NEW YORK >> Whether or not Republicans ultimately confirm President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, some on the front lines of the GOP’s midterm battlefield fear the party may have already lost.
In the days after a divided nation watched Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser Christine Blasey Ford deliver conflicting stories about what happened when they were teenagers, Republican campaign operatives acknowledged this is not the fight they wanted six weeks before Election Day.
Should they give Kavanaugh a lifetime appointment to the nation’s highest court after Ford’s powerful testimony about sexual assault, Republicans risk enraging the women they need to preserve their House majority. Vote him down, they risk enraging the party’s defiant political base.
In swing state New Hampshire, former Republican Party chair Jennifer Horn said Republicans are “grossly underestimating the damage that would be done” at the ballot box in the short and long term should they confirm Kavanaugh.
Horn, a lifelong Republican and frequent Trump critic, described Ford as “the most credible person I have ever seen publicly talk about this.” One young friend of Horn’s family was so inspired by the testimony that she revealed her own painful experience with sexual assault on social media for the first time Thursday.
“Republicans have to ask themselves if they’re willing not only to sell the soul of the party, but sell their own souls to get this particular conservative on the Supreme Court,” Horn said in an interview.
Another wing of the party was just as convinced that Republicans would trigger Election Day doom should they fail to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court pick.
“If Republicans do not get this vote taken and Kavanaugh confirmed, you can kiss the midterms goodbye,” conservative icon Rush Limbaugh boomed from his radio studio this week, a message that Trump echoed on Twitter and Republican strategists repeated privately on Friday.
In what has become the year of the woman in national politics, there are no easy answers for a party aligned with a president who has dismissed more than a dozen allegations of sexual misconduct of his own.
The GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines Friday to send Kavanaugh’s nomination to the full Senate, with the informal understanding that the FBI would investigate the allegations against Kavanaugh. A final vote would be delayed by a week.
Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona crystalized the challenge before the GOP. After announcing his support for Kavanaugh early Friday, he was confronted by tearful victims of sexual assault as he tried to board an elevator in the U.S. Capitol.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” one woman cried as Flake stood uncomfortably in the elevator. “You’re telling me that my assault doesn’t matter, that what happened to me doesn’t matter, that you’re going to let people who do these things into power.”
Flake later insisted on the FBI investigation to secure his vote allowing Kavanaugh’s nomination to move out of the Judiciary Committee. He is retiring at the end of the year and the Republican congresswoman seeking to replace him, Martha McSally, said nothing for much of this week before releasing a statement Friday afternoon noting Kavanaugh and Ford were “heard.”
“The Senate’s role is to provide advice and consent on this nomination, and to seek the truth,” McSally said. “I encourage them to use the next week to gather any additional relevant facts, and then act on this nomination.”
The balancing act reflects the impossible politics ahead for some Republican candidates, particularly those in swing states and suburban House districts.
McSally has come out as a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her high school track coach. At the same time, she has strongly embraced Trump and his combative ethos, which Kavanaugh exemplified during his Thursday testimony.
She indirectly criticized Trump last week after he questioned why Ford didn’t report her assault decades ago.
“A lot of people who have not been through this — thank God they have not been through this — don’t understand that a lot of us don’t immediately go to law enforcement,” McSally said.
Two key Republicans — Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins — have also avoided taking a firm position so far. Neither is up for re-election this year, yet both are facing intense political pressure from the right and left back home, with the potential that aftershocks from their votes could be felt for years to come.
Cindy Noyes, a registered Republican in Maine, attended public schools with Collins and usually agrees with her. But not if she backs Kavanaugh.
“It’d be hard for me not to support her, but I really, really, really encourage her to vote against him,” Noyes said of Collins, who doesn’t face re-election until 2020.
In Alaska, Juneau voter Sally Saddler, an independent, said she voted for Murkowski in the past, but likely wouldn’t back her again if the Republican senator decides to confirm Kavanaugh.
Murkowski also faces the prospect of a primary challenge from the right should she break with her party.
That potential has already convinced Anchorage Republican Women’s Club president Judy Eledge to consider supporting a Murkowski primary challenger in 2022.
“I would support the other person, and I think there’s a lot of other people that would,” she said.
Republican candidates in states Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016 have been far more eager to follow Trump’s lead on Kavanaugh. Meanwhile, some vulnerable Democratic incumbents like Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly and Montana Sen. Jon Tester announced Friday they would stick with the Democratic minority in opposing the nomination. Others, including Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, remain undecided.
Evangelical leaders in contact with the White House have quietly launched an influence campaign designed to rally 1.5 million evangelical voters behind Kavanaugh across five key states: Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia, Florida and North Dakota. The campaign features a video on social media and a series of direct text messages.
Republicans are on their heels in the nation’s suburbs, the region that features the most competitive House races.
GOP Rep. Leonard Lance, running for re-election in a suburban New Jersey district Trump lost in 2016, was forced to backtrack this week after being caught on tape questioning Kavanaugh’s accusers. After Ford’s testimony, he endorsed calls for an expanded FBI inquiry.
Democratic challenger Tom Malinowski says the issue goes beyond whether Kavanaugh should be on the court.
“It’s precisely that tendency to dismiss accusers of powerful men that makes it hard for survivors to make what is already a wrenchingly difficult decision to come forward,” Malinowski said in an interview, adding that it’s particularly important for male politicians to speak up instead of leaving all the difficult votes to women.
Republicans are betting that Democrats are already so motivated by their opposition to Trump that the Supreme Court fight won’t make much difference, said Republican pollster Ed Goeas.
Most off-year elections are decided by which side is more energized. Most polls suggest that Democrats have a distinct advantage on that front.
“All Republicans can do is close that gap at this point,” Goeas said.