Dems Seize on Losing Campaign Issue Ahead of 2020

Republicans cheer renewed focus on Kavanaugh

Brett Kavanaugh / Getty Images

In a bad year for Republicans, the GOP successfully used Brett Kavanaugh's contentious Supreme Court confirmation as a rallying call ahead of last year's midterm elections. But Democratic presidential candidates are running headlong into the issue ahead of the 2020 presidential election regardless.

Reporting from a pair of New York Times reporters on new—though hazy and unsubstantiated—sexual assault allegation has thrust Kavanaugh back in the news. Several leading Democratic candidates for president quickly seized on the report, now revised to note that the alleged victim of the assault doesn't recall the incident, to call for Kavanaugh's impeachment from the Court.

Senators Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) said Kavanaugh should be impeached based on the information. They were joined by Julián Castro, Beto O'Rourke, Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.), and Pete Buttigieg. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) did not directly call for impeachment but said he supports "any appropriate constitutional mechanism to hold him accountable." Former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) were the only major candidates not to voice support for impeachment, with both instead saying more investigation is needed.

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Republicans, including President Donald Trump's re-election campaign, cheered the reemergence of debate surrounding Kavanaugh's confirmation as an issue in the presidential election. Even before the Times report and a spate of new books about the confirmation fight put Kavanaugh back in the news, Trump's reelection campaign along with that of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was selling t-shirts touting Kavanaugh's confirmation. "President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just keep WINNING," a joint fundraising site said, calling the duo "back-to-back Supreme Court champs."

Midterm exit polls from CNN identified Kavanaugh as the GOP's "secret weapon" in battleground states across the country. A majority of voters polled in each of the four states where Democrats lost a senate seat said the Kavanaugh nomination impacted their vote, and in each state those voters broke towards Republicans.

Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign's director of communications, said Democrats were revisiting a "lost battle" by using the flawed Times report to call for Kavanaugh's impeachment.

"There is no lost battle that Democrats won’t revisit in order to satisfy the extremists in their party," Murtaugh told the Free Beacon. "The smear campaign against Justice Kavanaugh continues, with another bogus description of an incident that even the purported victim doesn’t remember."

The failed effort to derail Kavanaugh's confirmation was successfully used by Republican Senate candidates during their final push to flip Democrat-controlled seats. Democratic senators up for reelection who voted against Kavanaugh, such as Claire McCaskill in Missouri, were unseated a month later. McCaskill's Republican opponent Josh Hawley made her Kavanaugh vote his central issue down the stretch, and McCaskill acknowledges it worked.

One of the few Democratic senators who managed to hold on, West Virginia's Joe Manchin, was the only Senate Democrat who voted to confirm Kavanaugh.

Republican strategist Brad Todd, whose firm consulted several Republican senate candidates in 2018, said their polling found Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court to be the most successful campaign message of the cycle. Hawley, one of the successful candidates he advised, opened his campaign with an ad on the Supreme Court and continued to press McCaskill on the issue through November. "Our message to candidates was you can't possibly talk about the Supreme Court too much," he said. "There was no issue that energized voters more."

Todd also said he believes Republicans would have had a "good chance of holding onto the House" if members were forced to take a position on Supreme Court justices.

Chris Pack, a campaign operative who led communications for the Senate Leadership Fund last cycle, questioned the wisdom of reinvigorating the Kavanaugh fight after seeing last year's results.

"Republican voters are incredibly motivated by Supreme Court confirmations, and we saw that at the ballot box last November," Pack said. "It’s beyond asinine for Democrats and their liberal allies in the press to go back down this road, but to each their own."

The Saturday report from the New York Times, adapted from a new book on Kavanaugh by two of its reporters, quickly ignited the left's furor over the confirmation, but it was also quickly knocked down by the Federalist‘s Mollie Hemingway.

Hemingway, who had access to the yet-to-be-released book, found the Times omitted from its piece the fact that the alleged victim of Kavanaugh's sexual assault has no memory of it happening. A day after the piece was initially published, the paper fixed the omission and added a note from the editors.

"An earlier version of this article, which was adapted from a forthcoming book, did not include one element of the book's account regarding an assertion by a Yale classmate that friends of Brett Kavanaugh pushed his penis into the hand of a female student at a drunken dorm party," the editors wrote. "The book reports that the female student declined to be interviewed and friends say that she does not recall the incident."

Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, who helped with messaging during the push to confirm Neil Gorsuch, says the decision to go after Kavanaugh is even more questionable given the "very thin" nature of the new reporting on him.

"Going after a sitting Supreme Court Justice around a very thin story without rock-solid evidence isn’t a winning message," Bonjean said.

Bonjean predicts "the unintended effect is that it will likely reenergize Republican voters who felt that Kavanaugh was treated unfairly and paints the Democrats as simply overreaching with a desperate attack on the Highest Court in the Land."

"What is crystal clear is that Democrats still won't accept the legitimate results of the 2016 election—and everything that goes with it," added Murtaugh, "while President Trump remains hard at work keeping America great."