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How Will The Troubled Kavanaugh Nomination Affect The Midterms?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, managing editor): For your consideration today … I want to talk about the fallout and response to the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

It’s possible that both Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, whose name was made public and who revealed the details of her allegations in a Washington Post interview on Sunday, will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday. (To be clear, Ford hasn’t confirmed that she will testify, and she has asked for an FBI probe before she does; it’s still possible that there won’t be a hearing at all.)

In any case, three questions:

  1. What do you make of the way Republicans are responding to this so far?
  2. What do you make of the way Democrats are responding to this so far?
  3. What political effect do we think this will have in the midterms (which are less than 50 days away)?

So let’s tackle No. 1 first. Do you think the GOP will go through with the hearing, even if only Kavanaugh attends?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): It seems like a gamble for the GOP either way, with a lot of uncertainty. You could go through with the hearing and risk whatever may be said and the fallout from that. Or you push the nomination through and risk it failing on the floor.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): In a normal White House world, I’d say that they would not go through with the hearing, and I still lean that way — I’d bet that Kavanaugh has broached the topic of withdrawing as the nominee.

But I do think that President Trump is a “deny, deny, deny” guy, and Republicans are time-strapped before the midterms and want to push this through. I don’t think that’s a great idea, for reasons we can get into on later questions.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I can’t imagine a scenario where it benefits Republicans to have their party’s Judiciary Committee members — 11 men, 0 women — interrogating a woman about the details of her recollections of being sexually assaulted. The only way this definitely benefits them is if Kavanaugh can really, really prove in some way that this did not happen.

clare.malone: And his denials have been very specific, so maybe he thinks he has proof — he told Sen. Orrin Hatch that he wasn’t at the party in question.

Which leads to my question: How can you remember what high school parties you attended, let alone the ones you weren’t at?

julia_azari: Well, for some of us that answer may be simple: If a party was happening, I probably was not at it.

micah: I can’t remember what parties I was at. Then again, I went to a ton of parties.

I was really popular. (Dear people who went to high school with me: Please don’t write in and correct that statement.)

julia_azari: Now Micah is just making me feel bad.

micah: Don’t … I definitely peaked in high school.

Anyway, I’m surprised you all seem to think having a hearing is most likely a bad idea for Republicans.

Don’t they basically have to?

julia_azari: I’m not sure I said that. Did I say that?

micah: I read between lines. 😉

julia_azari: It would look really bad for Republicans not to hold a hearing in a very diffuse, general sense.

clare.malone: They could still withdraw the nomination.

That’s a scenario on the table. And it seemed like some key Republicans might have been tilting toward that option.

The White House, in contrast, seemed very much “stand by your man.”

julia_azari: The senators can’t withdraw the nomination. They can vote it down.

Unless there’s something about this process I really don’t understand.

I mean, I think this institutional point is maybe something to consider.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a political tactician. But he can’t withdraw Kavanaugh. His options all involve people going on the record and voting, or stalling.

Trump can withdraw the nomination. He’s … not a political tactician.

perry: McConnell can tell Trump that the nomination can’t get through the Senate. And he can deliver that message in a few private ways.

julia_azari: Right. But the right people have to be listening.

perry: True. But we won’t get to that point unless there is firmer opposition to Kavanaugh from Sens. Jeff Flake, Susan Collins, etc. than we have now.

But let me jump back briefly to the arguments about why Republicans should not have a hearing. Take this:

Corker is hardly the most party-line Republican. But his remark above is a problem. In the world of Republican senators (they are overwhelmingly male and run in very male circles), it seems like a more immediate problem to be accused of sexual misconduct than to be the victim of it. I can imagine several of them, at a public hearing, casting Kavanaugh as the victim.

julia_azari: Yes. This has been a popular Twitter narrative among prominent men (and some women) also.

“Why should someone have to pay for what they did when they were 17? What about false accusations?”

Actually, I am glad so many prominent men said stuff like that. Maybe the way they identify with the person being accused will challenge the idea that when it comes to gender issues, women are biased and men are neutral.

perry: Yeah, Republican voters are more skeptical of the “believe women” rhetoric of the left/the press/elites/women’s groups. This is from Pew Research Center:

clare.malone: I think it’s inevitable when an allegation like this is raised in a highly partisan political environment that people will take stances about it that are correlated to their partisan leanings.

It is, in fact, why Ford didn’t want to be identified!

perry: Exactly.

I think Micah asked if there’s any way Republicans can not have this hearing.

clare.malone: Yes, and I said he could withdraw … are there other options?

julia_azari: That’s probably the main one. It’s possible some detail could come out that casts serious doubt on the allegations. It’s hard to walk something like this back.

perry: I think that’s true. That is why a wiser course, politically, might be to pick a new nominee who has not been accused of sexual assault and push that person through. It would not be the worst move for Republicans if they found a female Supreme Court nominee. The problem is, of course, that the number of people who have the Federalist Society credentials of conservatism and elite degrees and are also female and already sitting on the bench might be small.

micah: So, before we move to Democrats, are the GOP options basically:

  1. Have the hearing.
  2. Pull Kavanaugh.


In other words, if they don’t have a hearing and just push Kavanaugh through, will he fail to be confirmed?

julia_azari: That scenario is the wild card.

perry: I think No. 3 is “Don’t have the hearing. Dare Collins, Flake, etc. to vote ‘no.’”

That might work.

micah: Don’t you all think they would vote no?

perry: I do not.

Collins is already laying the groundwork to vote “yes,” ignore Ford’s allegations and blame the whole controversy on California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

julia_azari: Whether they have a hearing or not, one thing that seems to me to be happening here is that Republicans can’t seem to coordinate on a message or strategy.

I mean, there are several approaches the GOP could take. They could question the timing in terms of this story breaking late in the confirmation process and point to the 30-plus years that have passed since Ford said the incident happened (as some people are already doing).

They could point out problems that Democratic figures have had, too. Some Republicans have called for testimony (Martha McSally, the GOP’s Senate candidate in Arizona, for example) from both parties.

But if different Republicans offer different justifications and approaches, then they run the risk of undermining each other.

clare.malone: Flake seemed to be moving towards voting “yes” on Kavanaugh before all this. So, the fact that Flake was the first Republican senator to speak out in favor of hearing from Ford might mean he has complicated feelings. I think he could still vote “no.”

Collins is in a trickier spot since she’s not leaving the Senate after the midterms. I’m not sure what Corker’s deal is, tbh, but he and Flake aren’t running for re-election.

julia_azari: I agree with that. I think it comes down to a gamble on whether they confirm Kavanaugh and either (i) the court seems kinda illegitimate in some circles, which could be a nagging but not serious problem, or (ii) they vote him down and one of the most serious conservative accomplishments of Trump’s presidency — the Neil Gorsuch Supreme Court confirmation — is now paired with an embarrassing failure in the second nomination.

perry: I would not put it past McConnell to find some way to get Democrats and Ford to not want to attend the hearing and then say, “oh, the hearing could not happen,” and kill it that way.

micah: OK, let’s quickly talk about the Democrats before we move on to the political implications. What are they doing? What should they do?

clare.malone: Well, I think they want to draw things out, right? And that means they want to push Kavanaugh out so that the White House has to scramble on another nominee. Or they want to say: “We need to hold hearings, and now we need all those Kavanaugh papers we never got. He’s proved himself to be potentially untruthful, etc. etc.”

And they want to draw it out on the off chance that they take back the Senate in November.

micah: A 3 in 10 chance, according to our Senate forecast.

perry: I feel like they should get out of the way. And stop talking. Ford’s remarks have been quite detailed, extensive and powerful. If the goal is to kill Kavanaugh’s nomination, the Democrats should make this more about what happened between Ford and Kavanaugh and less about partisan politics.

julia_azari: But they probably also imagine they can use this strategically to increase the chances of taking the Senate.

I know that’s pretty cold, but politics is politics.

perry: But that is true regardless of what Democrats do. If Trump, McConnell and the other Republican men minimize Ford’s comments, that will hurt the GOP politically — not what Cory Booker/Kamala Harris/Feinstein/Chuck Schumer say about it.

clare.malone: This whole thing will make some pretty good attack ads, sure. “So and so wants to push through the nomination of a man accused of trying to rape a teenage girl.”

micah: OK, so let’s just go full into the politics now …

What are our priors about how this will play out?

  1. It furthers Trump’s/GOP’s problems with women in 2018 and helps Democrats.
  2. Women are already leaning way toward Democrats; this could rile up the GOP base.
  3. This is playing out along well-carved fault lines, so maybe it doesn’t really change all that much.

clare.malone: I don’t think it riles up the GOP base

It seems like something that does more to activate a Democratic base and make Republican-leaning women more squeamish.

Guess who Republicans need to win in the midterms???

WOMEN … in da burbs … who don’t like Trump.

julia_azari: I’m mostly on option No. 3, but I’m seeing some news reports that suggest I might be wrong.

micah: What sorts of news reports?

julia_azari: This was the top story at the Washington Post midday on Tuesday. From CNN also.

perry: I’m mostly at No. 3 too, but with a bit of No. 1. The best thing for Republicans would be for the midterms to be about anything but Trump and gender. They are likely to lose the midterms, in part, because of Trump and the gender gap. The Russia investigation stories are confusing. This is not. It’s another story about Trump, Republicans and gender.

I would put the odds of Trump making some kind of negative comment about Ford in the next week at 85 percent.

julia_azari: The thing is that motivated reasoning is so strong. I remember when people thought the “Access Hollywood” tape would sink Trump. It didn’t, and women in demographics where Trump/Republicans are strong still voted for Trump.

micah: But there is evidence that women are already leaning toward Democrats in 2018. So it’s not like these issues haven’t hurt Republicans politically.

clare.malone: What if the long alluded to Trump “Apprentice” tapes come out in the middle of this whole Kavanaugh thing?

micah: Oh man.

clare.malone: There are RUMORS that there was a fight at a pre-Emmy’s party because they’re out there … perhaps with Ronan Farrow.

perry: Generally, this story seems to be playing along well-established political lines. (We don’t have any polling on it yet.) If that’s true, though, it won’t have huge electoral impacts.

julia_azari: I don’t really know what to say about this except that I feel like the story of the last couple of years is that everything is chaotic and then it just ends up being pretty partisan.

clare.malone: But do we know it’s not going to have electoral impact? I don’t think we do. There’s no polling on the scandal yet, as Perry said, and it’s not clear how long it might drag out.

julia_azari: Though, with the number of competitive races, shifts among independent women in the suburbs could be consequential.

micah: Yeah, to that point: A lot of the districts Democrats need are Romney-Clinton districts. These numbers are as of a week ago, but they haven’t moved much:

Which types of district are most competitive?

How competitive FiveThirtyEight’s forecast thinks races are in four types of districts, categorized by who carried them in the 2012 and 2016 elections

Solid D Likely D Lean D Toss-up Lean R Likely R Solid R
Romney-Trump 3 2 5 7 14 44 132
Romney-Clinton 0 4 3 3 2 1 0
Obama-Trump 4 6 0 6 2 3 0
Obama-Clinton 184 4 1 2 2 1 0

Source: Daily Kos Elections

perry: All indications are that we are going to see a huge gender gap in November, and I think this story will be part of that broader narrative.

micah: That, to me, is one argument in favor of it having an effect — it reinforces a pre-existing dynamic.

clare.malone: Right

The scandals that stick fall in that mold. Playing to type, as it were.

perry: I would certainly rather be a Democratic candidate saying that “we should have a full investigation” than a Republican basically saying that “this happened 35 years ago” or “he was only 17.”

And the Democrats are better off with this being an issue over the next few weeks than the Russia investigation being the issue, I think.

julia_azari: Can I point out a nerdy poli sci thing?

micah: Yes!

julia_azari: The fact that gender is getting polarized isn’t entirely a bad thing — normally, when an issue becomes an important one to a major political party, that’s useful for the policy movement on that issue. But because you effectively need 60 Senate votes to pass major legislation in the U.S. now, something becoming partisan is not great for anyone who would like to see public opinion translate into policy change on that issue. The long-term implications of gender/sexual harassment/assault, etc., are pretty depressing — like, here’s a thing for more angry ads and no legislative action.

micah: Oh god, that’s too depressing a note to end on.

julia_azari: I feel I’ve been clear that you do not invite political scientists to add cheer.

Rhyming, though.

clare.malone: Here’s a more positive spin:

Maybe parents will talk to their teenage boys (and girls!) about how to handle sex — and not just the mechanics of it — but like how to actually act in a situation. Not a “girls are going to claim you raped them, son, so watch out” talk. But maybe real talks?

That’s my hopeful spin.

perry: For what it’s worth, I’m not sure that what Republicans are saying in this instance (being somewhat dismissive of Ford) is reflective of what they will do in the future.

I have a hard time believing that there will not be every effort possible to make sure that the next seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee goes to a Republican woman, for example.

micah: OK, any final thoughts? Predictions?

perry: I am having a hard time imagining this hearing happening.

Unless, Kavanaugh has real proof that he was not at the party.

micah: You and Clare are on the same page.

Julia — hearing, yes or no?

julia_azari: I’ll be ornery and go with “yes,” but at this point, who knows?

perry: I still think there is a great chance that Kavanaugh is confirmed. And I think there is almost a 100 percent chance that a conservative justice is sitting in Justice Kennedy’s seat by the end of the year.

micah: BOLD!

FiveThirtyEight updates its House predictions

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.