As Republicans and Democrats reckoned Monday with new sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, both parties began to process how the rapidly shifting politics of the nomination fight might upend the midterm elections less than two months away.
Republicans, already fearing their standing with suburban women, are confronting a potential disaster as they head into the first post-#MeToo election with a Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual assault. Democrats, particularly those running in states President Donald Trump won in 2016, risk inflaming the Republican base, which could view the allegations as an unfair Democratic effort to halt Kavanaugh's nomination.
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In the immediate aftermath of California professor Christine Blasey Ford publicly alleging that Kavanaugh had physically and sexually assaulted her at a party when he was 17 years old -- which Kavanaugh has denied -- Democrats and Republicans agreed the political impact of the still-developing story is not yet fully clear.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee planned hearings next Monday in which Ford and Kavanaugh would testify under oath. Those hearings come as early voting will begin in four states Friday. Other states will quickly follow, with voters in key states like California and New Jersey, both with several competitive House races, and Montana, Indiana, Arizona and Ohio, each with close Senate contests, among the first to begin casting ballots over the following three weeks.
For Republicans, alienating women could hurt the party's Senate candidates and carry a heavy cost in other contests, particularly House races in moderate, suburban districts that could determine which party controls the chamber.
It's "a little more gasoline to the flames" driving women who were "already riled up" to vote against congressional Republicans, said Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY's List, a progressive group that backs female candidates who support abortion rights.
"But it is on fire out there, and women voters in particular are ready to see big, big change," Schriock said.
Clinging to a two-seat Senate majority, Republicans had for months pointed to Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination as their best tool to energize conservative voters who might otherwise sit out the midterms.
"At this very moment the issue is moving so fast that accurate predictions are difficult to make," said Steven Law, the president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "I think it's likely this will inflame partisan energy on both sides -- and that could make the confirmation vote a lose-lose proposition either way for red-state Democrat senators."
Democratic senators up for re-election in red states were cautious Monday, refusing to signal whether they'll vote yes or no on Kavanaugh's nomination. The three Democrats who voted for Neil Gorsuch's Supreme Court confirmation -- Sens Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia -- each said they want Ford to have an opportunity to discuss the matter in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"Professor Christine Blasey Ford deserves to be heard and Judge Kavanaugh deserves a chance to clear his name," Manchin said on Twitter, echoing several other red-state Democrats. "Both have said they are willing to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee and I hope they will be given the opportunity to do that as quickly as possible."
Republicans in competitive races were also cautious Monday, backing Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley's plans for additional hearings without addressing whether they support Kavanaugh.
"This is a very serious allegation. Sen. Grassley said he's reaching out to both parties for more information, and Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford have said they are willing to provide testimony on this matter. That is a sensible way forward," said Rep. Martha McSally of Arizona, the Republican nominee in the state's US Senate race.
Right-wing groups were scrambling Monday afternoon to rescue the man they expected to deliver a long-term 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. The Judicial Crisis Network launched a $1.5 million TV ad campaign featuring a close friend of Kavanaugh's.
"We are not going to allow a last-minute smear campaign (to) destroy a good and decent man who has an unblemished personal record," a spokesman for the conservative group said.
Democrats launched advertising campaigns of their own that would heap pressure on Republicans seen as swing votes. Demand Justice, a progressive group leading the anti-Kavanaugh fight, announced a $700,000 ad buy targeting four Republicans: Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Dean Heller of Nevada and Cory Gardner of Colorado.
NARAL Pro-Choice America, a progressive group that opposes Kavanaugh, launched online advertisements Monday targeting Collins and Heller. The ads highlight Ford's accusation and urge Heller and Collins to vote against Kavanaugh's confirmation.
Heller is the most vulnerable Republican senator up for re-election this year, in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Collins and Gardner are likely to be Democratic targets in 2020.
Publicly, beyond the Judicial Crisis Network ad, Republican groups were largely silent about their strategies around Kavanaugh's nomination Monday. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
Democratic operatives, meanwhile, said they believe new concern about a Trump nominee underscores one of their core arguments in this year's midterms.
"This will intensify voters' already-existing feelings that there should be a check and balance on total Republican control of government, and that dynamic boosts Democrats," said one Democratic strategist working on Senate races.
Another result of the accusation facing Kavanaugh, the Democratic strategist said, is that it keeps the national focus on Republicans -- Murkowski and Collins, seen as swing votes -- rather than red-state Democrats who had been facing political pressure.
One reason operatives said the political impact of the accusation facing Kavanaugh is difficult to forecast is that much could change in the two months before the midterms.
Among the difficult scenarios to game out: If Kavanaugh is defeated or his nomination is withdrawn, it would launch a battle over a different nominee even closer to Election Day.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, downplayed the idea that killing Kavanaugh's nomination would come with political ramifications in November.
"Kavanaugh, according to surveys I've seen, isn't hugely popular around the country, and my sense is that if he doesn't get the nomination as a result of these revelations, then I don't see that having a major impact," Van Hollen told reporters Monday. "If he were to have to drop out because of recent revelations, I don't see how that would mobilize voters."
Some Republican allies of Trump's White House questioned the credibility of Ford's allegations. But doing so comes with political risks, too.
Donald Trump Jr. posted an Instagram photo depicting the letter Ford sent Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, in July accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault as an elementary-school style love note and referring to Ford's allegations as "Dems and their usual nonsense games."
Pointing to Trump Jr.'s post, Amanda Carpenter, a former aide to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and CNN political commentator, tweeted: "Keep up these attacks and Trump won't only lose Kavanaugh as the nominee but the seat altogether when Dems make comments like this a campaign issue."