If you’re like me, you still feel badly burned by the results of the 2016 elections, including the outcome of the Congressional contests. I’m gun-shy about getting overly confident based on polls, and I’m definitely concerned about the possibility that the whole Kavanaugh catastrophe has boosted the GOP’s chances, especially in Senate races. Prospects in the House look better, and I suspect the way this election is unfolding that there is going to be a divergence where national polarization leads there to be an inverse relationship between the how the Democrats do in the House and the Senate. Where the Kavanaugh controversy has almost certainly hurt the GOP is in well-educated suburban districts that were already at risk, and where it has possibly helped is in statewide races in places Trump won by a large margin, like Missouri, North Dakota, and West Virginia. As for Sens. Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, I don’t think they could have avoided damaging their chances no matter how they voted. Faced with the option of angering the majority of their constituents or disillusioning their base of supporters, there is no correct political decision and they could only follow their conscience. For my money, that doesn’t speak well of Manchin.
Still, I’m hopeful that any bump the GOP sees out of Kavanaugh will have a brief half-life.
The GOP still has a path to keep the House, but it would require either a near-sweep of the toss-up races or a significant change in the political environment in the final four weeks of the campaign.
A temporary uptick in Republican enthusiasm over the final week of the Kavanaugh confirmation fight could give the party momentum that provides that change. But, strategists say, it could just as easily fade, and the dynamic could revert to where it was earlier in September: with Democrats poised to take the House and wage an uphill battle for the Senate, too.
In one sense, I think the fight over the Supreme Court aroused a lot of Republicans out of their slumber and also got them to look beyond their disillusionment or lack of satisfaction with President Trump. I doubt all of that will simply vanish between now and the closing of the polls on Election Day. But, in another sense, they got what they wanted and the main battle is over. I don’t think they’ll be all that motivated to go punish people who lost, but everyone who opposed Kavanaugh is now thirsting for revenge. If I had to guess, the fallout has changed the election from one that was largely about persuasion into one that is much more about turnout. I sense this favors the Republicans, especially in midterm elections where Democrats always struggle to turn out their low-propensity and often younger voters.
At the same time, increased polarization favors the Democrats in precisely the districts they were already targeting, making it possible that they’ll run the table in well-educated suburbs in every corner of the country. They may have lost a real chance to take the Senate and they may not get some of the more marginal house seats that were in play, but it does still look likely that they’ll wind up controlling the House when all the results are in.
As for Senate seats, it pains me to say this but the most valuable seats are the ones you’ll never win back once you lose them. Ben Nelson made me crazy when he served in Nebraska but his seat is gone now and unlikely to come back anytime soon. This dynamic makes Manchin’s seat probably the most valuable one in this cycle, along with Heitkamp’s. If the Democrats’ lose the Florida seat, it will be a toss-up six years from now, but an incumbent Republican senator in West Virginia or North Dakota could be safe for decades to come.
Prior to the Kavanaugh vote, Manchin looked safe and Heitkamp looked doomed. He voted for Kavanaugh and she voted against, which seems almost backwards if you believe the common wisdom that a ‘no’ vote would hurt them. Personally, I think the simple fact that they had to go on the record at all hurt them, and if they win it will be because of other factors that allow them to overcome that perilous choice.
If the Democrats have any realistic chance of taking over the Senate, they need both of them to prevail, and that looks less likely now than it did before the Supreme Court battle. But, again, I am hopeful that the Republican base is a bit sated now and won’t be as motivated in a few weeks as they appear to be today.