MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Republicans are wielding a new liberal bogeyman on the campaign trail to get out the vote and fend off Democrats in the midterm elections: Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democratic senator from California.
Eyeing 2018 gold in the partisan battle that has unfolded in Washington over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Republicans like Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., are adapting the well-worn GOP alarm about handing the keys to the Senate to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., with an additional warning about the perils of putting Feinstein in charge of the Judiciary Committee. Feinstein, the top Democrat on the panel, has played a crucial role in the Left's bid to sink President Trump's pick for the high court.
“What we have to do is make certain I win this,” Blackburn said to a packed luncheon of grassroots Republicans, who gathered at Owen Brennan’s, a popular eatery in suburban Memphis, to hear from Tennessee’s GOP Senate nominee. “If Phil Bredesen were to win, first thing he would do, he’d be supporting Schumer for majority leader and then he would support Dianne Feinstein to chair Judiciary Committee.”
Bredesen, a Democrat and popular former governor, has been a tough opponent for Blackburn to overcome in the race for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker. Trump won Tennessee by 26 percentage points, but Bredesen has enjoyed the support of Republicans, especially in the Memphis and Nashville suburbs, and can point to a record of centrism in the governor’s mansion.
Republicans here are feeling more confident about Blackburn’s prospects as the debate over Kavanaugh rages. Party insiders and grassroots activists here contend the effort by Senate Democrats to use uncorroborated allegations of sexual misconduct to block Kavanaugh from the Supreme Court is sparking a backlash of rank-and-file Republicans, among them Trump skeptics open to voting for Bredesen.
Recent polling suggests this phenomenon could be real. Blackburn has pulled ahead of Bredesen in the RealClearPolitics.com polling average, and she led the Democrat by 5 points in a fresh survey of likely voters from Fox News that was conducted Sept. 29 – Oct. 1. Blackburn has said she would vote to confirm Kavanaugh; Bredesen has yet to issue a position.
“They’ve watched the Senate Democrats in action over the past month, for the Kavanaugh hearings, and that has been hugely consequential,” said John Ryder, a Memphis attorney, former general counsel for the Republican National Committee and current chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association. “I have never seen this level of anger among conservatives.”
Stiff political headwinds fanned by dissatisfaction with Trump could knock Republicans from power in the House. The atmosphere throughout September was looking so bad for Republicans that even the party’s Senate majority appeared in trouble, despite a favorable map that features seats up for election in 10 states the president won in 2016 — plus a host of vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
But for the moment, Republicans concentrated on the Senate are breathing a sigh of relief. In interviews with GOP voters and volunteers around Memphis, they attributed renewed confidence about the outcome in Senate races, in Tennessee and other battlegrounds, to conversations over the past few days with friends and neighbors who usually vote Republican.
“Kavanaugh’s having a huge impact when we go door-knocking,” said Nikki Bufalino, a party volunteer who attended the Blackburn luncheon at Owen Brennan’s that was hosted by Tennessee Taskforce 45, a conservative grassroots organization formed to support Trump's 2020 re-election. “The comments people are saying — they’re like, ‘I’m just done with it. He shouldn’t be treated like that.’”
The process of confirming Kavanaugh in a vote of the full Senate was poised to begin on Friday with a key procedural vote. If successful, it would set up a final vote to install him on the Supreme Court. A simple majority of the chamber — 51 votes — is needed to confirm the nominee. Every senator in the 49-member Democratic caucus has announced opposition to Kavanaugh except for Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
The episode has captivated (and divided) the nation, with Americans watching in rapt attention as three women leveled uncorroborated allegations of sexual assault and Democrats called the judge’s character into question because of his penchant for partying in high school and college. The public hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where accuser Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh testified, was viewed by more than 20 million.
Whether the energy it has injected into Republican campaigns lasts is a critical question in assessing the potency of this issue for Blackburn and other GOP Senate candidates. In October of 2016, in the immediate aftermath of the "Access Hollywood" tape, polls showed Trump losing to Democrat Hillary Clinton by double digits. For the time being, however, Republicans like what they’re hearing.
“I am so concerned about what’s going on with Kavanaugh that I would not touch any Democratic candidate regardless of who they are in our state or anywhere else because of what they’ve done to besmirch this individual,” said a Memphis retiree, who described himself as a reluctant Trump voter but commented on condition that his name would not be published. “I was a little bit iffy [on Blackburn.] I now know I’m going to vote for her.”