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Analysis: Democrats pay a heavy price for failed Kavanaugh smear

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh (left) shakes hands with retired Justice Anthony Kennedy after Kavanaugh's ceremonial swearing in with his wife Ashley, daughters Liza and Margaret, and President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House on Oct. 8 in Washington, D.C. Kavanaugh was confirmed in the Senate 50-48 after a contentious process. All red state Democrats who voted against Kavanaugh also lost their elections in 2018. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

If you want to know what constitutes a "red" state (as opposed to a "purple" or "swing" state), just look at a map of the states that Mitt Romney won in 2012. There you will see all the states that the Republican Party carried in spite of losing the popular vote by about 4 percent. That's a pretty good way to determine which states are at least relatively safe for the GOP.

We are still waiting on a number of results from several races, but one inescapable conclusion is already painfully obvious from last night: If you are a United States senator from one of those states, and you voted against Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court, you got punished for that vote with the loss of your Senate seat.

While some Democrats may attempt to claim that other factors were at play in the GOP's surprise victories over incumbents in Florida, Missouri, Montana, Indiana, and North Dakota, there's no escaping the facts: Democrats who actually cast a vote against Kavanaugh drastically underperformed compared to Democrats in the rest of the country.

Overall, the Democrats had a pretty good night last night. They appear well on their way to winning somewhere in the range of 30-40 House seats. That many House seats have changed hands in three major "wave" elections in the last 30 years: 1994, 2006, and 2010.

Guess how many incumbent senators in the party that benefitted from such a House "wave" lost in those three elections? Zero. Combined.

That's right, zero incumbent Republican senators lost in 1994 and 2010, and zero incumbent Democrat senators lost in 2006. This is true even though a number of Republicans defended deep blue seats in 1994 and 2010, and a number of Democrats defended deep red seats in 2006. House waves usually carry senators right along. But not this time.

This time, an astonishing five Democratic Senate incumbents appear headed for losses (in some cases, comfortable losses) on a night in which their party picked up a huge batch of House seats. This is unprecedented in modern history, and demands an explanation.

It is simply not a sufficient excuse to say that the five Democrats who lost were defending "red" seats. Remember that all these senators (except Bill Nelson of Florida) who lost in 2018 won in 2012 despite representing states that ultimately voted against Obama. In 2012, the national environment favored the Democrats by about 4 percent — the dust still hasn't settled from last night, but it looks like the national political environment overall favored Democrats by 6-8 percent. And yet, in a much more favorable environment, these Democrats lost — in some cases, by surprisingly comfortable margins.

Additionally, a number of Senate elections occurred in red states last night where there was not a Democrat on the ballot who had voted against Kavanaugh. Those races happened in Texas, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Arizona. In each of those cases, the Democrat outperformed expectations (rather than underperformed them).

In Texas, Ted Cruz (R) looks like he will hang on to this seat and win — but by the skin of his teeth. As of the time of writing this article, Cruz leads by about 2 percent with almost all the votes counted. In 2012, Cruz won this seat by 16 points.

In Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn defeated Democrat Phil Bredesen by about 10 points — which sounds relatively comfortable until you realize that Bob Corker won this same seat in 2012 by 34 percentage points.

And in Arizona, Martha McSally may yet win, but if she does, she will likely do so by less than the margin that Jeff Flake won in 2012 (about 4 percent).

The common denominator in these surprisingly tough red state Senate races: The Republican did not get to run against a Democrat who cast a vote against Kavanaugh.

And in West Virginia, Joe Manchin became the only red state Democrat senator to walk out of the 2018 midterms with his political life intact; not coincidentally, he was also the only Democrat who voted for Kavanaugh.

The conclusion is unavoidable. Democrats did really well last night. Even in red states, they scored a number of stunning victories, especially on the House side. In red state races where they did not run an incumbent who voted against Kavanaugh, they came surprisingly close to defeating overwhelming odds.

But Democrats who participated in the smearing of Kavanaugh — which ultimately failed to even keep him from the Supreme Court — clearly paid a heavy price. Claire McCaskill cakewalked to victory in Missouri by 15 percent in 2012, but last night, she went down to a surprisingly easy defeat at the hands of Josh Hawley. Ditto Joe Donnelly, who won by 6 percent in Indiana in 2012 and appears headed for a double-digit loss in 2018. Bill Nelson won by 13 percent in Florida in 2012, and also appears headed for the exits. Jon Tester won by only 4 percent in Montana in 2012, but against a weaker opponent, he appears headed for a narrow loss in 2018. Heidi Heitkamp's election in North Dakota in 2012 was close, but it was a win. Last night, it was not close, as she suffered a double-digit loss.

On a night where Democrats across the board performed better than they did in 2012, five Democrats performed much, much worse than they did in 2012, and they all have exactly one thing in common: having voted against Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court.

When Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, Democrats promised that they were willing to pay any price to stop him. It appears that the price they paid was about five United States Senate seats, plus a significant measure of credibility and integrity. In the short term, this means that their gambit likely cost them control of the Senate for the next two years, and an actual chance to stop President Trump's next Supreme Court pick. In the long term, it also means that they will have a much harder time regaining control of the Senate in 2020 and 2022.

And the most bitter pill of all is that they didn't even succeed.

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