.S. Senate, not the U.S. mob,” Newberger said.

“I’m very pleased that President Trump put him forward and I’m very dismayed that Democrats in the Senate are trying obstruct his confirmation,” Wardlow said. He accused Democrats of wanting a liberal activist judge instead of someone Wardlow described as someone who “will not legislate from the bench.”

Both disputed suggestions that they might be using the nomination and the hearings for political effect for their respective campaigns.

“This is not a matter of making political hay,” Newberger said. “It’s doing what’s right.”

“I believe this is not a political issue at all,” Wardlow added.

Senate nominee Jim Newberger
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Senate nominee Jim Newberger said the hearings had displayed “blatant disrespect and obstructionism.”
When asked about the campaign implications of the confirmation fight, Wardlow’s DFL opponent, Keith Ellison, expressed support for the efforts of Klobuchar and other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was Ellison’s tweet that tried to tie Kavanaugh to the election by claiming that “Trump’s brand of justice is on the ballot.”

“Look, the Supreme Court is a lifetime appointment,” said Ellison. “It is entirely appropropriate to get all of the information that people need in order for those senators to vote on this nomination.

“It does indicate what type of AG is being offered to the people of the state of Minnesota, one that’s going to stand up and fight for transparency and openness and another one who just wants to say, ‘Oh asking for documents is obstruction,’” Ellison said in reference to Wardlow’s criticism. “I just think we have a very, very different set of approaches to the world and this job.”

How much do undecided voters care?

So the candidates are paying attention. And the party’s most active voters are motivated by Kavanaugh and Trump. But does the issue capture the attention of less connected voters?

After the primaries, surviving candidates traditionally try to broaden their appeal voters who aren’t passionate Republicans or DFLers. These unaffiliated (and often undecided) voters have long been considered the key to victory, and it is hard to see how Kavanaugh’s nomination moves them one way or another in races for U.S. Senate, Congress or even governor and attorney general.

But that calculus may be changing. Tinucci said those middle voters are less important today, largely because they are less numerous.“The polarization is real and elections are less about persuading people in the middle than they are about just turning out your base,” she said.

But if there is a way to make the confirmation resonate with undecided voters, she said it might be to link it to abortion rights, and to a general sense that Trump’s government is chaotic. Suburban voters, especially suburban women, will be an important voting demographic in both congressional and legislative races in 2018. And they are more likely to want to protect abortion rights — and to be unhappy with the president’s demeanor in office, Tinucci said.

“People hate the way he does things,” she said of Trump. “If Democrats can tie Judge Kavanaugh to a bad process, it could be an issue that motivates women in the suburbs to turn out for Democrats. We’ve seen our senators — Sen. Smith and Sen. Klobuchar especially — take advantage of the opportunity and certainly see it as a base motivator for their races.”

But Peppin thinks there is potential for a swing in the opposite direction: for Republicans to pick up undecided voters who are turned off by the spectacle of the confirmation hearings. “In this era where you’re really seeing higher levels of opposition to the gridlock in D.C., this doesn’t really help,” he said. “To the extent that uncommitted voters are aware and cognisant of the debate that’s going on, I think — especially if the nominee comes off as reasonable and is able to withstand the scrutiny — it can have some impact on how an undecided voter looks at things.”

But Peppin says that impact is “likely marginal,” and he isn’t so sure that Kavanaugh or even abortion will be determining factors in battleground suburban districts, and he said campaigns write off undecided voters at their peril.

“It’s less true than it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago,” Peppin said of the need to make post-primary appeals to the political middle. “But I don’t think the uncommitted voter, or the independent of the swing voter has disappeared entirely. It’s less common but we’re not talking that they are dinosaurs.”

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Bruce Bostrom on 09/10/2018 - 11:31 am.

    Ms Housley, even if elected, would likely never have the opportunity to vote on Cavanaugh nomination unless there are some wavering independent minded senators about. So perhaps she would present her record and her views on the issues rather then hiding behind a Cavanaugh Political sign.

    I will give her a thumbs up for the cute hockey TV ad. NHL great Phil Housley may be a better vote draw in “The State of Hockey” then a high school basketball coach.

  2. Submitted by Sandra Nelson on 09/10/2018 - 12:44 pm.

    Housley, Wardlow and Newberger accuse Senators Klobuchar and Smith of “blatant disrespect and obstructionism” in Kavanaugh’s hearing. Republicans, look in the mirror and repeat three times: Merrick Garland, Merrick Garland, Merrick Garland. As my mother used to say, Republicans, sweep in front of your own door.

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/10/2018 - 02:27 pm.

    Republicans stole the Garland appointment, showing that their thirst for power is absolute. It is only worse with Trump, who has appointed a man who is makes contradictory statements and refuses to say what he believes. 5-4 makes for some balance. 6-3 means that we will be living with Trump’s stupidity for the next 50 years. Two DFL Senators plus a seat or two in other states means Trump lacks the votes to do additional destruction to the country. Housley is just another Republican rubberstamp. Today, that essentially describes the lot of them.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 09/12/2018 - 10:25 pm.

      So many posts, but the same honest answer. Merrick Garland should have been allowed to go through the whole confirmation process, in front of his family, and then been rejected by the full Senate which was the inevitable result. Mr. Garland had no chance of being confirmed so his appointment was not “stolen”. The Senate leader was totally wrong to not allow hearings but he did save a lot of time and brutal questioning to Mr. Garland. Once a new President is elected Mr. Garland still has a chance to be on the Supreme Court which he would not have once being rejected by the full Senate.
      As far as “rubberstamps ” go, what on earth would anyone call Senators Smith and Klobuchar?

  4. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/10/2018 - 09:08 pm.

    I am amazed at the sheer gall the GOP has to call out the Dems for obstructionism. To be so hypocritical without an ounce of shame or irony, it comes under the truth is stranger than fiction banner.

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