The proximity of a high-stakes midterm election to the suddenly very turbulent Supreme Court confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh is entering everyone’s calculations in how to proceed. Most analysts seem to agree that if Republicans are forced to withdraw this nomination it will have a negative impact on the party’s conservative “base,” which had been told the judge was so incredibly qualified and reasonable that only a nefarious Democrat plot could prevent his confirmation. Sure, the White House could scramble to get another nominee named before November 6, and use that to fire up the troops. But as Jonathan Martin notes, it wouldn’t look good:
Of the potential scenarios involving the outcome for Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, strategists in both parties agree that his withdrawal would be most politically damaging to Republicans. It would underscore the chaos surrounding Mr. Trump; amount to an acknowledgment that Mr. Kavanaugh is tarnished; and, by bowing to liberals demanding he not be confirmed, infuriate the conservative rank-and-file.
And because Trump and Senate Republicans would be taking the formal step to abandon Kavanaugh, it’s not like they could easily channel “base” disillusionment toward Democrats.
It’s a trickier proposition to guess how an actual Senate defeat for Kavanaugh would affect Republican voters going into the midterms. Martin thinks the experts differ by party, with each side being fearful of the consequences:
Democrats fear that would enrage Mr. Trump and his supporters, prompting them to show up at the polls to take out their anger on the opposition. But Republicans worry any failure to confirm him will demoralize their base.
The underlying reality is that Kavanaugh cannot be defeated without at least two Senate Republican defections, and those “traitors” will be the focus of public attention, along with the fecklessness of the White House and Mitch McConnell in maintaining party discipline. The impact might be much like the sag in Republican morale that occurred during and immediately after the failed efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare last year — before enactment of the tax bill showed the GOP government could get something done.
It is possible, of course, that even though they would not have been decisive in taking Kavanaugh down, certain red-state Democrats could still face some voter anger over “no” votes. And in fact, as Mike Tomasky points out in a New York Times op-ed, Republicans could refuse to throw in the towel on Kavanaugh even if they lose two or three Republicans, delaying the final vote while they bludgeon the most vulnerable Democrats from states where Trump is still popular:
Right-wing money will pour in to their states for pro-Kavanaugh (and pro-Trump) TV ads. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, will let this play out and may schedule the vote for as late as he can — mid-October, even late October — to make the Democrats sweat.
That will constitute enormous pressure on the red-state Democrats. If they sense their opponents are gaining steam, they may well think: Why should I cast a vote that’s going to cost me my seat? Especially when even if we defeat Judge Kavanaugh, we’re just going to get someone else who’s every bit as conservative?
That tack would keep the GOP base engaged in the most crucial states in terms of Senate control, while keeping their anger focused on Joe Manchin or Heidi Heitkamp or Joe Donnelly rather than Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski or Jeff Flake. It could even turn the tide for Kavanaugh.
In the end this sort of speculation may overestimate the extent to which midterm voters who are on the fence about participating really care about Brett Kavanaugh. Your average SCOTUS-obsessed “base” voter is far more likely than others to show up and pull the party lever no matter what happens in this or that confirmation fight. You don’t get extra votes for being excited or enraged, and you don’t lose partial votes for being discouraged or disappointed. A lot of registered voters skip midterms routinely. A lot of midterm voters are either locked into partisan positions that are nearly unshakable, or are simply reacting to their overall perceptions of the president, whose perceived job performance is the single most important variable.
So it may be at the margins, and in very close races, that the fate of Brett Kavanaugh, and who is held responsible for saving, abandoning, or defeating him, matters on November 6. And there are all sorts of possible twists in how this works out. MAGA people may have been convinced by the president and his conservative media pack to ignore every danger sign that might normally draw them to the polls to defend their party’s hegemony — you know, since polls, negative media stories, and the enthusiasm of the other party are all fake news phenomena. Perhaps an actual defeat over a Supreme Court nomination will shock them out of their complacency. But it’s not a possibility you’d want to put down as collateral on a loan.