The Briefing, Vol. VI, Issue 38
- Democrats favored to take House, but their gains may yet underwhelm
- Last-minute Kavanaugh attack, true or false, has already helped Dem Red State senators
- Republicans still very much in the running to hold the Senate
The last time a Republican president was facing a midterm, there was a moment in mid-September when it seemed like Republicans still had a chance to keep the House. They enjoyed very narrow polling leads across the board in key races, even though Democrats led on the generic ballot. And there was at least a little bit of optimism in the party of George W. Bush, Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert that things would hold together.
That was all suddenly dashed during the last week of September, 2006, sexually suggestive communications between Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., and congressional pages began to surface — first on an obscure blog, then on a well-known blog, and finally on the nightly news. Soon the full extent of his activity was laid bare, and it was a politically devastating revelation.
Republicans leaders could not plead plausible deniability of Foley’s predations — and in hindsight, given the subsequent downfall of former Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., the Republican Party might have gotten off easy.
In any case, the Foley scandal really took what wind there was out of every Republican sail in that year’s campaign. Every candidate, no matter how distant from the scandal, seemed to lose five points in the polls overnight. The stage was finally set for Democrats’ big wave, and all Republicans had left to do was suffer through the month of October until their final inevitable doom arrived on Election Day.
At this moment in time, Republicans are still in that hopeful stage. The fundamentals of this election clearly favor Democrats, who are still favorites to take over the U.S. House. But if they do take it over, it is not shaping up so far to be an overwhelming victory, nor one that will easily carry the Senate with it as a matter of course.
Several vulnerable Republicans that Democrats would like to beat, such as John Katko, R-N.Y., Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, Will Hurd, R-Texas, Andy Barr, R-Ky., Dave Brat, R-Va., Mia Love, R-Utah, Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., and Dave Young, R-Iowa, have proven surprisingly resilient. These members are still in a position to win if they use their resources wisely and avoid bad luck.
To be sure, Democrats don’t have to beat all or any of these House members above to win the House. Their gains from changes to Pennsylvania redistricting, all by themselves, plus weak-looking GOP members in Illinois (Pete Roskam, Mike Bost), upstate New York (John Faso, Claudia Tenney) and California (Dana Rohrabacher) bring them a long way toward their majority. Republicans are finding even normally safe incumbents like Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., in deep danger.
But Democrats still aren’t on course yet for the big, resounding win that would echo the tsunami-type victory they enjoyed in 2006.
The likely reason things haven’t gone South yet for the GOP is the widespread perception of economic prosperity. This won’t save Republicans from voters’ wrath completely, but it tends to take off the edge.
If it turns a 60-seat Democratic gain into a 30-seat gain, that’s a significant difference looking ahead to future elections.
And if Democrats actually come up short of the net 24-seat gain they need, that would be quite a shock — prepare for the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
You couldn’t have expected Democrats to go down without a fight on keeping the Supreme Court liberal, and it turns out they weren’t about to.
With all hearings over and a committee vote set for Thursday, they deliberately leaked an allegation against Judge Brett Kavanaugh that his accuser at least originally wanted to stay under wraps.
Unfortunately, the accusation’s effectiveness at this late date doesn’t much depend on its truth or falsity. Because the accuser is vague about many details, Kavanaugh is also limited in how he can prove his innocence — for example, he cannot show that he was somewhere else the night it allegedly happened as long as she isn’t even completely sure it occurred during the summer of 1982.
But with even Republican senators demanding to hear more from the accuser, this might just be enough to delay Kavanaugh’s nomination. That would be a huge win for Democrats, who failed to derail him in the normal course of the committee hearing process without diving back into his high school record.
The late attack: This eleventh-hour accusation pertains to an incident between two minors from roughly 36 years ago. Kavanaugh, who would have been a high school junior at the time (if the time is accurate) and about 17 years old, is supposed to have made inappropriate sexual advances toward a sophomore girl at a party at which alcohol was served. She claims he pinned her to a bed at one point and groped her, and she got free and locked herself in a bathroom.
She said nothing about the incident at the time, but supposedly divulged it to a therapist just a few years ago.
Kavanaugh has unequivocally denied the allegation. So has the other then-student who was accused of being in the room when it supposedly happened. But that other student is also accused of involvement. In short, nothing can really be verified or falsified 36 years after the fact.
Taking the accuser at her word only for the sake of argument, this raises several questions. The first is whether, even in this #MeToo age, 50-something nominees should be barred from office based on un-provable accusations from high school. This isn’t at all like the accusations against sitting senators and judges and powerful Hollywood producers, many of whom were witnessed by multiple people or caught on camera, or came with huge red flags that people culpably chose to ignore. This is about something that supposedly happened in the early Reagan era with teenagers and alcohol, and it doesn’t seem to come (at least so far) with any additional allegations of similar conduct.
Democrats’ plan all along: Second, given that nothing can be proven, should a last-second nomination tactic like this one be allowed to succeed? The timing of the Democrats’ leak was clearly designed to prevent another nominee from being selected and confirmed before the midterm election.
Even so, the release at this late date strongly suggests that they expect it only to taint, not block, Kavanaugh from the Supreme Court. Democrats evidently felt no strong duty toward the accuser, who informed Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. of the allegation but wanted it kept silent, and who only came forward when her wishes were not respected. And so they could have leaked this allegation much earlier if they thought it would actually derail the nomination.
However, there is one politically salutary effect for Democrats either way: Every Democrat now has an excuse to vote against Kavanaugh, no matter what state they are from. They don’t even have to claim that the accusation is proven or credible. Red State Democrats can instead simply say, “Well, we’re rushing this through without investigating the allegation,” knowing in any case that no amount of investigation will add any clarity.
This is how it seems, at least. Voters may not accept this explanation, but they also might. And there is only a small chance at this point that this attempted Borking will bring a substantial backlash, even if this possibility should not be discounted entirely.
The Judiciary Committee will be fielding this allegation in a way that seems reasonably appropriate, although Democrats object to it strenuously. Chairman Chuck Grassley is arranging staff calls so that senators can hear from both the accuser and the judge. A new round of public hearings over a what looks like (at best) a 36-year-old he-said-she-said allegation would be unseemly and prejudicial to Kavanaugh, ruining his good name without evidence beyond the accusation itself.
In the end, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has all the cards, but he has to make sure they’re good cards. If he can keep all of his Republican senators together, Kavanaugh will be confirmed. If he cannot, then Democrats have their chance to take over the Senate this fall (still not a high likelihood) and play a much larger role in Trump’s selection next calendar year.
Arizona: Rep. Martha McSally, R, has reached what amounts to a true tie with Democratic House colleague Kyrsten Sinema, with the two now see-sawing in the polls. The Democrat has taken on some water over her previous support for supporting laws that are more lenient toward sex traffickers and those caught sexually abusing minors. She is far from sunk from this controversy, however, and the race is close enough and the environment hostile enough to the GOP that we still give her the advantage until McSally can clearly prove otherwise. Leaning Democratic Takeover.
Indiana: Polling in the Hoosier State is expensive and therefore infrequent, thanks to laws against robo-calling. But the only poll conducted this month, from Fox News, looks look for Republican Mike Braun, giving him a two-point lead — essentially pointing to a tie. President Trump’s visit has surely helped in a manufacturing-heavy state where he remains surprisingly popular.
In such a close race, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly is also surely grateful that his vote on Kavanaugh may not be scrutinized as heavily now than it might have been otherwise. Leaning Democratic Retention.
Tennessee: This race has been a bit of a sleeper thanks to the persistent popularity of the Democratic nominee, former Gov. Phil Bredesen. But the race still leans toward Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R, for a number of reasons. The state has changed a lot since Bredesen’s last election, and the governor’s race is going to be a Republican landslide. Both factors suggest that Blackburn’s narrow lead in the polls might be an understatement of her prospects, at least for now. Leaning Republican Retention.