Who Might the Court Fight Help in the Midterms? Democrats. And Republicans.
Posted July 11, 2018 12:27 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court could very well help Republicans hold or expand their control of the Senate. It could also hurt their efforts to maintain control of the House.
That political oddity illustrates the complexities of this midterm election season, which is actually two very different midterms. One is the fight for the Senate, where Democrats are defending the seats of 10 incumbents in states won by President Donald Trump, and the other is the contest for the House, where Republicans are defending a vast and expanding battleground that is every bit as forbidding, with nearly 60 Republican seats in play.
The Supreme Court fight has thrown another wild card into the scramble for congressional supremacy. Trump’s nomination of Kavanaugh, a 12-year member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has put several endangered Senate Democrats in a tough spot. Their vote against Kavanaugh could prompt a Republican backlash at home, while a vote for him could sap enthusiasm in the Democratic base.
In contrast to the Senate battlegrounds in conservative states like Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia, the fight for the House is being waged across swing suburban districts around the country. The high-profile battle for the Supreme Court could provide a new opening for Democrats to appeal to independent and moderate Republican voters leery of Trump, particularly women concerned about potential new limits on abortion rights.
The differences were obvious in the reactions to Trump’s prime-time nomination announcement Monday.
Endangered Senate Democrats in states won by Trump were mainly circumspect about their thinking on Kavanaugh.
“I look forward to meeting with the president’s nominee in the coming weeks to discuss his views on several important issues such as protecting women’s rights, guaranteeing access to health care for those with pre-existing conditions and protecting the right to vote, just to name a few,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., in a tough re-election fight. “I will make my decision after that.”
Contrast that with some House Democratic challengers who eagerly jumped right in, hoping to capitalize on the court showdown, even though they have no obvious connection to the confirmation fight.
“I am deeply concerned about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, particularly when it comes to women’s health, contraception and reproductive rights,” said Sean Casten, the Democrat opposing Rep. Peter Roskam, a veteran Illinois Republican, in the Chicago suburbs.
Rep. Ryan A. Costello, a Pennsylvania Republican not running for re-election, acknowledged the political threat to his House colleagues on Twitter after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement. A Supreme Court appointment, he said, “means abortion politics front & center. Not ideal for GOP branding in suburban swing House districts.”
And it is not just the court where the House and Senate approaches diverge. Senate Democrats in Republican-leaning states generally must be careful not to make the president much of an issue. Democrats vying against House Republicans in suburban communities often make Trump the issue.
Traditionally, the party in the White House suffers midterm losses in the House and Senate. The extent of the losses can vary, and the numbers are generally bigger in the House, with its larger membership and the more tentative connections between its members and a lightly engaged public.
But the trend is usually all in one direction.
Think 2006, when Republicans lost 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate during the second midterm of George W. Bush’s presidency, or 2010, when Democrats lost 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate during the first midterm under President Barack Obama.
But because of this year’s unusual midterm trajectories, it is conceivable that the final results could be as different as Democrats seizing control of the House while losing ground in the Senate.
“I think that is a very real scenario,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan Inside Elections newsletter. “The Senate map and the House map are completely different, and the path to victory for Democrats is completely different depending on which chamber you are talking about.”
Senate Democrats are the victims of their own success. Strong election showings in 2006 and 2012 expanded their membership and extended their reach into Republican-leaning states like Montana. As a result they have 26 seats on the ballot in November, compared with just nine for Republicans. While the 10 Trump-state Democrats sweat out the election, just one Republican, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, is running in a state carried by Hillary Clinton.
In the House, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report lists just four Democratic seats as tossups or “leaning Democratic,” meaning the Democrat is only mildly favored. It lists 48 Republican seats as tossups or “leaning Republican,” on top of nine other Republican seats that the newsletter considers the Republicans likely to lose.
“The dynamics are different because the makeup of the electorate is so different,” said Stu Rothenberg, the longtime nonpartisan congressional race analyst, about the difference between the House and Senate landscapes. “There is something totally different about this cycle that I have never seen before.”
The election is still months away and circumstances could quickly change. Senate Democrats believe they have an outside chance at winning control by holding their seats and picking up Republican-held seats in Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee — and possibly Texas. They contend that a Supreme Court debate over access to health care could ultimately play to their advantage even if Kavanaugh is confirmed.
As for Republicans, they see Kavanaugh as an appealing and exceptional pick who has the potential to unify party voters along the spectrum from moderate to conservative.
While Trump would no doubt be unhappy with the loss of the House, holding the Senate presents several benefits no matter what happens across the Capitol Rotunda. Maintaining a Senate majority would allow him to keep filling the courts and executive branch agencies with his preferred conservative picks even if Democrats rule the House.
There is another advantage as well: It would be a Republican-controlled Senate waiting to receive any impeachment resolution from the Democrat-controlled House.