Following the basic principles of triage, the Republicans’ strategy this fall seems to have been to focus first and primarily on saving the patients with the best chance of survival, and that has meant taking actions that will help preserve their Senate majority without worrying about the consequences for House candidates. The way the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were handled is a perfect example of this, and it would have been even more stark if retiring Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona hadn’t pressed the pause button and allowed for the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. The polarizing effect of the Kavanaugh confirmation changed the shape of the electorate, perhaps only fleetingly, giving partisan Republicans a boost of energy and a badly needed victory at the cost of an even bleaker picture for embattled incumbents running in well-educated and affluent districts around the country.
“Clearly the Kavanaugh confirmation was an inflection point to activate the Republican base, and even pull over some Democratic men,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant based in California. “But that’s an effect that benefits the Senate and leaves suburban members of Congress stranded. It’s unlikely we won back suburban Orange County voters.”
The Kavanaugh effect was a bit like the high you get off cocaine or methamphetamines—short-lived and accompanied by a bad hangover. It probably had some impact on early voting in some states, but other events have overtaken it and left the Republicans desperate for a new bump. There are plenty of indications in the polls that the late momentum in House races has moved toward the Democrats.
There is still some reason to believe that the congressional races will offer a surprise to progressives and the media. As Nate Silver explained last week, the polling has been better for the Democrats in Obama-Trump districts than in Romney-Clinton districts, which is something I’ve consistently said was possible, starting right after Election Day in 2016. There is a lot of regional variation, but working class whites in the Midwest are coming home to the Democratic Party. This is probably despite the Kavanaugh story rather than because of it. And it is one reason why shoring up red areas didn’t do much for the GOP’s chances of holding onto the House. Depending on how you define “the Midwest,” the Democrats are favored to gain between 12 and 14 seats, and possibly many more than that. They’re also looking strong in the Senate and governor’s races, although the Kavanaugh effect may have hurt Democratic incumbent Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.
Overall, where the Democrats have struggled in the post-Kavanaugh environment seems to be in a bunch of Romney-Clinton races like Georgia’s 6th District and some districts in Illinois and California. It could be that the short-term effect of the Kavanaugh hearings was to get a lot of suburban Republicans to act like Republicans, but recent news related to the murder of journalists and racially and religiously motivated attacks has changed their focus back to the problems with our president.
In any case, with a week to go, there seems to be a consensus that the polls have some movement in them and that it’s favorable to the Democrats. Yet, the Democrats are still not favored to take over the Senate, largely because the key races are all being held in states that Trump carried and (other than Florida) have a clear Republican lean. In that political landscape, goosing Republican enthusiasm and turnout pays off even if it hurts in the suburbs.
There is still time for the momentum to shift again, but a lot of votes have already been cast. If the Democrats can figure out a way to win the Senate race in either Tennessee or Texas and avoid losing in Missouri and Indiana, they still might come away on Election Night with control of both chambers. It’s not something I’m willing to predict, but it’s possible. It would be extra sweet because the Senate Republicans sold out the House to protect themselves, and they deserve to suffer the consequences.