Kavanaugh Fight Has Red State Dems Ducking for Cover

Kavanaugh Fight Has Red State Dems Ducking for Cover
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Kavanaugh Fight Has Red State Dems Ducking for Cover
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has prompted one of the most contentious battles on Capitol Hill since Donald Trump became president. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the 10 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee threw every punch at Kavanaugh they could muster, not to mention a few knees in the groin. The party’s progressive wing demanded no less -- a failure to engage in this fight would have made them targets from an array of liberal groups and activists.

But Senate Democrats faced another dilemma, too: The prospective justice’s confirmation process is occurring in the heat of a hotly contested midterm election season. Derailing this nomination could compromise the party’s chance at reclaiming a Senate majority in November.

Those hopes depend on Democratic victories in a handful of states -- Indiana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Missouri, Montana, Texas -- that President Trump carried handily in 2016. In those places, Kavanaugh is considered a perfectly respectable choice for the high court. But no Democrat from any of those states sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee.  Actually, no moderate Democrat from any state is on that committee. California, which Trump lost by 4.3 million votes, has both of its senators on the panel.

Further complicating matters, one of those California senators, freshman Kamala Harris, is apparently contemplating a 2020 presidential run. The same is believed to be true of another Judiciary Committee Democrat, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Although both would certainly prefer to be in the majority in 2019, sounding conciliatory toward a conservative judicial nomination is no way to woo donors or build a platform. That means that Sens. Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), Joe Manchin (West Virginia), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), and Jon Tester (Montana) – not to mention Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat challenging Ted Cruz in Texas -- are on their own.

 “It has become particularly hard for moderates of both political parties because they carry the baggage of those more extreme,” said GOP pollster and strategist Frank Luntz. “Every partisan stunt by left-wing Democrats during these hearings makes it that much harder for the more moderate senators in West Virginia, North Dakota and Montana.”

The dream scenario for Democrats would be to delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation, win the majority in November, and then be in a position to essentially veto any Trump judicial nominee to the court. 

Seeking to counter that scenario, Republicans and an array of conservative groups have zeroed in on the red-state Democrats, calling on them to address their colleagues’ behavior. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has issued challenges to Manchin and Heitkamp demanding to know if they agree with their fellow senators’ tactics. The NRSC released a series emails and online posts aimed at each red-state Democrat, tying them to Schumer and the organized protests that took place inside the hearing room.  One such post reads: “Does Joe Manchin agree with his Democrat colleagues’ tactics of throwing tantrums and attempting to drag an incredibly qualified nominee through the mud? Or will he finally speak out and give his support to Judge Kavanaugh?”

In Indiana, Republican challenger Mike Braun’s campaign called on Donnelly to address the “chaos” at the hearings. “Donnelly’s silence is a reminder that the least effective senator in Washington can’t even advocate for a fair Supreme Court hearing for President Trump's highly qualified nominee,” said spokesman Josh Kelley.

In North Dakota, the GOP sent out an email following the first day of the hearings: “Heidi Heitkamp may be in more trouble than ever before,” it stated. “Senate Judiciary Democrats and 2020 presidential contenders have decided their own national ambitions matter more than saving Heidi Heitkamp's failing campaign.”

So far, none of the red-state Democrats have commented on their judiciary colleagues’ approach. Instead, they issued tepid responses, saying only that they followed the hearings closely. “One of the most important jobs of any U.S. senator is to fully vet and consider nominees to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court – the highest court in our land,” Heitkamp said in a statement to RCP. “And right now, Judge Kavanaugh is going through his very important job interview, which I’m watching closely as I continue to review his record.” 

This studied neutrality reveals another way in which the red-state Democrats are being squeezed: Even in Republican states, liberal voters and activists want their elected representatives to uphold Democratic Party values. They also know that the Supreme Court was among the top concerns for voters in 2016 and persuaded some Republicans, who were initially hesitant to support Trump, to vote in his favor.

Democratic strategists counter this by saying that Republicans are wasting their time attacking incumbents over Kavanaugh’s treatment, insisting that the hearings aren’t a big issue in the states.

“It’s really not a top-of-mind thing for people on the street,” said Barrett Kaiser, a Democratic strategist in Montana. “The guys sitting on the barstool right now are talking about the harvest and hunting season and could care less about inside baseball in Washington, D.C.”

A Democratic strategist in Indiana agreed. “I’m not sure people [were] watching hearings as intently,” said Robin Winston, former chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party. Both strategists said the final vote would likely play a role for voters, although probably not as a make-or-break issue.

Some of the polling in some of these states, however, suggests otherwise. A Trafalgar Group survey over the summer showed Manchin with a 29-point lead over Republican Patrick Morrisey -- as long as he voted for Kavanaugh. Conversely, the poll showed Manchin’s lead narrowing to only two percentage points if Manchin did not vote for Trump’s nominee.

Nonetheless, surveys show Democrats do have a fair shot at taking the Senate majority. The latest polling in the Donnelly race has him up by six points while a poll in Tennessee shows Democrat Phil Bredesen leading Republican Marsha Blackburn by two points in that open-seat race. Both polls were conducted ahead of the Kavanaugh hearings.

One consensus has emerged during this process: A significant majority of Americans want the Senate to decide on this appointment one way or other -- and not, as Judiciary Committee Democrats insisted, delay things indefinitely. A poll done in July found that 62 percent of Americans wanted a vote on Trump’s nominee before the midterm elections. This finding suggests that Democrats might benefit by losing their Senate war of words against this nominee, especially if there is a blue wave already building. Bloodshed over the Supreme Court nominating process could turn that water red.

Sally Persons is RealClearPolitics' White House correspondent.

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