Booker, Harris already fighting over 2020 nod

The Briefing,  Vol. VI, Issue 37

This week:

  • Booker, Harris make first move toward 2020 presidential run
  • Trump hits the trail to save the GOP Senate
  • He may succeed, but GOP odds of saving the House remain remote

Kavanaugh hearings: Democrats failed to put any sort of serious dent in Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s steady march toward confirmation. The safe money says he’s on the court in time for its Fall Term.

But that’s not to say his hearing was insignificant, only that the events of significance have little to do with his confirmation.

Two Democratic senators, Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., made their early moves for the 2020 presidential primary.

Booker’s play was more conventional. He hyped a supposedly explosive, secret Kavanaugh email as evidence of racial animus on the part of the nominee. Upon release,  it turned out to be a dud — the worst Kavanaugh seems to have done was advocate for race-neutral policy while a member of the Bush administration. But it gave booker a chance to hold himself up as a martyr, a “Spartacus,” violating Senate rules even if it meant he’d be thrown out for releasing a confidential email that hadn’t been approved for publication. In the end, because Republicans undercut Booker by making the email public within hours of his flogging it, the stunt didn’t add up to much. But he got his moment in the sun.

Harris’ maneuver was more sinister. She insinuated in a series of questions to Kavanaugh and then interviews with the press that she had evidence that Kavanaugh had discussed the Mueller investigation with Trump’s attorneys. The accusation implied that Kavanaugh had compromised his neutrality on a key case that could come in front of him, either on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals or on the Supreme Court. But then it turned out she had no evidence at all, and she folded like a cheap suit when her bluff was called, despite having represented that she had “reliable” evidence.

Harris received far more plaudits from the Left for her pretending to have evidence she didn’t have. And that’s good for her for the moment, but there’s a dark subtext here that may well make them shy away from her later. Harris employed the same sort of sleazy such shortcuts and bluffs and baseless insinuations when she was serving as a prosecutor in California. As attorney general she backed up prosecutors who had lied in order to get convictions. In at least one case she tried to prevent a demonstrably false confession from being thrown out, and she opposed sentencing reform. She only started caring about and apologizing for these things recently when a presidential bid came became a possibility.

For a party that is increasingly interested in criminal justice reform, Harris would be a very incongruous nominee.

Trump on the Trail: “You need a senator who doesn’t just talk like they’re from North Dakota, but votes like they’re from North Dakota.” So President Trump spoke in North Dakota the last time he went to rally against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D. He was back there on Friday, urging the local population to support Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer against her.

Before that, he had been in Montana, telling crowds that he would be impeached if they didn’t get out and vote for Republican candidates. He also hinted that Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale is leading Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, D, in internal polls. That claim, while unverified, is not as outlandish as it might have seemed two months ago. Trump also  slammed Tester for maligning his failed nominee to head the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

A few weeks earlier, he had been in Missouri, slamming Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who faces the political fight of her life against Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley.

President Trump has also planned a major rally in Texas designed chiefly to rescue Sen. Ted Cruz,  R-Texas, from his unexpectedly close race against Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke. This was arranged at the request of local officials — specifically of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R.

Trump is trying to do something that presidents rarely succeed in doing — namely, to insert himself into the midterm elections in a way that is constructive for his party.

President Obama, despite his popularity nearly always being better than Trump’s, failed miserably in this regard in both of the midterms that took place during his presidency, and also in both of the competitive state by-elections. His party lost the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey (a very Democratic state) in fall 2009 despite his personal involvement in both campaigns. His relatively few campaign appearances in 2010 were ineffectual,  and in 2014, Democrats unexpectedly lost gubernatorial races in the few states where Obama’s team was willing to send him — Maine and Maryland.

Saving the GOP: Time will tell whether Trump’s national barnstorming campaign can be more successful than Obama’s  — and frankly, whether his efforts will stave off electoral oblivion. For even though everything on the Senate map seems to be laid out in his favor, things are very different in the House.

The most important  states for Senate races this year are all (including Florida) states where Trump remains reasonably popular overall and also retains a very large base of 2016 supporters. The strange, perhaps even unprecedentedly lopsided Senate map means that Trump really might be able to help his party in the upper chamber, even as the possibility of Republicans keeping the House continues to look quite remote.

The latest indicators show Senate Republicans’ situation remains at least steady. A large number of pickups are still possible, and a new poll even gives Arizona GOP nominee Martha McSally her first-ever one-point lead over Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.   

House Republicans, meanwhile, are dragging. The “good news” polls that have lately come  in for them show Republicans in previously safe districts (Kentucky-6, Illinois-6 and Illinois-12) with leads as narrow as one point. Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, seemingly ever-endangered, leads by a more robust three points. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., dogged by ties to Russia that predate the entire Trump situation, is only tied with his Democratic opponent. (Oddly, Duncan Hunter enjoys a comparatively large eight-point lead despite having been indicted for misusing campaign money for his personal expenses.) Claudia Tenney, whose seat was basically a safe Republican set-aside after a Republican took it back in 2010, is trailing her opponent in one public poll.

Paul Ryan’s Congressional Leadership Fund has tried to “rescue” some of these districts. In a memo to journalists last week, its staff gave the example of Kentucky-6, where they went in with well over $1 million and moved the needle back in Rep. Andy Barr’s direction. But that this had to be done in a district and state that seemed more reliably Republican is worrying, and when it comes to sums of money this large, this is something that can only be done for Republican members in so many districts.

The polling at this moment could be much worse, but it is still terrible for Republicans. They new polls show very narrow GOP leads in seats that Republicans should almost be able to take for granted. If these guys are tied or barely ahead, there are dozens of Republicans in less GOP-leaning districts who are sure to be in worse shape. There are four other California seats that fit this description and at least two others in Pennsylvania.

Also think of Virginia Reps. Dave Brat, Barbara Comstock and Scott Taylor; Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen; Texas’ Will Hurd, Kevin Yoder of Kansas, David Young of Iowa, and many, many more. As you list them, you’re quickly approaching the 24 net seats that Democrats need to take control. Will they all be able to win on the same night by the skin of their teeth, as Rep. Troy Balderson did in his Ohio-12 special election last month?

What a loss means for Trump: Republicans are hoping that a combination of extremist Democratic candidates, local issues, and individual members’ popularity will save them from the expected Blue Wave.

So a continued House Republican majority isn’t impossible — it just requires a very large number of very improbable things to happen. The odds are long, barring a late shift in the polls.

We have referred to the Senate as being the most important for the GOP to save, because that’s what will allow Trump to confirm more judges and perhaps one or more Supreme Court justices after Brett Kavanaugh. But the loss of the House will have consequences as well.

Obviously, impeachment is one thing that House Democrats are already chomping at the bit to put into effect.

Then there’s Trump’s border wall, which he never stops talking about. If Democrats control the House, it simply won’t be funded, ever. In fact, it’s much more likely that the administration and the Democratic House will be fighting over whether ICE and the Border Patrol get funded.

So there are real issues at stake in the House as well as the Senate. It’s just that Trump can probably do a lot more about the one than the can about the other.