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Mitch McConnell Sees Electoral Gains From Fight Over Brett Kavanaugh

Interview with Roll Call came ahead of confirmation vote

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell makes his way through the Capitol for a TV interview before the vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court on Saturday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell makes his way through the Capitol for a TV interview before the vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court on Saturday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As Brett Kavanaugh was on the verge of confirmation Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was sounding sure the Supreme Court battle will prove a benefit to Senate Republicans at the polls in November.

In an interview with Roll Call a month ahead of Election Day, the Kentucky Republican said the debate was really driving up base enthusiasm for the 2018 mid-terms.

“I think there’s no question that the tactics have energized our base like we were unable to do before this,” McConnell said. “Not only the tactics of the Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, but then those who literally have our members under assault I mean — they’ve come to our homes, they’ve you know basically brushed up against members.”

McConnell said that especially in red states that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, the message about the importance of Senate control was showing signs of resonating.

“The tactics have been extremely helpful in unifying my team in support of justice-to-be Kavanaugh. In addition to that, it’s an election issue now,” McConnell said.

Base ‘on fire’

“The base is on fire. I was talking to several of my political advisers yesterday about what we’re seeing out in the red states is a dramatically rising interest,” McConnell said. 

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released  Wednesday indicated that the battle over Kavanaugh’s nomination had helped close the enthusiasm gap.

Eighty-two percent of Democrats surveyed said the election was “very important” compared to 80 percent of Republicans. In July, the survey showed that 68 percent of Republicans deemed the election very important, compared to 78 percent of Democrats.

“Nothing underscores the significance of the Senate like the confirmation fight. It reminds everybody the Senate’s in the personnel business,” McConnell said. “Without the Senate, the president doesn’t get judges confirmed. He doesn’t get cabinet members confirmed.”

As he often does, McConnell spoke again of his decision to not allow Senate consideration of President Barack Obama’s nomination of Kavanaugh’s colleague on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Merrick Garland, to the Supreme Court seat now held by the conservative Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch. 

With a Supreme Court seat on the line ahead of the 2016 election, the move helped unify conservatives around Trump. This year, the heated battle over Kavanaugh could also have electoral consequences, and McConnell hoped it wouldn’t just affect Senate races.

“I hope so,” McConnell said when asked if the House Republicans might end up needing to thank him after Election Day for helping their efforts to hold that chamber. “I think there’s no question that nothing unifies the Republicans like the Courts. You saw that in 2016.”

He also highlighted the 26 circuit judges confirmed under Trump so far, and said more would be on the way. Several federal appeals court judges are already awaiting Senate consideration, and McConnell could try to move them before senators depart for the election.

McConnell said he would be talking to Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York about the processing of nominations for the remainder of the October session.

“They’ve made things difficult, but I have discovered that occasionally I can get more cooperation, for example when I cancelled the August recess,” McConnell said of the Democrats.

Democrats, of course, have the bulk of the incumbents in competitive Senate races on the 2018 map that are closely contested.

Ten Senate Democrats are running in states Trump won in 2016, but operatives on both sides agreed that at least two of them — Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey — are further out of reach for Republicans. 

Sen. Joe Manchin III was the only Democratic senator in a state Trump won by double digits who decided to support Kavanaugh. The others, including Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester on Montana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, opposed the judge for various reasons.  

The Kentucky Republican name-checked those four Democratic incumbents as having, “voted frankly quite foolishly on this issue given their own electoral prospects.”

A spokesman for Heitkamp’s opponent, GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer, said Friday their campaign had seen its “largest surge of support to date” when Heitkamp announced her opposition, but declined to give details of that support.

Heitkamp also appeared to see a surge of donations. ActBlue reported that online donations for the Democratic senator spiked to 300 individual donations per minute after her announcement.

Later in the interview, McConnell spoke briefly about some of the other hot 2018 races, including three that feature Senate seats currently held by members of the Republican Conference, including Tennessee, where GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn is facing former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.

“Bredesen came out in favor of Kavanaugh, and I don’t think the judicial thing seems to be as issue in Nevada and Arizona as it does in the states that I mentioned,” McConnell said. “But all of those states are nip-and-tuck. They have been for months and they still are.”

Other Senate business

McConnell said he did not think the Kavanaugh fight wold have more far-reaching consequences for the ability of Senate Republicans and Democrats to work together, especially in the post-election lame duck session.

For instance, he thought a deal on the farm bill conference report would come together before the end of the calendar year.

“We were doing things  at the same time. We passed a major opioid bill. We passed an FAA bill. We passed appropriations at a quicker pace than any time since the 90s,” McConnell said. “I think the Senate was able to have a fight over the Supreme Court and still do quite a bit on a bipartisan basis at the very same time.”

“So no, I don’t think there’s any lasting impact on the Senate’s ability to get its work done,” he said.

On that point, at least, there might be agreement with at least some senior Democrats, like Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.

“I’m not in that camp. I think we have work to do before the end of the year. I hope we can finish quickly and get back home and get the election behind us,” the Illinois Democrat told reporters on Friday. “I think the most important thing we can do now is to some constructive, bipartisan things to work on, such as appropriation bills.”

Seven spending bills for fiscal 2019 will be waiting for lawmakers when they return to Capitol Hill in November, along with the farm bill and other needed reauthorizations.

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.Watch: Anti-Kavanaugh Protesters Stir Up Ruckus Outside McConnell’s Office

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