Donald Trump seizes on Brett Kavanaugh fight as midterm rallying cry

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Donald Trump seizes on Brett Kavanaugh fight as midterm rallying cry

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The polarizing battle over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has ended, but voter repercussions could be coming soon.
USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump used a fiery speech in Minnesota last Thursday to accuse Democrats of “trying to destroy” Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

It was the eve of a dramatic showdown in the Senate over Kavanaugh and the president revved up the raucous crowd, telling them Democrats would pay a price in the Nov. 6 elections for what he said was an effort to derail the court nomination over sexual assault allegations. 

“Their rage-fueled resistance is starting to backfire,” Trump said at the rally where supporters chanted Kavanaugh’s name. “These people are loco.”       

The comments underscored Trump’s belief that the fight to put Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court will be a potent issue for the midterms and one that could rile up the Republican base in a year when Democratic voters are seen as more motivated to go to the polls.

On Saturday, the Republican-led Senate confirmed Kavanaugh after a bruising battle. 

With the midterm elections a month away, turnout will be decisive in whether Democrats can wrest one or both chambers from Republican control. In the Kavanaugh battle, Republican operatives say the president saw an opportunity to turn a liability around. 

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Trump himself went a step further, telling reporters on Saturday that a speech he gave in Mississippi mocking Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford had helped pave the way for the confirmation.

“I think that the Mississippi speech had a great impact, yes – I think it was a very important thing,” Trump told reporters.

After Kavanaugh’s confirmation on Saturday, Trump also called for penalizing those who claimed “false” allegations against the judge.

When Ford first went public with her sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, White House aides urged a cautious approach, advising the president to tread carefully around a controversy that may still sour suburban women and independent voters.

Kavanaugh has adamantly denied the allegations.

While standing by his nominee, Trump initially refrained from criticizing Ford and said he found her Senate testimony about the allegations compelling.

But the president later changed tack, mocking Ford in the Mississippi speech last Tuesday and telling his supporters that it’s a “damn sad situation” when men like Kavanaugh can have their lives turned upside by assault allegations.

Republican operatives said that message could help drive turnout among conservative voters. 

Springs wound tight

“The springs are all wound pretty tight right now,” said J.C. Martin, chairman of the Republican Party in Polk County, Florida.

“People aren’t going to calm down after this.” 

But the strategy carries a big risk, analysts. It could further drive a wedge between suburban women voters – a key demographic – and the Republican party. And Democrats say their core supporters are already energized.

“The confirmation process – especially Trump’s mockery of Dr. Ford – only exacerbated the movement away from Trump among key demographics,” said Democratic consultant Ian Russell. “

Those key voters, he said, “aren’t going to forget or move on.”

Republicans have cheered early polling and fundraising numbers indicating that the Kavanaugh controversy helped to close an enthusiasm gap between the parties. A 10-point split in July between the number of Democrats and Republicans who described the election as “very important” all but disappeared, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll this week.

“The ironies of ironies, this has actually produced an incredible surge of interest among these Republican voters going into the fall election,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told USA TODAY on Saturday just before Kavanaugh was confirmed.

“We’ve all been perplexed about how to get our people as interested as we know the other side is, well this has done it,” he said.

Polls in marquee Senate races, including North Dakota, Missouri and Arizona, showed Republicans gaining some ground during the height of the Kavanaugh fight.

“This whole story has boomeranged against the Democrats in ways no one could have predicted,” said Texas-based GOP political consultant Matt Mackowiak. “Now the challenge is not losing the intensity.”

The approach Republican candidates are most likely to take, several political consultants said, is to blame Democrats for the process, including the last-minute nature of the allegations and the partisanship that followed. That is a message many Republicans can support, regardless of their thoughts on Kavanaugh. 

The political calculus is much easier for Democrats. Already energized by their aversion to Trump, Kavanuagh’s confirmation may serve to crystallize the importance of the election, driving turnout. Democrats challenged the notion that Republican congressional candidates were getting a bounce from the Kavanaugh fight, saying the increase in enthusiasm was little more than a tightening of polls that often happens as election day approaches.

Waves of protests

Trump’s approval rating, meanwhile, hovered in the low 40 percent range in five separate polls last week. 

“The GOP is in trouble because [of a] nationalized election around Trump and his 40 percent approval has shifted voters against him,” said Democratic pollster and strategist Stanley Greenberg.

Opposition, Greenberg added, is found among “all types of women and college graduates and the suburbs.”

Democrats need to flip 23 seats to take control of the House. Control of the Senate, where Republicans hold a 51-to-49 seat majority, is also in play. 

Waves of protests poured over the Capitol in the days leading up the Senate votes, an indication of energy on among anti-Kavanaugh forces. Some confronted Republican senators, including Collins and Flake, in emotional episodes broadcast on cable news. In one particularly well-publicized exchange, a tearful woman approached Flake as he stood in an elevator 

“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” she said. “You’re telling me that my assault doesn’t matter.”

Trump dismissed the protesters as “elevator screamers” and “troublemakers” in a tweet on Friday. Citing no evidence, the president described the protesters as “professionals” paid for their outrage by major Democratic donor George Soros.

“Don’t fall for it!” Trump tweeted. “Look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others.”    

More: Brett Kavanaugh: What the FBI report could (or could not) have uncovered

More: Expert who questioned Christine Ford says she wouldn’t prosecute Kavanaugh

While some Republicans have raised concerns about maintaining the momentum for the next several weeks and into the election, others said the benefits are tangible and lasting. Martin, the county GOP official from Florida, said he has heard from Republican voters who haven’t been active in the party for years. 

“People are coming out of the woodwork,” Martin said. “And I have volunteers coming out of my ears.”

Contributing: Eliza Collins

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