The House GOP got a boost from its base after the Kavanaugh hearings, but that hasn’t changed the broader trajectory of the midterm elections.
MATTHEWS, N.C. — The Republican Party base has been electrified by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings and a campaign blitz from President Donald Trump. But the burst of enthusiasm has not reversed the trajectory of the midterms for the House GOP, which remains on the verge of losing its majority next week.
Some Republicans deep in Trump country have regained ground. But the handful of bright spots have been outweighed by a tidal wave of Democratic spending and voter support in the closing weeks of the midterm election, according to public and private polling, interviews with strategists from both parties and a POLITICO analysis of TV spending figures. In recent days, House Republicans have rushed to fortify a surprise collection of GOP-held districts in a half-dozen states that were never expected to be competitive.
They indicate a Republican Party, swamped by cash-flush Democratic candidates and outside groups, still losing support among women and suburban voters ahead of the midterms and struggling to bring home voters that helped put the GOP in control of the House for most of the last quarter-century.
“Clearly the Kavanaugh confirmation was an inflection point to activate the Republican base, and even pull over some Democratic men,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant based in California. “But that’s an effect that benefits the Senate and leaves suburban members of Congress stranded. It’s unlikely we won back suburban Orange County voters.”
After the Kavanaugh hearings, public and private polling in Iowa, North Carolina and West Virginia did show Republicans regaining ground in a slate of districts deep in Trump country. Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) got $1 million in TV air cover from Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP-aligned super PAC, after initially being written off by national Republicans. Polls conducted by the New York Times and Siena College showed Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.) jumping out to a 10-point October lead after being tied with his Democratic opponent in September.
“The Kavanaugh hearings did set us back, but it depended on geography,” said Ben Tulchin, a Democratic pollster, noting that “the more upscale districts, where we’ve done well all cycle, it was to our benefit there, and in more downscale districts with rural pockets, it was a challenge.”
Meanwhile, a pair of crises just a week out from Election Day — the massacre of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue and the arrest of a suspect for mailing pipe bombs to a number of prominent Democratic politicians — have further unsettled the electorate just before the midterm vote.
“Everything suggests that we are a country that’s on edge, and I think that’s going to translate into participation,” said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster. “But the reality is that many voters in this country hold Donald Trump responsible for the divisive rhetoric these days.”
Some Republicans also acknowledged that their party’s “problems right now are with suburban women, and these developments in the last week affect them more than other demographic groups,” said Jason Roe, a Republican consultant. “It’s important for us to get them focused back on the key issues, the economy and immigration.”
The tumult of October has hit two North Carolina races, where the parties are tracking a pair of competitive races in the suburbs of Charlotte and Raleigh, both in districts Trump carried by double-digits in 2016.
It’s been a decade since Democrats have gained a congressional seat in North Carolina. But Trump came here to stump for Republican Mark Harris last week, underlining how far into GOP territory Democrats have threatened to push this year. The president sounded his favored notes to juice Republican enthusiasm in support of Harris.
“This will be the election of the Kavanaughs and the caravans,” Trump told a crowd of supporters in Charlotte on Friday, urging them to “not take a chance” and be sure to vote for Harris, who defeated GOP Rep. Robert Pittenger in a primary and is now facing Democrat Dan McCready, a Marine Corps veteran and businessman.
McCready acknowledged that the race is “dead even” in remarks he delivered to two-dozen campaign volunteers at his campaign office, where the walls are decorated with homemade signs declaring “Trust Dan’s Moral Compass” and “Send in a Marine.” And the National Republican Congressional Committee is airing its first TV ads in the district in the last week of the election, spending nearly $800,000 in a late bid to keep the district.
But the House seat McCready and Harris are battling over — a gerrymandered boomerang stretching from the Charlotte suburbs along the conservative rural border counties splitting North and South Carolina — arguably never should have been competitive in the first place. Democrats have not mounted a major challenge for the district before, and Trump remains popular there after carrying the district by 11 percentage points in the presidential election.
Yet McCready has vowed not to support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker and has run on his Marine and business background, and he has consistently outraised Harris, allowing the Democrat to saturate the district with TV ads sounding nonpartisan themes.
“I think people in North Carolina feel that those hearings were another example of how broken Washington is now,” McCready said in an interview. “For me, putting country over party, Democrats and Republicans working together, that’s the leadership we need right now.”
“I’m a little nervous because it feels like the momentum has shifted, and McCready feels like the underdog,” said Mike Stieglitz, an unaffiliated voter from southwest Charlotte who volunteered for McCready last week. “To me, it’s the fear that’s pushing everyone apart.”
Meanwhile, in Raleigh, GOP Rep. George Holding is defending another red-leaning district against Democrat Linda Coleman, a former state legislator who has previously waged two unsuccessful campaigns for statewide office.
“Six weeks ago, I was really worried,” Holding said in an interview after a get-out-the-vote house party in Apex last week. “I think what Kavanaugh did is give people a glimpse of the circus atmosphere … and they didn’t like the way it was all run.”
Holding, who said he’d committed to this house party weeks ago, did not join Trump when the president visited the state to boost Harris.
“It cuts both ways,” Holding said, adding that he would campaign with Trump if he came to Wake County. “It’s a district that does have some demographics that don’t trend well for the president, but then it’s also a district that does well in a booming economy.”
But a cheery economic picture may not be enough to hold the line among independent, suburban voters like Angie Blake, a 44-year-old nurse who met Holding’s opponent at festival in Holly Springs last weekend.
“I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard of [Linda Coleman] before,” Blake said. “But I voted for a straight Democratic ticket because this country’s gone too far off the rails.”