In several of the country’s tightest and most closely watched midterm contests, the critical goal now is to find the right words and messages to ensure that anger over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh remains a potent motivating factor from now until Election Day.
WASHINGTON — As the Senate hearings on Judge Brett Kavanaugh cleaved the country, Ron DeSantis, the Republican candidate for governor of Florida, stayed mostly out of the fray — uncharacteristic reticence for a politician who usually relishes partisan battles.
But by last weekend, DeSantis had changed his tune.
“These people really debase the Senate,” he said of Democrats during a campaign rally soon after the Senate voted, largely along party lines, to confirm the Supreme Court’s newest justice. “What they did was a disgrace.”
That line of attack, honed by Republican senators to help shield Kavanaugh from sexual assault allegations, and then picked up by Senate candidates in tight races, is now catching fire across the political landscape in competitive contests for governor, the House of Representatives and other positions that had nothing to do with the confirmation process. If many Republicans were not sure, initially, how to handle the accusations against Kavanaugh, some are now determined to harness outrage among their core voters and make him an issue in races up and down the ballot to counter the energy on the left.
In several of the country’s tightest and most closely watched midterm contests, the critical goal now is to find the right words and messages to ensure that anger over Kavanaugh remains a potent motivating factor from now until Election Day. Many Republicans believe that, by portraying him as the victim of political sabotage, they will have one more argument to help unify an otherwise fractured party anxious about keeping control of the House and Senate in November.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who is defending his seat while under indictment on corruption-related charges, praised the 50-48 Senate vote Saturday as he railed against “the despicable lengths the radical left will go to bully, intimidate and shout down those with whom they disagree.”
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Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, facing a more competitive than usual fight for re-election to his Houston-area seat, attacked the “vicious partisan attempts to destroy a man over political differences.”
And the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, boasted Monday in an interview with Fox News that the confirmation battle had led to a large uptick in fundraising. At the same time, he asked people to get on the group’s website and donate more.
The Kavanaugh fight is expected to do more to help Senate Republican candidates than those for swing House seats, which are largely being fought in the suburbs over local issues and, in some cases, lack critical masses of conservative voters. What’s more, attacking Democrats with thundering indignation is not a tactic universally embraced within the party, reflecting a divide over how Republicans believe they should approach the delicate questions that the Kavanaugh confirmation has raised, about gender equality, mistreatment of women and sexual assault.
As an example of this Republican split, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who is seeking a third term, has largely avoided mentioning the issue, while the party’s nominee for Senate there, Leah Vukmir, has repeatedly invoked it against her Democratic opponent, Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
In Nevada, Sen. Dean Heller has also sidestepped the issue after making a widely criticized remark about the allegations being a “hiccup” in the confirmation process. And in Arizona, Rep. Martha McSally’s relatively muted support of Kavanaugh has spoken volumes about how sensitive the matter remains in her race for Senate.
She is running to replace Sen. Jeff Flake, the Republican who almost single-handedly delayed the confirmation by a week after asking for a deeper investigation into the allegations.
But for all the potential liabilities, turning Kavanaugh’s fate into a political cause has created a sense of cohesion among Republicans that has eluded the party for the better part of the last decade, while a simmering civil war between the activist grass roots and the leadership in Washington made collegiality and collaboration exceedingly difficult.
“This has united the establishment and the far right for the first time in years,” said Steve Bannon, who has praised Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader he once vowed to unseat, for muscling the confirmation through.
“And they are united now because they’ve seen the future,” Bannon said. “If the Democrats take the House, this is what it will look like every day. It’s not just impeaching Trump, it’s impeaching Kavanaugh, it’s unwinding the entire Trump program.”
Democrats and liberal advocacy groups, however, sense an opportunity to galvanize voters by turning the issue around on vulnerable Republican incumbents, especially in races where suburban women could be a pivotal voting bloc. And over the last week they have bolstered their efforts.
NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, on Monday said it would spend $1 million on an ad campaign attacking seven House Republicans. “Right now, women are under attack,” says the first ad in the campaign, which is directed at Rep. Peter Roskam, whose highly competitive district includes the affluent suburbs west of Chicago. So far, Roskam has said little about the Kavanaugh confirmation.
House Democrats are also intent on making Republicans own the Kavanaugh confirmation. In a letter to colleagues Monday, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, issued a rallying cry: “We must not agonize, we must organize. People must vote.”
Many Republicans appear wary of the risks of being drawn into the debate, which has been inflamed by a president who is quite unpopular in their states. John Cox, the Republican nominee for governor in California, would not take a position on Kavanaugh when asked about it during a debate Monday with his opponent, Lt. Gov.Gavin Newsom.
“I’m not going to get in the middle of that,” Cox said.
On Monday, President Donald Trump called the allegations by Kavanaugh’s accusers “a hoax” and “fabricated,” echoing the language he has used when damaging charges were leveled at him. “It was a disgraceful situation brought about by people who are evil,” Trump added.
Though few Republicans have gone that far, many have had no problems adopting the president’s aggressive language.
In Missouri, Josh Hawley, the Republican nominee for Senate, read a blistering statement Monday to reporters in which he framed his race against Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat who voted against Kavanaugh, as a referendum on whether Democrats should be returned to power.
“The goal of a Democrat majority is to overturn the results of the 2016 election and roll back the results of the Trump administration,” he said. “Missouri has to stop this radical attempt to seize power and undo the results of the 2016 election.”
In Wisconsin, Vukmir, the Republican Senate candidate, has accused Kavanaugh’s opponents of being not only dishonest but weak. “I won’t buckle,” she wrote in an opinion piece for Fox News before the Senate vote. “And I will force other weak-kneed elected officials to buck up, do the right thing, and ignore the absurd shenanigans of the extreme left.”
Vukmir, a state senator, went on to describe how the outpouring of anger and emotion during the confirmation debate reminded her of the protests at the state Capitol in Madison in 2011 over the Republican effort, led by Walker, to curb the collective bargaining power and pay of state workers. Recalling how she had to flee with her colleagues in fear, Vukmir described how they used “underground tunnels that allowed us to exit the Capitol and safely get home to our families.”
In Montana, Matt Rosendale, the Republican Senate candidate, is taking a similar approach. On Monday his campaign released a new ad attempting to tie his Democratic opponent, Sen. Jon Tester, to an effort by “the radical left” effort to defeat Kavanaugh.
In the states and districts where candidates are basing their appeal on a reputation for political independence — and not on loyalty to or antipathy toward the president — some Republicans see an opportunity to undercut Democrats with conservative-leaning voters who have supported candidates from both parties in the past.
Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who is hoping to unseat the state’s Democratic senator, Heidi Heitkamp, said that her vote against Kavanaugh was proof that she is more tethered to her party than she claims. For her part, Heitkamp said her vote was based on questions she had about his temperament and impartiality. “This isn’t about politics,” she said.
Kramer disagreed. “In my view,” he said, “for her to vote no blows up her whole case: that she’s independent.”