ANALYSIS: Kavanaugh Fight Sharpens the Stakes for Midterms

A lone Supreme Court officer guards the steps of the Supreme Court building after Judge Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as an Associate Justice of the court inside on Capitol Hill on Oct. 6. (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

The bitter battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has exacerbated the nation’s political divide and left many Americans emotionally raw. It’s also given new definition to the high stakes of November’s election.

Until now, the fight for control of Congress has largely been viewed as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s first two years in office. But the turmoil surrounding Kavanaugh has transformed the midterms into something bigger than Trump, with implications that could endure long after his presidency.

Both parties contend the new contours of the race that will energize their supporters in the election’s final stretch. And both may be right.

Republicans, however, may benefit most in the short term. Until now, party leaders — Trump included — have struggled to energize GOP voters, even with a strong economy to campaign on. The president’s middling job approval rating and independent voters’ disdain for his constant personal attacks have been a drag on GOP candidates, particularly in the more moderate suburban districts that will determine control of the House.

But Republican operatives say internal polling now shows Kavanaugh’s confirmation has given the party a much-needed boost, with GOP voters viewing Democrats as overzealous partisans.

The surge in GOP enthusiasm could recalibrate a political landscape that was tilting toward Democrats throughout the summer. Though Democrats still maintain an advantage in competitive House races, the past two weeks appear to have shifted momentum in the fight for the Senate majority back to the GOP.

In North Dakota, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer has pulled comfortably ahead of Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who voted no on Kavanaugh. GOP operatives say they’re also seeing renewed Republican interest in states like Wisconsin, where Democratic candidates for both Senate and governor have been polling strong.

“It’s turned our base on fire,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday, moments after the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh.

To be sure, some tightening in the race was likely inevitable this fall. Wavering voters often move back toward their party’s candidates as Election Day nears, and most of the competitive Senate races are in states that voted for Trump by a significant margin.

With just over four weeks until Election Day, there is still time for the dynamics to shift again. And the political headwinds from the Kavanaugh confirmation are unlikely to blow in just one direction.

To Democrats, Kavanaugh’s assent to the Supreme Court will only deepen the party’s pull with independents and moderates who may have previously voted for Republicans.

Trump remains the fall campaign’s biggest wildcard. White House advisers and Republican senators are encouraging him to keep Kavanaugh in the spotlight in the campaign’s final weeks. But they’re well aware that the president often struggles to stay on message and can quickly overshadow his political victories with new controversies.

Given that, Republican strategist Alice Stewart said Republicans can’t assume that this burst of momentum will sustain itself through Election Day.

“The question is whether this is the October surprise or the calm before the storm,” Stewart said.

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