Senate Republicans are downright giddy about the aftermath of the hyperpartisan battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “It’s been a great political gift for us,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell boasted to the Washington Post on Saturday, hours before the upper chamber voted 50–48 to give Kavanaugh a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. “I hope the battle cry of Republicans for the next 30 days will be ‘Remember Kavanaugh,’ ” Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley declared at a GOP dinner in Iowa on Sunday. And Donald Trump predicted Monday, “I think you’re going to see a lot of things happen on November 6 that would not have happened before.”
Such optimism is well-founded—in regard to the Senate, anyway. Remember: The battle for the House is being waged largely in districts where Trump lost or underperformed two years ago, but the battle for the upper chamber is playing out, almost exclusively, in states Trump won, many in landslides. It’s no wonder, then, that Senate GOP leaders are overjoyed that Kavanaugh’s nomination has divided the nation along partisan lines so neatly.
Consider North Dakota, where Sen. Heidi Heitkamp is up for re-election in a state Trump won by a whopping 36 points in 2016 and where a Democratic loss this year would further trim the party’s already-slim chances of retaking the Senate. Like many of her fellow red-state colleagues, Heitkamp has spent much of the year playing up her independent streak and willingness to work with Trump. Following her vote against Kavanaugh, though, she’s been forced into a defensive crouch in a state where an overwhelming majority of voters wanted Kavanaugh confirmed even after learning of the sexual misconduct allegations against him.
“The smart political move would have been to vote for Kavanaugh,” Heitkamp conceded to the New York Times this weekend. Her brother, Joe Heitkamp, a former state lawmaker and current talk radio host, was even blunter: “I can sit here and lie to you about it and say it’s not a big deal, but it’s a big deal, it’s a really big deal.” So big, in fact, that the senator felt compelled to cut a campaign ad explaining her vote against Kavanaugh by highlighting her vote for Trump’s previous SCOTUS nominee, Neil Gorsuch.
We’re still waiting on post-confirmation polling, but Heitkamp was already heading in the wrong direction in limited surveys taken before the vote. A Fox News poll taken shortly after Christine Blasey Ford testified found Heitkamp’s opponent, Rep. Kevin Cramer, up 12 points among likely voters, an 8-point bump from a survey three weeks earlier taken by the same pollsters. At least one major poll mostly taken before Ford came forward found Cramer up 10 points, so as always we should be careful about declaring cause and effect. It’s possible Heitkamp has been down all year; it’s possible that after months of Cramer and Trump wielding this SCOTUS seat as a weapon against her, Heitkamp was already experiencing some drag from the confirmation debate. But even if her vote doesn’t hurt her further in a state full of Trump voters, it’s nearly inconceivable that it will help her. And right now, she needs some help.
North Dakota is just one race, but it’s one that will go a long way toward deciding who controls the Senate next year. Democrats need to pick up two Senate seats to take control of the upper chamber but currently have only four credible chances to gain one. The flip side of the equation is more daunting: Democrats are defending a total of 10 Senate seats in states Trump won, including four others besides North Dakota that are currently seen as toss-ups. Democrats, then, need to win seven of the nine biggest battlegrounds to win the Senate. Eight of those nine states voted for Trump two years ago, five of them by double-digit margins.
Heitkamp, then, won’t be the only red-state Democrat feeling the heat for her vote against Kavanaugh. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, where Trump won by 20 points; Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, where Trump won by 19 points; and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, where Trump won by 19 points, will also now spend the final weeks of their races defending their No votes. McCaskill and Donnelly have long been among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents, but Tester joined the Cook Political Report’s toss-up list just last week after he announced he’d vote against Kavanaugh, opening the door for his GOP challenger, state auditor Matt Rosendale, to go on the attack:
Democrats remain hopeful that anger over Kavanaugh’s confirmation will energize their base this fall, and it very well may. That could help in toss-up Senate races in purple states, like Florida or Nevada, and should help in blue ones like New Jersey. But that outrage is of little use in crucial dark-red states like North Dakota, Montana, Indiana, Missouri, or Tennessee. The Kavanaugh fight, then, doesn’t need to help Republicans in every race, or even most of them. It just needs to help in a few contests. There’s good reason to think it will.
One more thing
If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus