WASHINGTON – Brett Kavanaugh’s ascension to the Supreme Court over the weekend, far from settling the fierce debate over his confirmation, has inflamed the nation’s political and cultural fissures for the midterm elections next month and well beyond.
The repercussions from the most brutal battle over the high court’s makeup in a generation could end up affecting all three branches of government: which party wins control of Congress on Nov. 6, what issues define the White House contest in 2020 and whether Americans have faith in the Supreme Court – not to mention the decisions that will follow from the court’s new conservative majority.
As senators voted on the confirmation of President Donald Trump’s controversial nominee, protesters in the gallery shouted “Shame!” Kavanaugh’s lifetime appointment was approved by a narrow 50-48 vote. He was promptly sworn in at a private ceremony at the Supreme Court, and he is expected to be sitting on the bench for oral arguments Tuesday.
Republicans are triumphant and Democrats enraged.
“The anger is real,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned on ABC’s “This Week.”
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Kavanaugh’s combative and emotional response to allegations of sexual assault, and the argument that he was the victim of character assassination, had succeeded in galvanizing GOP voters in red states. The Kentucky Republican argued that backlash to Democratic tactics and protests had increased the prospects that Republicans will hold control of the Senate.
“Our energy and enthusiasm was lagging behind theirs, until this,” he said with a smile on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
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One Democratic senator running for re-election in a state that Trump carried in 2016, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, became the only person in his party to vote in favor of Kavanaugh’s nomination. Another Democratic incumbent running in a red state, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, acknowledged that her vote to oppose Kavanaugh had bolstered the odds that Republican challenger Rep. Kevin Cramer would defeat her on Election Day.
“The politically expedient vote here was a ‘yes’ vote,” Heitkamp said on CBS’ “60 Minutes.“
Political strategists calculate that Kavanaugh’s confirmation could boost Democrats’ efforts to gain control of the House, however, by rallying voters who believe the president and Senate Republicans refused to treat seriously women’s accusations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh.
California professor Christine Blasey Ford alleged Kavanaugh tried to rape her at a house party when both were high school students in Maryland. Polls have shown particularly strong support for Ford among better-educated female voters, an important electoral force in suburban districts that are seen as in play this year.
Democrats need to flip 23 Republican-held seats to win a majority.
“Our country needs to have a reckoning on these issues, and there is only one remedy,” Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer of New York said on the Senate floor just before the roll call on Kavanaugh, a vote he knew his side would lose. “Change must come from where change in America always begins: the ballot box. So to Americans, to so many millions who are outraged by what happened here, there’s one answer: Vote.”
Trump also used the moment to rally voters to turn out in November.
“You don’t hand matches to an arsonist, and you don’t give power to an angry left-wing mob,” he tweeted. “Democrats have become too EXTREME and TOO DANGEROUS to govern. Republicans believe in the rule of law – not the rule of the mob. VOTE REPUBLICAN!”
The outcome of the nomination has reinforced Trump’s unchallenged standing as the leader of the Republican Party. He already has begun running for re-election in 2020. At a rally in Kansas Saturday night, he mocked his prospective Democratic challengers, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former vice president Joe Biden and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
Democratic presidential hopefuls have declared their opposition to Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
“I see the pain and the hurt,” Booker said a few hours after the Senate vote. He was speaking at a major Democratic fundraiser in Iowa, site of the opening presidential caucuses. “This is a time in our country when we need to stay faithful.”
There are four weeks to go before the midterms, time enough for some additional disclosure or new catastrophe. That said, the consequences of Kavanaugh’s confirmation seem guaranteed to deepen the demographic divisions between the two major parties that have fueled an increasingly fierce partisanship in American politics – divisions by gender, by generation, by geography.
Officials on both sides suggested there could be continuing legal and political fallout over Kavanaugh.
If Democrats win the House, the Judiciary Committee will open an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct and perjury against the justice, according to New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who is in line to be the committee’s chairman. He dodged questions about whether that might mean impeachment proceedings.
And Trump, himself accused of sexual misconduct by several women, said the women who stepped forward should face unspecified penalties for making what he derided as “fabricated” allegations. “I think that they should be held liable,” he said in an interview late Saturday on Fox News. “You can’t go around and whether it’s making up stories about such an important position, you can’t do that. You can destroy somebody’s life.”
Meanwhile, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan expressed concern about whether Americans would continue to have faith in the high court as independent and fair-minded.
“Part of the court’s legitimacy depends on people not seeing the court in the way that people see the rest of the governing structures of this country now,” she said at a Princeton University conference. “In other words, people thinking of the court as not politically divided in the same way, as not an extension of politics, but instead somehow above the fray.”
At the moment, that seems optimistic.
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