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Republicans needed a midterms miracle. Could Brett Kavanaugh be it?

The confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh's nomination hasn't gone the way any Republican would h...

Posted: Oct 5, 2018 7:46 AM
Updated: Oct 5, 2018 7:46 AM

The confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh's nomination hasn't gone the way any Republican would have hoped when President Donald Trump picked him for the Supreme Court on July 9.

What looked like a sure-thing confirmation -- and one that would move the court in a decidedly more conservative direction for years to come -- has been badly sidetracked by allegations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh.

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And yet, it appears as though the incredibly public and nasty fight over what Kavanaugh did or didn't do has had a somewhat unexpected result: Republican base voters are suddenly telling pollsters that they are considerably more enthusiastic about voting in 33 days' time.

In a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, Republicans had closed a 10-point enthusiasm deficit with Democrats in July, which is down to just 2 points now. In July, 78% of Democrats and 68% of Republicans said the November elections were "very important." Now, 80% of Democrats say the same while 78% of Republicans do too.

That same poll shows that the Democratic edge on the generic ballot question -- if the election were held today would you vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate in your district -- has been cut in half (from 12 points to 6) between mid-September and now. Now, this poll was conducted entirely in one night, so it may not be completely representative of public opinion.

But it's not the only one showing a surge of GOP excitement. A new Quinnipiac poll released earlier this week showed that a 14-point lead Democrats had in the generic ballot in mid-September is now down to 7 points.

"The numbers suggest the big blue wave may have lost some of its momentum as House races tighten," concluded assistant director of the Q poll Tim Malloy.

It's not just public polling either. Glen Bolger, one of the very best Republican pollsters, tweeted this last week:

"Seeing a significant jump in GOP voter interest in the elections this week. The Dem intensity advantage is melting away. Two things:

1. I figure it has to be Kavanaugh effect.

2. Remains to be seen if it lasts.

GOP campaigns should not assume their turnout concerns are done"

President Donald Trump has latched onto these signs of a Republican comeback.

On Wednesday night, he tweeted: "Wow, such enthusiasm and energy for Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Look at the Energy, look at the Polls. Something very big is happening. He is a fine man and great intellect. The country is with him all the way!"

Then, on Thursday morning, he came back with this: "The harsh and unfair treatment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh is having an incredible upward impact on voters. The PEOPLE get it far better than the politicians. Most importantly, this great life cannot be ruined by mean & despicable Democrats and totally uncorroborated allegations!"

That is, as usual with Trump, a considerable oversimplification of the available data. What we are seeing is not his much-predicted "red wave." Instead we are seeing, at least for the moment, a narrowing of Democratic advantage based, presumably, on how the battle lines have been drawn over Kavanaugh.

The focus by Democrats -- and the media -- on uncorroborated allegations made about Kavanaugh's behavior in high school and college have convinced many Republicans this is nothing more than an attempt to smear a good man for partisan gain. Democrats don't like that Trump won the election and are now working to block his right to pick people to fill Supreme Court vacancies. That's all this is!

That makes the Republican base mad. And mad is a good thing in politics, because mad voters tend to vote. Democratic voters have been mad to the point of outrage since the day Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Matching that passion -- or, more accurately, struggling to match that passion, has been the Republicans' struggle since the start of 2017.

The fight over Kavanaugh appears to have done the trick. But there's a few important caveats to consider:

1) Kavanaugh now looks like he will be confirmed. If he is, does that effectively dissipate GOP base anger about the way the confirmation fight played out?

2) The GOP enthusiasm bounce has reduced the clear edge Democrats had going into the fall election. It hasn't reduced it entirely. Generic ballot leads of 6 or 7 points are still the sort of thing that could deliver Democrats the House majority in the next Congress.

3) The weight of history suggests Republicans are in for a tough election. In only three elections -- 1934, 1998 and 2002 -- since the Civil War has the president's party not lost House seats in a midterm election. Those losses average more than 30 seats when the president is under 50% job approval -- as Trump is in both the NPR and Q polls.

Make no mistake: The GOP base's reinvigoration by the Kavanaugh confirmation fight is a pleasant -- and much-needed -- surprise for Republicans who had become grimly accepting of their near-certain fate at the ballot box in 33 days' time. But it is not a cure-all. Republican candidates in too many districts are in too much trouble for that.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to make clear that the NPR/PBS poll is a one-night poll.

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