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Kavanaugh case roils midterm debate

President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh

President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 4, 2018. Credit: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

The bitter, partisan fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court has roiled the midterm election debate, with Republicans and Democrats both claiming an edge among energized voters.

President Donald Trump, who has been crisscrossing the country to rally for GOP candidates, tweeted Wednesday: “VOTERS ARE REALLY ANGRY AT THE VICIOUS AND DESPICABLE WAY DEMOCRATS ARE TREATING BRETT KAVANAUGH!”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Saturday just before Kavanaugh’s confirmation: “To Americans, the so many millions, who are outraged by what happened here, there’s one answer: Vote.”

Which party ultimately benefits at the polls Nov. 6 depends on several factors, including the sustainability of voter enthusiasm and the landscape of competitive races, experts say.

The nation watched 10 days ago as Christine Blasey Ford detailed her sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee and as Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge, denied the charges and defended himself.

Kavanaugh was confirmed Saturday in a 50-48 vote.

The committee hearings and their fallout could have the dual effect of boosting Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate, experts say.

Democrats are favored in key House campaigns in suburban battleground districts, while Republicans have the upper hand in Senate contests in states that Trump won in 2016.

“Suburban, college-educated women are both enraged at the president and likelier to be sympathetic to Ford; these voters are very important in some of the key House races,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the University of Virginia’s elections newsletter “Sabato’s Crystal Ball,” wrote Thursday.

“Meanwhile, many of the key Senate races are in dark red states, where voters probably are more sympathetic to Kavanaugh and/or outraged that Democrats are trying to submarine the president’s Supreme Court pick,” Kondik said.

Two Democratic senators — Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — face tough re-election battles and remained undecided until late in the process. Ultimately, Heitkamp opposed Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Manchin supported it.

On Long Island, where Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) is defending his seat against Democratic businessman Perry Gershon, and Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) is facing a challenge from Democratic activist Liuba Grechen Shirley, Kavanaugh has been a part of campaign messaging. But polls still favor the incumbents.

Kavanaugh’s impact on federal races elsewhere depends very much on which party stays more motivated, experts say.

“I think being angry is a better motivator for the midterm than being content,” Kondik said in an interview. “Democrats probably have the anger edge.”

Protesters opposed to Kavanaugh’s nomination and Trump’s dismissal of Ford’s allegations have been massing on Capitol Hill and around New York City, with civil disobedience arrests abounding.

“Don’t get fed up. Get fired up,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) tweeted Saturday. “Hold onto the hurt and anger you feel now to fuel our fight forward.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Friday that its total in low-dollar donations last week increased by 277 percent — to nearly $4.4 million — over the previous week. About $400,000 was raised directly from emails and texts about Kavanaugh in the roughly 30 hours between the end of Ford’s public testimony Sept. 27 and the next day, according to a DCCC aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

But there were signs of mounting Republican enthusiasm as the FBI this week conducted and concluded a background check on Kavanaugh, as requested by Senate Democrats and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

The National Republican Congressional Committee brought in 418 percent more in donations of $200 and under between Monday and Friday than it did in the same period last month, communications director Matt Gorman said Saturday. He did not provide a total contribution figure.

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Wednesday showed Republicans narrowing the enthusiasm gap with Democrats. In July, 78 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans said they considered the midterms to be “very important.” This month, 82 percent of Democrats said so, compared with 80 percent of Republicans.

On Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Fox News of Democratic resistance to Kavanaugh: “What it’s done is the one thing we were unable to do ourselves, which was to fire up [our] own base going into the election a month from now.”

Some experts said the Kavanaugh bounce among GOP voters may not sustain itself until Election Day.

“It wasn’t about the appointment; it was about the threat that it would be derailed,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “They’ve got four weeks for that to kind of pass . . . and become less of a motivating factor.”

Democrats had been galvanized even before the Kavanaugh confirmation process and with the Senate’s confirmation, “you can squeeze a few more drops out of that sponge and keep the enthusiasm high,” Murray said.

Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster and partner at the Virginia-based Public Opinion Strategies firm, tweeted after Ford and Kavanaugh’s testimony: “There has been no erosion in Dem intensity. The difference is that GOP intensity has caught up for the first time all cycle. We’ll see if it lasts.”

Former Long Island Rep. Steve Israel, who once led the DCCC, said he believed persistent anger among Democrats could flip critical seats not just in the House, but the Senate, too.

“I agree that it has the potential of hurting Democrats in strong Trump states like North Dakota and Indiana,” said Israel, of Oyster Bay. “But the flip side is states like Nevada and Arizona, where you have Republicans in tight Senate contests and a large concentration of moderate, suburban women who are going to punish Republicans for the Kavanaugh nomination.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated former Rep. Steve Israel's home community.

Pollsters say Democrats have a much better chance at regaining control of the House than the Senate, where they’re defending several key seats. Here’s what you need to know:

23: House seats Democrats need to flip to secure a majority

2: Senate seats Democrats need to flip to secure a majority

10: Senate Democrats up for re-election in states that Trump won in 2016

Nevada, Arizona, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana and Florida: Some of the most competitive Senate races this cycle

235-193: Current GOP-Democrat breakdown in the House. There are seven vacancies.

51-47: Current GOP-Democrat breakdown in the Senate. There also are two independents who caucus with the Democrats.

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