Republican Surge Post-Kavanaugh

The Briefing, Vol. VI, Issue 42: October 15th – This week:

  • State of the races
  • Kavanaugh surge is real — but maybe only in Red Senate states?
  • Democratic House control is still not a foregone conclusion

Senate 2018

There was a point, late in the 2012 election cycle, when Mitt Romney seemed to be pulling ahead of President Obama in national polls by some of the most trusted and reliable polling companies.

Yet at the same time, Obama continued to lead Romney in the states he needed to win. It was a conundrum that people remarked upon at the time.

Because of the national polls, Republicans entered election night overconfident. By the end their illusions had been shattered.

In retrospect, the expert conclusion was that national pollsters and Republicans had miscalculated in estimating voter turnout demographics. The voters who actually showed up were less white and more Obama-friendly than the ones that people had expected.

Where there’s Republican momentum: This year, a similar divergence is taking shape.

The new Washington Post poll provides a clear example of Democrats maintaining or a large lead on the national generic ballot. The poll actually shows Democrats’ lead a bit smaller since the poll was last taken in August (from 14 to 11 points), but it shows a healthy Democratic lead all the same.

Yet meanwhile, in individual Senate races, several Republicans are surging ahead or even jumping out to large leads.

  • In Tennessee, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R, rapidly seized a double-digit lead over Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen.
  • Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has fallen far behind her challenger, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R, and is now widely viewed as a dead duck.
  • Sen. Dean Heller, R, Republicans’ most endangered incumbent, is suddenly carrying a narrow lead in two different polls (two points, within the margin or error) over Rep. Jackie Rosen, D, after trailing in this race for months.
  • In Texas, Sen. Ted Cruz, R, has finally put some distance between himself and  Rep. Robert O’Rourke. Despite his weaknesses as a candidate (most people who cause drunk-driving accidents and then try to flee the scene don’t make for good candidates), O’Rourke is now expected to raise and spend a record-shattering $75 million on the race — and still lose, perhaps by double digits.
  • Although there is only one outlier poll showing Rep. Martha McSally, R, taking the lead over Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D, in Arizona, it coincides with a strong positive ad she’s running (with an endorsement from Sen. Jon Kyl) and the release of several embarrassing negative videos of Sinema trashing the state and its voters. It’s still a very close one, but its prospects are as good for Republicans right now as they have been at any point since it began.

Note that a similar trend can be seen in the polls of governor and other races in normally Republican-leaning states.

Meanwhile, there has been no new polling in the Senate races in Indiana (where robo-polling is illegal), Montana, Florida, or West Virginia (except for a partisan poll showing a near-tie) in weeks. The most recent poll taken in Missouri (showing a tie) was also released well before Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote.

But these races are all potential Republican pickups. This means that the math probably just isn’t there for Democrats to take the Senate.

A true divergence? And as in 2012, the likelihood that multiple pollsters are getting multiple things wrong in multiple states is lower than the likelihood that one or two pollsters measuring the national generic ballot might be making incorrect assumptions (ahem) about high Democratic or low Republican turnout.

However, it is also possible that events like the Kavanaugh nomination are polarizing the electorate in such a way that both polling trends reflect reality. This would be more like 2016, when national polls accurately showed a lead for Hillary Clinton (she won the popular vote), whereas Trump prevailed in all of the states that mattered.

The same thing could be happening now. Red America (where nearly all the key Senate races are being fought) could be moving in one direction, while an increasingly Blue-ish or at least Trump-averse suburban America (where the key House races are being fought) is moving toward or at least sticking with the Democrats.

There’s no reason to think such a thing impossible.

Might Dems fall short? Yet whereas Republicans are increasingly confident about the Senate, the conversation about whether Democrats might fall short of the 24 seats they need to gain on net in the House is more than just a case of Republican wishful thinking. Various expenditures by the parties and outside groups, along with current polls, confirm a race still very much up in the air. Democrats are still favored to win a majority, but not by much. “[T]he balance of evidence,” writes the New York Times’ Nate Cohn, “is consistent with the notion that the Republicans have made slight gains.”

Opposite of 2006: The last time Democrats convincingly won midterm elections — in 2006 — exit polling showed that they had decisively won the political middle. Republican corruption scandals, combined with wearying and persistently awful news from the Iraq War, the Katrina debacle, and an economy just beginning to show signs of weakness, helped propel Nancy Pelosi to the speakership of the House.

Another key factor behind Democrats’ 31-seat House pickup in 2006 was their decision to field moderate candidates all over the map. They carried rural areas and took advantage of Republican candidates’ local weaknesses by campaigning as pro-life or pro-gun, or anti-tax.

This time, the situation is about as different from that as you can get.

To most people outside the Beltway, the nation is not in crisis right now. Trump remains as off-putting as ever to a certain kind of voter, but he is still by no means always and everywhere a disqualifying problem for voters.

Consequences of failure:

Meanwhile, with just weeks to go before the election,  the Democrats are moving ever-further to the fringe.

Democrats are demanding socialist policies like Medicare for all and nominating card-carrying socialists. They are explicitly rejecting civility (unless they win, of course) — not just crazies, but key senior members of their party like Hillary Clinton and former Attorney General (and 2020 presidential hopeful) Eric Holder.

Democrats are promising to impeach Trump and Kavanaugh, to abolish immigration enforcement, and even to abolish the Senate or even the Supreme Court. Whatever it takes to guarantee they never lose again, right? Well, to some people this sort of talk of dismantling fundamental institutions is scary, and even has the trappings of a coup d’etat. They’re telegraphing in advance that they won’t accept the outcome of the election if they lose.

Why were we supposed to be afraid of Trump as president again?

The Kavanaugh debacle, which took the ugliness of confirmation fights to a level that not even the Bork and Thomas hearings had reached, might actually be the best possible proof of Democratic radicalization. This is why it has galvanized the Right and brought nearly all never-Trumpers back into the party fold. But will it also convince the center to deny Democrats the power they crave? That’s the big question.

The cost of failure: If Democrats do fail to take over the House, having begun this cycle with all winds at their back, the wailing and gnashing of teeth will drown out all else in Washington for more than a year.

Opportunities like this one cannot be missed in politics. The chance for a sweeping political wave election only comes around so often. If it fizzles this time, even if it ends in a close-call House deadlock leaning just barely in Democrats’ favor, that could set back any chance of unified Democratic control of Washington by a decade or more. That, in turn, would make anything Trump does in government now that much harder for Democrats to undo, perhaps for just years but also perhaps within the lifetime of anyone reading this now.

In that context, the extremity of Democrats’ rhetoric makes more sense than people might understand.