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Kavanaugh hearing roils red-state Senate races

Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly has to win a big share of Trump voters to earn a second term in Indiana, but he does not see a no vote on Brett Kavanaugh as a fatal maneuver. | Cliff Owen/AP Photo

Republicans believe Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s emphatic defense of himself Thursday not only may saved his nomination to the Supreme Court but also roused a lethargic GOP base six weeks before Election Day.

But Democrats say they are seeing little evidence of either a groundswell of support for Republicans or irresistible momentum to support Kavanaugh, as Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who is locked in one of the toughest red-state races of 2018, announced Friday that he would not back Kavanaugh even after voting for other judges nominated by President Donald Trump in the past two years.

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It will take days or even weeks for the full effects of Thursday’s testimony featuring Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school, to filter into the fast-approaching midterm elections. The potential delay by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who said he would not be comfortable moving forward without an FBI investigation, has only prolonged the crescendo of the court fight. But all the early evidence points to Democrats and Republicans alike digging deeper into their partisan trenches after the intense, polarizing reaction to the week’s events — and to Trump’s presidency in general.

Donnelly has to win a big share of Trump voters to earn a second term in Indiana. But he clearly does not see a no vote on Kavanaugh, delivered mere weeks from Election Day, as a fatal maneuver. In a careful statement Friday, Donnelly emphasized that he voted for Trump’s first nominee for the Supreme Court last year, and he said he would be willing to work with the president on another nominee to fill the vacancy left by Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. But Donnelly said an unclear process and lack of full information surrounding the assault allegations drove his decision.

“I have deep reservations about Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to this lifetime position, and, as I stated, we have been unable to get all the information necessary regarding this nomination, despite my best efforts,” Donnelly said.

Democratic Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Bill Nelson of Florida, two others in tough November races both also announced their official opposition to Kavanaugh, though neither had been seen as a potential vote in his favor.

But Republican Mike Braun, Donnelly’s opponent this fall, blasted Donnelly’s decision while reaffirming his own support for Kavanaugh. Braun was one of many GOP candidates who reaffirmed support for Kavanaugh after promising to watch Thursday’s hearing closely, and flash polls conducted by Republicans in key states convinced GOP strategists that their voters found Kavanaugh’s rebuttal compelling and have been galvanized by the judge’s confirmation process.

“Donnelly’s decision to oppose President Trump’s highly qualified nominee is a grave mistake, but proves he is more concerned with standing with his liberal Democrat leaders than standing for Hoosiers,” Braun said.

Other Republican candidates, including Matt Rosendale of Montana, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Leah Vukmir of Wisconsin, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia reaffirmed their support for Kavanaugh following his testimony.

Robert Blizzard, a GOP pollster, said he saw improved intensity among Republican voters this week — and that if it lasts into next week, it could be enough to shift in the political landscape.

“When you’re going 100 miles an hour down the road, there’s no way to go any faster. Democrats are fired up, Democrats are coming out no matter what happens,” Blizzard said. “This does have the ability to really impact Republican turnout for the fall.”

Yet Kip Tew, a former chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, said he believed the vote was an easy choice for Donnelly before the allegations against Kavanaugh, and an even easier vote following the hearing Thursday. Donnelly is in a position where he needs every Democratic voter in the state to turn out to vote, Tew said, along with getting independent and some crossover Republican support.

“He has done a great job of reaching out to independents by flirting with ticking off his base enough that they wouldn’t vote for him,” Tew said. Had he voted for Kavanaugh, Tew added, he would have crossed a line with the Democratic base. “He would have lost women en masse from the Democratic Party had he not done what he did, and probably independent women as well.”

Flake requests FBI probe then votes with committee's GOP

Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster, said the allegations against Kavanaugh and Thursday’s hearing turned the vote into an argument not about Kavanaugh’s qualifications and judicial philosophy, but about process and the allegations against him. He said that put Democrats in a safer place to oppose Kavanaugh, particularly with independent voters.

“I do think that this debate is no longer about ideology, and that is where it would be the stickiest for red state Democrats,” McCrary said. He also predicted that while Republicans might have seen a slight boost in enthusiasm among their voters following the party’s wholesale defense of Kavanaugh in recent days, that was unlikely to last in the weeks following his likely confirmation. Had the seat vacated by Kennedy remained empty into November, McCrary said, it could have kept Republican voters engaged.

Not all Republican candidates have been unequivocal in their support for Kavanaugh since the hearing. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who was criticized earlier this week for questioning whether the allegations against Kavanaugh were disqualifying even if true, did not say definitively Friday that he would support the judge.

“As I have said from the beginning, it is hard not to be skeptical due to the timing and course of events, but both the accuser and Mr. Kavanaugh deserve to be heard and now that has happened,” Cramer told POLITICO in a statement. “I will be reviewing the findings of the committee in the coming days and will be better able to comment then.”

Several Democrats, including Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, remain undecided. Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who is challenging Blackburn in a competitive race, said earlier this week he would wait to evaluate Thursday’s testimony before deciding on Kavanaugh, and a spokeswoman said Thursday that remained Bredesen’s position. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, the Democratic nominee in Arizona’s Senate race, called for an FBI investigation before a vote on Kavanaugh. A spokeswoman for her opponent, Rep. Martha McSally, didn’t return requests for comment about her position on Kavanaugh.

Manchin said he agreed with Flake’s call for an FBI investigation prior to a vote on Kavanaugh. Morrisey, the West Virginia attorney general and Manchin’s Republican opponent, called the Democrat “complicit” in what he described as the party’s “disgraceful treatment” of Kavanaugh.

“The bottom line, Manchin should be ashamed for giving [Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer and Senate Democrats the ‘room to maneuver’ to ultimately try to destroy President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee,” Morrisey said.

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