They are getting outraised. They are struggling in suburbia. And their top guy is dividing America. But suddenly, five weeks from Election Day, Republicans are seeing tangible evidence of a spike in GOP enthusiasm that has eluded them all cycle.
“It’s got to be Kavanaugh,” said Republican pollster Robert Blizzard, coming to the same conclusion as GOP operatives nationwide: the Democrats’ efforts to block President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee are backfiring with Republicans who were previously apathetic about the midterms but are now angry—and engaged.
Conversations with pollsters, strategists and party officials reveal that Republican voters are circling the wagons around Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee who has been accused of sexual assault, allegations he strongly denies. And now, there are concrete signs that the drama over his confirmation, complete with emotional Senate hearings and an FBI supplemental investigation, is helping Republicans close an enthusiasm gap with Democrats, which has been one of the GOP’s biggest challenges of the last two years.
“It’s the difference between victory and defeat in a close race,” said veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who said he’s seeing a bump in Republican enthusiasm. “They’re pretty upset about how Kavanaugh has been treated.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee’s low-dollar donations over the past week are up 175 percent compared to the same time period the previous month, NRCC communications director Matt Gorman said. He added that the average donation total is up 111 percent, and that the committee has raised 194 percent more overall in the last week, again compared to the same timeframe the month before--all signs of grassroots enthusiasm.
“The Supreme Court fight has energized conservatives in an undeniable way,” Gorman said. “The Republican Party does three things: cut taxes, kill terrorists and confirm judges. When we do those things, we energize our base and are also appealing to independent voters.”
Indeed, the nomination fight over Kavanaugh appears to have jolted a wide range of Republican voters, including both women and men, Trump loyalists—who are now remembering that they voted for him in part because of the Supreme Court—and Republicans who don’t like the president.
Chris Wilson, a GOP pollster working on several Senate races this cycle, said he’s seen an uptick in support for Republican candidates running in Arizona, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas over the past week. And another GOP strategist said that in two polls since the confirmation hearings—one for a state Senate race, the other for a House race—they saw high single digit gains in support from Republican women, a key demographic that, in some cases, has been turned off by Trump.
“The Democrats’ attacks on Kavanaugh have really energized and united Republicans in a way we haven’t seen in the past two years… To see them attacking Brett Kavanaugh’s character feels like an attack on conservatism,” said GOP strategist Alex Conant. He added, “Any race where Republicans were losing because of an enthusiasm gap is now a competitive race.”
Of course, many of the fundamental challenges facing Republicans this cycle still exist. There is a recognition among party operatives that exciting GOP voters is not enough to change the course of a number of House races that were already drifting out of reach, especially at a time when Democrats are pulling in staggering fundraising hauls. Just as the Supreme Court fight is firing up conservatives, there’s also the risk that it alienates some independents.
And even if voters are engaged on the Supreme Court issue for the moment, there’s no guarantee that the subject will still resonate in the same way a month from now, especially if Kavanaugh is confirmed shortly and the issue fades from the spotlight—while no one doubts that Democrats are going to stay energized.
“If he gets confirmed Saturday, you know how fast everything moves in a week or two—is this going to matter? I don’t know what the long-term impact is going to be,” Blizzard said. “Certainly, in the short term, what’s happened recently, we now have seen a big improvement for Republicans in terms of enthusiasm. It’s really important because we have had lethargic, complacent Republicans for most of the cycle.”
Some public polling backs that up: A survey from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist released Wednesday showed that in July, Democrats had a 10 percentage point lead over Republicans on the question of whether the midterms are “very important.” Now, the lead is down to two percentage points.
“We’ve seen a real pick-up in Republican enthusiasm and interest,” Blizzard said. “It’s really been across the board: statewides, congressionals, all across the country. I do think there is a little bit of momentum here in terms of enthusiasm picking up for Republicans.”
Rob Stutzman, a GOP strategist based in California, agrees that Republicans appear increasingly unified, but cautioned that the politics of the Kavanaugh saga are “really complicated and nuanced.”
“I was beginning to think this was pretty well-baked, this election,” he said. “The Kavanaugh stuff, I think, turned a lot on its head... some Republican strategists think you’ve got to get him confirmed, some argue if he’s not confirmed, another appointment [will be] up that will energize the base.
“There’s no playbook,” he continued, “for this type of environment.”
Alex Roarty of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.