How Will Kavanaugh Shape the Midterms?

Assuming the FBI investigation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh doesn’t uncover some startling new information, the Senate is likely to confirm him to the Supreme Court and the political effects on the midterms could go in two different directions.

Democratic lawmakers will complain, of course, that the inquiry wasn’t thorough enough, that Kavanaugh lacks a judicial temperament, that he is too partisan to sit on the land’s highest court, and that he wasn’t completely honest with the Senate Judiciary Committee about his drinking.

Still, if all 51 Republican senators are looking for a way to confirm Kavanaugh, Democrats are powerless to derail the nomination.

Open House?

The impact on the fight for the House is likely to be minimal.

There probably will be about a month between Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Nov. 6, which should give many voters an opportunity to refocus on other issues, be they health care, immigration or President Donald Trump’s performance.

Of course, in states with early/absentee/mail voting, the confirmation fight will still be on some people’s minds. But the Kavanaugh fight has not redrawn the electoral battle lines during the final six weeks of the election.

Democrats were already energized when Kavanaugh was nominated, and Trump’s strongest supporters have remained loyal to him no matter what he says or does.

Republican primary turnout was good, though it didn’t match — and isn’t likely to match — Democratic turnout or enthusiasm.

Recently, some pollsters have argued that heightened Republican enthusiasm could eat into the Democrats’ expected turnout advantage in November. But if and when Kavanaugh is confirmed, that event will give the GOP “control” of the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, and that will remove some of the urgency about the midterms for Republican voters.

Democrats, on the other hand, will see the midterms as their only opportunity to check Trump and his party. During the month between Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Election Day, the president is likely to return to his combative mode.

He will interject himself back into every House race, as he has been for months, thereby reminding voters that the midterms are about him.

The 2018 election’s crucial swing group — college-educated whites/white women — will be at least as energized after the Kavanaugh fight as they were before his nomination.

Polls have shown for months that swing voters (particularly women) have been preparing to send a loud message to Trump and the Republican Party, and the accusations about Kavanaugh will only further motivate college-educated women who live in the suburbs.

Both national polls and district surveys conducted by the media and by campaigns, as well as campaign spending decisions by the parties and PACs, show at least a modest Democratic wave developing.

According to national media reports, influential Republican political action committees have pulled out of Virginia’s 10th District (Barbara Comstock), Colorado’s 6th District (Mike Coffman) and Michigan’s 8th District (Mike Bishop).

Those districts are telling, since Coffman and Comstock were able to win even while Democratic presidential nominees were carrying their districts, and Bishop represents a district carried by both Trump in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

All three are politically competitive suburban districts. District-level polling also shows significant Republican problems — again, primarily in the suburbs — in New Jersey, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and California, and Republican funds are now flowing into districts not initially regarded as even competitive in the past.

Democratic gains of at least 30-35 seats currently appear likely, and there is little reason to believe that the Kavanaugh confirmation fight will change that outcome.

Indeed, if it does have any impact, it will probably be to the Democrats’ advantage.

Meanwhile, in the Senate

The Supreme Court battle could have quite a different effect on the race for the Senate. Instead of college-educated, suburban whites being the key swing demographic group, self-identified Republicans, rural voters and Trump voters are crucial in these contests.

Democratic incumbents in North Dakota and West Virginia certainly need to win some of those voters to have any chance of surviving (as do Democratic incumbents in three or four other states).

So Democratic senators in difficult races have a complicated calculation to make.

On one hand, if Republicans are going to confirm Kavanaugh with 50 or 51 votes anyway, endangered Democratic senators could boost their chances by casting meaningless votes in favor of the nominee — thus proving their political independence to swing voters and Republican voters in pro-Trump states such as North Dakota, West Virginia and Indiana.

On the other hand, the intensity of the Kavanaugh fight makes it more difficult for Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin III and Joe Donnelly to support confirmation because Democratic base voters are so outraged at Trump and Senate Republicans.

Voting for Kavanaugh — even if it has no impact on his confirmation — could anger and alienate those voters, which could well be fatal to the Democratic incumbents.

Of course, Democratic senators such as Donnelly now have new arguments to explain a vote against confirmation — the alleged unfairness of the process, questionable statements from Kavanaugh and the unanswered questions raised during the testimony of his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.

While Democrats would love to kill the Kavanaugh nomination, dragging out the process to fill the court’s vacancy would only add to the concerns of Democratic senators running in heavily pro-Trump states by elevating the importance of partisanship, ideology and the Supreme Court.

That is less of a problem for Democrats in the House than it is for this cycle’s Senate class. Given the unexpected twists and turns of our politics these days — and of the Kavanaugh confirmation process — it’s probably wise not to rule out a few more twists and turns before November.

This column originally appeared in Roll Call on October 2, 2018.

 

Why the Gun Issue Has Shifted (It’s Not What You Think)

The gun debate has shifted dramatically. Suddenly, it looks as if the issue will benefit Democrats in November, not Republicans.

The reason for the shift doesn’t rest primarily on the intelligence and commitment of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, although many of them have been articulate and persuasive.

Nor does the shift naturally follow from the decisions of large American corporations to stop selling assault weapons, or to end partnerships with the National Rifle Association, although those steps are a significant development.

And the shift in gun control politics isn’t happening because, after mass shootings in places like Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, San Bernardino and Newtown, the attack in Parkland finally was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

No, the reason why the gun control issue was a big advantage for the GOP for decades but now favors the Democrats can be traced to the shift in the electoral coalitions of the two parties.

A red shift

For years, the gun control debate benefited Republicans because their party was able to attract gun rights voters who were — or had been — reliably Democratic. Those voters initially aligned with the Democrats because of the party’s commitment to organized labor and its working-class agenda, and they constituted an important part of the party’s base vote in places like northeastern and western Pennsylvania, Minnesota’s Iron Range, upstate New York and working-class areas of Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

But as “cultural issues” — including abortion, school prayer, civil rights, gun control and ultimately gay rights and same-sex marriage — became increasingly salient from the late 1960s into the 1990s, a new fracture in American politics emerged.

Many cultural conservatives found themselves uncomfortable in the Democratic Party, and they started flirting with, and then shifting to, the GOP. Opponents of gun control — or advocates of gun owner rights, if you prefer — were among the most vocal party switchers.

By attracting former Democrats and swing voters who cared primarily about gun owner rights, the GOP was both adding to its numbers and subtracting supporters from the Democrats.

The gun issued changed the political arithmetic so completely in the Republicans’ favor that Democrats, increasingly located in the suburbs and in America’s cities, gave up on culturally conservative voters and decided the party should avoid talking about gun control if it hoped to woo any working-class whites.

A costly shift

But the shift of culturally conservative voters to the GOP has not been without its downside.

These voters, too often, helped make the party appear intolerant, mean-spirited and extreme, including on issues such as gun control. This eventually produced a new fracture in the electorate — and the emergence of a new crucial voting group, suburban voters.

The suburbs were, of course, once reliably Republican, whether they were in southeast Pennsylvania, in upscale counties outside New York City or in areas outside Washington, D.C.

The increasing cultural conservatism of the Republican Party made many suburban voters uncomfortable, but as long as the focus was on the liberalism of the Democrats (or the failures of Democratic incumbents), suburban voters usually stuck with the GOP.

But as Republicans moved right on cultural issues, many suburbs started to slide a bit more left.

Upscale Republican bastions, such as Montgomery County, Pennsylvania; Fairfield County, Connecticut; Nassau and Westchester counties in New York; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Fairfax County, Virginia, suddenly found themselves voting Democratic.

Now, suburban voters increasingly find that on guns they have more in common with their urban friends than with their rural ones. Some restrictions on guns, in particular, seem increasingly reasonable to swing voters after numerous mass shootings. As the issue has become more salient politically, it has also become potentially more effective for Democrats.

A winning shift

Of course, conservatives will point out that there are many pro-NRA voters, and “pro-gun” voters have tended to vote on one issue, guns, while supporters of gun control vote on a much broader range of issues.

The problem with that argument is that the party coalitions have changed.

Opponents of new gun controls are now so thoroughly integrated into the GOP that they are part of that party’s political base. Because they are no longer swing voters, they no longer have the electoral clout they once did.

Some Democrats from conservative, largely rural states or congressional districts will need pro-gun voters to win elections, and they will try to walk a fine line on the issue, as Conor Lamb is trying to do now in a western Pennsylvania House special election.

But in many states and districts, swing suburbanites — and particularly suburban women — are a much more important constituency than are NRA members because those suburban voters can decide which party wins — just the way anti-gun control voters once could.

This increased attention from suburbanites has changed the electoral equation for 2018, and that is why Democrats now should benefit from any focus on gun control issues.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 6, 2018.

Will the Suburbs Flip the House? Watch These Seats

If elections and national surveys over the past year have shown us anything, it is that suburban voters could well be the key to the 2018 midterm House elections.

Turnout among minority voters and younger voters could affect the result in a district here or there, but an increase in suburban turnout or a substantial shift by suburban voters (especially suburban women) from the Republicans to the Democrats could have a much broader impact on the fight for control of the House.

In Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election, Democrat Ralph Northam ran ahead of 2013 Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe by 11 points in Fairfax County and 10 points in Loudoun County, two large suburban areas outside Washington, D.C. He also did 9 points better than McAuliffe in two Richmond-area suburban counties, Henrico and Chesterfield.

Northam even drew a larger percentage in those four suburban counties than Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. The same trend held in the Alabama Senate special election in December, won in an upset by Democrat Doug Jones.

While Republican Roy Moore ran up large margins in rural areas, Jones won five of the state’s six largest counties. (Of course, Jones’s strong showing in those urban and suburban areas was undoubtedly due to the unique set of liabilities carried by his GOP opponent rather than President Donald Trump’s weaknesses.)

According to the 2016 exit poll, Trump carried rural areas comfortably, 61 percent to 34 percent, and most of those voters remain loyal to him. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since rural voters tend to be whiter and more traditional in their outlook than voters in urban America. (For a different view of defections from the Trump coalition, see Ron Brownstein’s Jan. 11 piece “The Voters Abandoning Donald Trump” in The Atlantic.)

Given that, House Republicans campaigning in heavily rural districts are less likely to suffer because of Trump’s standing. That should be good news for GOP lawmakers like Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin, whose district is 72 percent rural, and Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte, whose at-large district is 77 percent rural.

Suburban shifts

Non-rural voters are a different story.

Clinton carried urban voters by 26 points (60 percent to 34 percent), but Trump’s narrow 49 percent to 45 percent margin in the suburbs, which accounted for almost half of all voters, allowed him to win an Electoral College majority even while he was losing the popular vote by more than 2 points.

Indeed, Trump’s winning margins over Clinton among suburban voters in Michigan (53 percent to 42 percent), Pennsylvania (52 percent to 44 percent), Wisconsin (55 percent to 39 percent) and Florida (53 percent to 43 percent) produced that victory.

If there is a partisan shift in the suburbs in November, a couple of dozen House Republican seats should be among the first to feel the movement.

In New Jersey, Rep. Leonard Lance’s district is 92 percent suburban, while the districts of retiring Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen and Frank A. LoBiondo are 90 percent and 72 percent suburban respectively. Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock’s district is 83 percent suburban. (All district breakdowns by suburban, urban and rural areas come from “The Almanac of American Politics, 2016.”)

In California, the districts of Reps. Steve Knight and Duncan Hunter are each 90 percent suburban, while retiring Rep. Darrell Issa’s open seat is 69 percent suburban.

Retiring Rep. Ed Royce’s district is evenly split between suburban and urban areas. In Michigan, departing Rep. Dave Trott’s seat is 99 percent suburban, while Rep. Mike Bishop’s is almost 78 percent suburban. Minnesota Rep. Jason Lewis’s district is 83 percent suburban, and Rep. Erik Paulsen’s is 66 percent suburban. Illinois Rep. Mike Bost’s district is 65 percent suburban.

Of course, all suburbs are not alike.

In some places, closer-in suburbs tend to be older and more moderate, while suburban areas farther out tend to be newer and more conservative.

Strongly conservative suburbs are less likely to be strongly anti-Trump, but even in those areas a shift to the Democrats could have a significant impact.

Not every Republican in a district that is at least 50 percent or 60 percent suburban is likely to lose, but many of them probably will if we have anything approaching a “normal” midterm election with an unpopular incumbent in the White House.

Expanding map

Looking for other names to watch? Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman’s district is 49 percent suburban and 1 percent rural. Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam’s district is 77 percent suburban and 0 percent rural. Texas Rep. Pete Sessions sits in a district that is 47 percent suburban and 0 percent rural. Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder’s district is 79 percent suburban.

There are other GOP seats that are majority suburban — including Georgia’s 6th (Karen Handel), New York’s 24th (John Katko), Virginia’s 7th (David Brat) and Ohio’s open 12th (Pat Tiberi) — and I have not listed any Pennsylvania districts, which have only recently been redrawn.

But clearly, at least four GOP-held seats in southeast Pennsylvania — Rep. Ryan A. Costello’s, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s and those of retiring Reps. Pat Meehan and Charlie Dent — are at risk.

Finally, a handful of Republican-held seats in heavily urban districts that also have some suburban areas — Nebraska’s 2nd (Don Bacon), Florida’s 26th (Carlos Curbelo), Kentucky’s 6th (Andy Barr), North Carolina’s 9th (Robert Pittenger), California’s 44th (Mimi Walters) and Texas’ 7th (John Culberson) — could also be affected by movement in the suburbs, especially if combined with turnout and vote choice shifts in urban areas.

With Republican retirements and a new Pennsylvania map giving Democrats better House opportunities, the GOP needs to hold on to suburban voters who supported Trump in 2016. That won’t be easy, especially considering the president’s problems with more highly educated voters and suburban women.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 28, 2018.

Back to the Future in American Politics

For years, I have been writing and speaking about the country’s changing demographics and how that will affect the two parties. The GOP’s long-term prospects were not good, I argued, as a new wave of tolerant voters who valued diversity over tradition appeared poised to change the electorate’s make-up and our politics.

The 2016 elections seemed to prove me wrong, with Trump’s nationalist, culturally conservative message energizing whites, older voters and rural America. But last night’s results, particularly in Virginia, suggest that that demographic evolution is still underway. And those voters produced a Democratic wave that ought to scare GOP campaign strategists.

Younger voters showed that they can be drawn to the polls.

Four years ago, voters age 18-29 constituted 13 percent of the electorate. This year, they were 14 percent of all voters. More importantly, while Democrat Terry McAuliffe carried the group in 2013 by five points (45%-40%), this time those 18-29-year-olds went for Democrat Ralph Northam by 35 points (67%-32%). Greater turnout among voters age 25-29 and 30-39 – and bigger majorities for Northam among those categories – are part of the reason for the huge Democratic win.

White voters constituted a mere 67% of the electorate yesterday in Virginia, a dramatic drop from four years earlier, when whites were 72% of all voters. Yesterday’s white percentage matched the number from last year, when Hillary Clinton carried the state by five points over Donald Trump.

Republican Ed Gillespie drew 57% of whites, a point better than Ken Cuccinelli (R) did in 2013 and two points worse than Trump did last year. That small change, combined with the change in the racial make-up of the electorate and Northam’s 80% support among non-whites, was decisive.

A stunning 41% of yesterday’s voters identified as Democrats. Four years earlier the number was 37% and last year, when Clinton carried the state, only 40% identified as Democrats. Not surprisingly, a Democratic electorate voted more heavily Democratic.

Obviously, much of the Democratic wave showed up in the larger suburban counties, which include many swing voters.

In the D.C. suburbs, Northam won Loudoun County by 20 points and Fairfax County by over 36 points. Four years earlier, McAuliffe carried Loudoun by just over 4 points and Fairfax by 22 points. And the turnout in both counties was massive this time.

The same thing happened in the Richmond area. Northam won Henrico County by 23 points, while McAuliffe won it by 13. Four years ago, Cuccinelli carried Chesterfield County by 8 points, but this year the county was a virtual dead heat.

While all that was happening, Trump’s core supporters stayed loyal to Gillespie.

Trump won 80% of white born-again Christians last year, and Gillespie won 79% of them this time. Gillespie also did well with white men and white women without a college degree – a core Trump group.

Rural Virginia stuck with the Republican. Gillespie rolled up huge percentages in places like Tazewell County (83%), in southwest Virginia, and Smyth County (78%), in south-central Virginia, winning them by bigger margins than Cuccinelli did four years earlier. But those rural counties are not growing and have small populations.

Unexpected Democratic gains down the ballot had a wave-like quality. Democrats won two other statewide offices and more than a dozen seats in the House of Delegates. No wonder most observers are looking at the result as, at least in part, a referendum on the president.

Two days ago, there was uncertainty about Democratic turnout. Northam isn’t the most charismatic politician around, and he defeated a more progressive Democrat for his party’s nomination for governor — raising questions about whether supporters of Bernie Sanders would go to the polls for Northam. Clearly, they did.

Virginia is only one state, and while there is additional anecdotal evidence that Tuesday was an anti-Trump day, there is still a year until the midterms. Things could change – for better or for worse for the president and his party. But it is very possible that yesterday’s results gave us evidence that a midterm partisan wave is building. And that will have an impact on members of Congress, the president and the two parties starting today.