WASHINGTON - With the U.S. midterm elections less than four weeks away, experts and political insiders are increasingly predicting a result that rarely occurs in American election cycles: gains for one party in the House of Representatives, and for the other in the U.S. Senate. Experts discussing the upcoming election are cautious about predictions this time, following the lessons of the 2016 election. But if a split result happens, it will be the first one in decades.
Up until a few weeks ago, the main issues that seemed to dominate the election’s agenda were healthcare, the economy and government corruption. The Democrats, trying to hold on to Senate seats in states that supported Trump in 2016, and to “flip” Republican-controlled seats in the House of Representatives, attacked the Republicans for trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and for supporting, or at least ignoring, corruption and mismanagement in Trump’s Washington. The Republicans, meanwhile, in an attempt to expand their majority in the Senate and hold on to whatever seats they could in the House, mentioned the low unemployment rate and the booming stock market, warning that if Democrats returned to power, they would change the economy for the worse.
Another important factor, at least in states with large farming populations, was the ongoing “tariff wars” between the U.S. and countries such as China and Germany, which have taken a toll on American farmers. Democrats in rural states hoped to use the tariffs’ damages to recruit support among parts of their states where the Republicans are usually automatic favorites.
All of that changed, however, in late September, when the allegations of sexual misconduct against Justice Brett Kavanaugh conquered the headlines. The hearing, in which Christine Blasey Ford testified about an alleged sexual assault by Kavanaugh , and he responded by denying the allegation and claiming it was part of a political conspiracy against him, was a turning point in the campaign. For at least two weeks, the Kavanaugh drama – which ended in the closest confirmation vote in more than a century – pushed aside almost every other political issue.
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Last weekend, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell (R-KY) described the Kavanaugh affair as a “gift” for the Republican Party, saying that the ordeal has woken up Republican voters from their apathy, and ensured their participation in the upcoming election. Since midterm elections are usually characterized by a low voter turnout (even when compared to the already low rate in American presidential elections), both parties try to maximize the turnout of their own “base.” Republicans believe that up until the Kavanaugh drama, their base was unexcited about voting in November – but that the contentious hearing changed the picture in their favor.
“For Democrats running in ‘red states,’ the best scenario was to focus the election on local issues,” says Guian McKee, a political historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. “This is especially true for incumbent senators, who could try to run on achievements they have brought for the state, while attacking the administration on healthcare or taxes.”
The problem for these Democrats, he told Haaretz, is that “the election is now looking more and more like a ‘national’ election, especially after the Supreme Court hearing. In ‘national’ elections, voters usually vote automatically for ‘their party,’ even if they might like the other party’s candidate and agree with that candidate on some issues.”
The main beneficiaries of this development could be Republicans in the Senate, who are looking to expand their 51-49 majority, taking advantage of the fact that many of this year’s closest Senate races will take place in states that overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016. A few weeks ago, some Democrats still believed it was possible for their party to overturn the Republican majority in the upper chamber, noting how even a very conservative state like Alabama elected Doug Jones, a Democrat, to be its senator in last year’s special election. But that hope now looks out of reach. Most experts and analysts give the Republicans a very high probability of keeping or expanding their majority.
Up until Kavanaugh, it looked like Democrats were angrier than Republicans this time around, says Peter Baker, the New York Times’ chief White House correspondent. “The Republican leadership was very concerned about a lack of fighting spirit among their voters,” Baker said in a phone interview from Iowa, where he was covering one of Trump’s election rallies. “But their feeling has changed. They believe the Kavanaugh hearing changed the dynamic of the race. Many Republican voters saw it as an attack on Trump’s legitimacy, and the party leaders think this will help them get out their voters.”
The “Kavanaugh effect” is already influencing how both parties are campaigning in many Senate races. Democrats are trying to shift the discussion back to healthcare, an issue where Trump and the Republicans are out of step with the opinion of most voters. Republicans are trying to keep the Supreme Court issue on voters’ minds. An aide for one Democratic senator who isn’t running for reelection, but is helping other senators campaign, told Haaretz, “There’s an understanding that we need to move on and focus on issues that are important for the middle class.” She added that “the voters know that this administration is working for billionaires and not for the middle class. Our job is to make sure they don’t forget that until November.”
It’s not clear if the Democrats have enough time left to make this message effective. Recent polling has shown a clear shift towards the Republicans in a number of key Senate races.
At the same time, however, an opposite dynamic could happen in the dozens of competitive races in the battle for control of the House of Representatives. A number of recent polls have shown a clear advantage for the Democrats in that fight, including a Washington Post survey published on Sunday in which the Democrats had a double-digit edge on the “generic Congressional ballot.”
Baker says it is “definitely possible to see a scenario in which the Republicans will expand their Senate majority, while the Democrats will take control over the House.” The Democrats need to “flip” at least 23 seats into their column (and also stop the Republicans from taking over any Democratic-held seats). Baker notes that many of the most competitive House districts are in suburban areas, where the Kavanaugh hearing won’t necessarily have the same effect it has had on voters in rural states.
Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report, wrote last week that the Republican reliance on the “base” won’t necessarily advance the party’s chances in the House of Representatives the same way it could in the Senate. “Trump’s ‘all base all the time’ strategy worked in 2016 in large part because there wasn’t equal energy on the Democratic side,” she wrote on Twitter, adding that “independent voters were breaking evenly” between the two parties in the last election. This time, she said, the terrain looks different, with Democrats motivated to vote and independents – especially women – emerging as “anti-Trump.”
Baker said that the aftermath of the Kavanaugh drama, while causing trouble for Democrats in red states, could also complicate things for Republicans running in House districts that gave the majority of their votes to Clinton. One example he mentioned was that of Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican from a suburban Virginia district outside Washington, D.C., who is trying to win reelection in a district that supported Clinton over Trump by a 10-percent margin in 2016. Comstock’s opponent, State Senator Jennifer Wexton, is tying Comstock to Trump – including by running ads in which the Republican incumbent is called “Barbara Trumpstock.” Two recent polls have shown Wexton with a double-digit lead.
On the other hand, Baker noted, there are also Democrats trying to win in districts that narrowly favored Trump in 2016, and for them, the focus on Kavanaugh isn’t necessarily helpful. “They would prefer to campaign on healthcare, not on the Supreme Court nomination.”
McKee believes that both parties see the “nationalization” of the race as inevitable at this point. “As much as many candidates would prefer to discuss local issues, they can’t avoid talking about what’s happening in Washington,” he said. “Trump is such a big figure in this election, and the Supreme Court battle made that even more clear. What we don’t know yet is which party will use this better in the three weeks we have left until November 6.”