WASHINGTON — Much as he did in 2016, when the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape seemed to doom his chances at the White House, Donald Trump is seeking to turn allegations of sexual misconduct into an electoral advantage.
Two years ago, that advantage would prove to be his own: Even as many predicted that the recording, in which Trump boasted about groping women’s private parts, would lead to a historic defeat, the Republican base rallied around its candidate. Later, campaign chairman Steve Bannon said that even as others worried the tape was a coup de grâce for Trump, he gave Trump a “100 percent” chance of victory. Calls for Trump to drop out of the race came from prominent Republicans, but that only burnished his image as a candidate who couldn’t care less what prominent Republicans thought.
Now the midterm elections loom, and Trump is trying something similar, this time by attempting to use the fight over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh — accused by Christine Blasey Ford and other women of sexual assault — to stoke Republican enthusiasm in the battle for Capitol Hill. Even as polls continue to show that Ford was seen as more credible than Kavanaugh, Trump and many other Republicans believe that conservatives were galvanized by the successful nomination battle, in particular by what many on the right believe to have been Democrats’ overreach in painting Kavanaugh as a booze-fueled sexual transgressor.
As for the thousands who turned out to protest Kavanaugh’s impending confirmation in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., branded them “clowns,” echoing the sentiments of many Fox News pundits. Even if Republicans can’t seem to agree on much these days, many of them rushed to paint the resistance to Kavanaugh as fueled by a far-left mob — one that some GOP leaders said was funded by wealthy financiers such as George Soros (Soros did not fund the protesters; the invocation of Soros, who is Jewish, has been deemed anti-Semitic).
That this is part of a calculated strategy is obvious. Whether that strategy will work is much less clear.
“We’ve seen an increase in Republican enthusiasm,” says Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster. “The real question is whether it lasts.” Evidence of a so-called “Kavanaugh bounce” for Republicans began to appear in the days before Saturday’s confirmation vote, with polls indicating that several previously close Senate races were tipping definitively to the right. Others pointed to a closing gap in the generic ballot, which simply asks respondents whether they would vote for a Republican or Democratic candidate, though it was not clear that any such narrowing was related to the contentious Kavanaugh confirmation process, which quickly went from discussion about Madison v. Marbury to rancorous debates about “ralphing” and “boofing.”
When the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings went from judicial questions to cultural ones, Trump saw his opening. At an Oct. 2 campaign rally in Mississippi, Trump dove eagerly into the debate, mocking Ford — whom he previously found credible — and calling Kavanaugh’s detractors “evil people.” He continued to make similar charges on Twitter, and at subsequent rallies across the South and Midwest. The most recent of these took place on Tuesday night in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and had Trump calling Democrats “too dangerous to govern.”
The previous night, he hosted a starkly political ceremonial swearing-in for Kavanaugh in which he incorrectly stated that Kavanaugh had been proven “innocent.” He also apologized for Kavanaugh’s treatment on behalf of the entire nation — a bold move considering that the majority of Americans did not want to see Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. The Washington Post described the event as “a cross between a campaign rally and a wedding reception.”
“The president is blatantly making this about white male victimhood,” says Michael Steele, the former head of the Republican National Committee. By branding the accusations against Kavanaugh a “hoax” while lamenting the injustice done to the judge, Trump is “grinding into women’s faces what Republicans did and how they did it,” says Steele. He believes that women “agitated” by Trump’s handling of the Kavanaugh confirmation — by turns triumphant, conspiratorial and self-pitying — will lead to the mythical “blue wave” that some predict is in store for Democrats.
Steele’s prediction is on solid ground: A new poll from CNN finds a 30-point advantage for Democrats from female voters on the generic ballot. The overall Democratic advantage on the generic ballot has risen to 13 points, suggesting that a Kavanaugh “bounce” for Republicans may have already run its course. If an advantage of that magnitude were to hold for the next four weeks, it would most likely allow Democrats to retake the House of Representatives. They have already vowed to investigate Kavanaugh should they do so.
Another poll — this one from Politico/Morning Consult — found that 46 percent of respondents thought it “wrong” to have Kavanaugh confirmed to the high court. And while 77 percent of Democrats were “energized” by the Kavanaugh contest, only 68 percent of Republicans shared the same sentiment despite having emerged victorious. Perhaps that isn’t entirely surprising, given that defeat tends to be a greater motivator than victory.
“The 202 wing of the GOP convinced themselves the country would be as angry as them about Kavanaugh,” says Republican strategist John Weaver, referring to the area code for Washington, D.C. “Well, they were right, but in the wrong direction. We’re looking at the largest gender gap in modern history against Republicans, with women powering a huge tsunami of anger at the GOP.”
Progressives agree with that assessment. Despite having lost the Kavanaugh fight — he was confirmed by the narrowest margin in the history of the Supreme Court — they say that it is their base that has been motivated.
“Both sides are looking to draw lines and spin this fight the way they want. We can definitely say this: This fight has energized our local Indivisible leaders and the grassroots,” says Maria Urbina, national political director of the Indivisible Project, which supports progressive candidates for elected office. “We know that women are leading this movement across red, blue and purple districts, especially in suburban districts, and their power and anger has no limit.”
Data provided to Yahoo News by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which supports Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives, shows that contributions rose dramatically in the last week of September, when the Kavanaugh nomination battle reached its crescendo. Polling compiled by the DCCC suggests, in particular, there is enthusiasm about several races in Illinois where Democrats are either leading or gaining ground.
“In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, Republicans will claim without real, sustainable metrics that their enthusiasm has increased,” says DCCC spokesman Tyler Law, “while national polls show actual evidence of enthusiasm skyrocketing for Democrats amongst women, millennials and others.”
Among the progressive women hoping to win a seat in Congress is Jennifer Wexton, who running in a Northern Virginia district that in recent years has shed its reputation as a Republican redoubt. Her challenger, Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock, is friends with Kavanaugh and remained a supporter of his nomination even as charges of sexual assault were leveled against him.
“We were all over Virginia’s 10th District this weekend, and everywhere we went we met women (and more than a few men) who were furious over Barbara Comstock’s silence about allegations against her old friend Brett Kavanaugh,” Wexton campaign spokesman Aaron Fritschner wrote in an email two days after Kavanaugh’s confirmation by the Senate. “They are turning that anger into energy, which we’ve seen reflected in a huge spike in volunteers to knock on doors for Jennifer Wexton,” Fritschner added.
“This is a big deal to voters here. You can feel it.”
The question, of course, is whether Democratic outrage will prevail or whether Trump’s campaign rallies, with their gloating and dark warnings about liberals, will awaken a lethargic Republican base. Those questions will be answered in 27 days. Until then, both parties will have Brett Kavanaugh to kick around as the perfect symbol of their grievances.
Hot Seat: North Dakota
The Kavanaugh controversy has become a major issue in the North Dakota Senate race. Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is running a strong campaign but it might not be enough to prevail against her Republican challenger, Kevin Cramer, who now represents the state’s only congressional district.
The Cook Political Report characterized this race as one for only four Democratic-held seats that are toss-ups — the others are Sen. Bill Nelson’s in Florida, Sen. Joe Donnelly’s in Indiana and Sen. Claire McCaskill’s in Missouri.
More and more, the race is looking like a referendum on the #MeToo movement, and national coverage has focused on each candidate’s opinion of Kavanaugh. Heitkamp voted against Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and Cramer has made extemporaneous comments defending Kavanaugh that have inflamed liberals.
For instance, in an interview with the New York Times, Cramer recently said that North Dakotans appreciate the value “of saying what a lot of other people don’t dare say — but think.” When asked for an example, he criticized the #MeToo as a movement toward victimization.
“That you’re just supposed to believe somebody because they said it happened,” Cramer said, alluding to Ford and other women with sexual assault allegations. He said his wife, daughters and mother cannot relate to it.
“They are pioneers of the prairie. These are tough people whose grandparents were tough and great-grandparents were tough,” he said.
Regarding the #MeToo movement’s attempt to stop Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court, Cramer said, “The world got to see close up how ugly it can be when you go too far.”
Heitkamp, a former state attorney general, told the Times that she has worked with victims for the better part of her career and was angry about Cramer’s dismissive attitude. She wondered whether Cramer ever actually met with survivors personally.
“I think it’s wonderful that his wife has never had an experience — and good for her — and it’s wonderful his mom hasn’t,” she said. “My mom did. And I think it affected my mom her whole life. And it didn’t make her less strong.”
Heitkamp continued, “She got stronger and she made us strong. And to suggest that this movement doesn’t make women strong and stronger is really unfortunate.”
On Sunday, Heitkamp’s team released a campaign ad explaining why she voted against Kavanaugh, making the confirmation vote even more central to the race. North Dakota’s other senator, Republican John Hoeven, voted to seat Kavanaugh, describing him as “a fair and impartial jurist with deep respect for the Constitution.”
Heitkamp said in the video: “Honestly, I don’t think he told the truth. And even if he did, he showed himself too biased to be impartial. I voted for Neil Gorsuch, so I know there are many other conservative judges who can fill this job without tearing our country apart.”
Among the Supreme Court’s first decisions this session has been not to intervene in a challenge to North Dakota’s ID law, which would require voters to provide IDs with street addresses. This would be a problem for residents, including many Native Americans, who use post office box addresses.
Last April, a federal district court judge blocked enforcement of the ID law and agreed with plaintiffs that it could disenfranchise Native Americans.
But last month, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals placed a hold on that order, which in turn was appealed to the Supreme Court. The request for an emergency hearing was denied without explanation. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent, joined by Justice Elena Kagan.
“Reasonable voters may well assume that the IDs allowing them to vote in the primary election would remain valid in the general election. If the Eighth Circuit’s stay is not vacated, the risk of disfranchisement is large,” Ginsburg wrote.
Kavanaugh took no part in the decision.
The best of the rest
Taylor Swift’s effect on Blackburn-Bredesen race
Music superstar Taylor Swift typically shies away from voicing political opinions in public, but made an exception for the Senate race in Tennessee, the state she moved to with her family at age 14 to pursue her singing career. In an Instagram post, Swift endorsed Democrat Phil Bredesen, who is running against Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn for the seat being vacated by Sen. Bob Corker. She also backed Rep. Jim Cooper, running for reelection in the Fifth District, which is centered in Nashville.
Swift said she will always vote for politicians who stand for human rights and oppose discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation or race.
“I will be voting for Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives,” Swift wrote on Oct. 8. “Please, please educate yourself on the candidates running in your state and vote based on who most closely represents your values.”
Swift said she would like to vote for a woman, but Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn’s record in Congress “appalls and terrifies” her.
Kamari Guthrie, the director of communications for Vote.org, told Buzzfeed News that 65,000 people registered to vote in the 24 hours after Swift made her post. Registrations also shot up in Swift’s home state.
According to Guthrie, so far 5,183 people registered to vote in Tennessee in October, and at least 2,144 had done so since Swift’s post appeared. There were only 2,811 new voter registrations in September, and only 951 in August.
Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and political commentator, responded to the commotion over Swift’s political post by tweeting that she has “every right to be political,” but said that it won’t affect the election unless “we allow 13 [-year-] old girls to vote.”
Hurricane Michael’s effect on Florida
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has greatly outspent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in the race for Nelson’s Senate seat, but Hurricane Michael may swamp the efforts of both candidates, with unpredictable results.
The Cook Political Report now rates the Senate race a toss-up, so any new variable could tilt the odds in either candidate’s favor. Scott has raised $31,126,698 for his campaign; Nelson has raised $19,720,053.
Hurricanes have been “make-or-break” moments for political careers, and Scott’s response will be heavily scrutinized. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s approval rating shot up after Hurricane Sandy when he put politics aside to work with then-President Barack Obama on the response effort. Former President George W. Bush’s lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina caused his approval rating to nosedive.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott leads a Hurricane Michael press briefing on Wednesday. (Photo: Office of the Governor via Twitter)
Scott is running an advertisement that highlights his leadership during recent hurricanes — Hermine and Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017 — but Michael will lend the governor torrents of free coverage. The Weather Channel and the news media cover hurricanes around the clock. Though he will temporarily abandon the campaign trail, Scott will get far more press by doing his current job than he would have on the stump.
Michael strengthened to a powerful Category 4 overnight Tuesday night as it approached Florida’s northeast Gulf Coast, and an estimated 120,000 people along the state’s panhandle were ordered to evacuate.
I just left Franklin County after giving updates about Hurricane Michael. This storm is DEADLY. It is critical that you listen to local news for reports and warnings from local and state officials as Hurricane Michael approaches FL. pic.twitter.com/mclwT0fsJI
— Rick Scott (@FLGovScott) October 9, 2018
Michael is upon us, it is time to seek refuge. Once you are sheltered, STAY PUT. Do not try to leave until the storm has passed. Multiple state and federal resources are staged and ready to respond as soon as it is safe.
— Rick Scott (@FLGovScott) October 10, 2018
Additional reporting by Michael Walsh and Dylan Stableford
Generic ballot: FiveThirtyEight
Right track/wrong track: Gallup
Trump approval: FiveThirtyEight
At-risk seats in Senate: Cook Political Report
At-risk seats in House: Cook Political Report
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