Keeping Kavanaugh front and center helped Trump keep the Senate

For weeks before Tuesday’s election, President Donald Trump repeated the same theme over and over: Democrats orchestrated a campaign of lies against Justice Brett Kavanaugh that thrust him in the middle of a national humiliation and nearly cost him a seat on the Supreme Court.

“It was false accusations. It was a scam. It was fake. It was all fake,” Trump told thousands of supporters at his final rally late Monday in Missouri. “They want to ruin a man .... And it was headed up all by the Democrats, all by the Democrats.”

Trump’s strategy — to keep the battle over Kavanaugh’s nomination fight at the top of voters’ minds — persuaded some to turn out for Republicans just as he and his advisers had hoped.

Republicans maintained control of the Senate, with Democrats who voted against Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court were defeated in North Dakota, Indiana, Missouri and likely Florida. The only Democrat who voted for Kavanaugh, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, won re-election.

Ron Breidenthal, 73, an Uber driver from Lenexa, Kansas, said the Kavanaugh fight motivated him to vote for a straight Republican ticket in early voting — the first time he’s voted in a midterm election.

“He was horribly treated,” Breidenthal said. “Here they were just trying to destroy this poor guy. There’s no doubt in my mind that he did not do it.”

Several women, including Christine Blasey Ford, accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault during his high school and college years. He angrily denied the accusations in a riveting televised congressional hearing.

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An outside Trump adviser who is close with the White House credited the Kavanaugh fight with starting a “fire” among conservatives — a momentum that the president worked to hold first with the Supreme Court fight and later with a Central America caravan moving toward the United States. “It told them not to be complacent,” the adviser said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the president publicly.

But that momentum was blunted in recent days by the pipe bombs mailed to prominent Democrats and the mass shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue, both of which took attention away from Kavanaugh and turned off some voters who disagreed with Trump’s decision to blame others for a lack of civility that contributed to the attacks. His approval rating dipped to 39 percent in recent polls.

“We did have two maniacs stop a momentum that was incredible, because for seven days nobody talked about the elections,” Trump lamented at a Missouri rally Friday. “It stopped a tremendous momentum.”

A second outside Trump adviser said Republicans were confident they would have won more seats if the election was held two weeks ago when Americans were more focused on Kavanaugh. “Republicans had the momentum,” the person said, also on condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to speak publicly for the president.

Republicans, conservatives and moderates alike, voted for Trump in part because they knew a president of their own party — even one as unpredictable as this one — would have the chance to shift the Supreme Court to the right for decades to come.

In his first two years in office, Trump also nominated more federal judges than any recent president as he continues to look to install conservatives on courts across the U.S.

But even as Republicans likely increased their slim majority in the Senate in part due to the Kavanaugh fight, the GOP suffered losses in the House. The confirmation vote helped cost Republicans seats in suburban swing districts that were already in danger, including Kevin Yoder’s in Kansas, Barbara Comstock’s in Virginia and Dan Donovan’s in New York.

Nick Hauser, 32, a Miami physician who is registered with no party affiliation, said the Kavanaugh hearings helped him decide to vote — for Democrats. “It made me more likely to vote than to stay home and not get involved and have my say,” he said.

Trump advisers say the president was not concerned about losing suburban women — some of whom they had already lost — and instead focused almost exclusively on his conservative base who would not have been satisfied if Kavanaugh was not confirmed because it would look like they were outmaneuvered by Democrats.

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Trump headlined a flurry of Make America Great Again rallies in the last week in states that backed him in 2016, including North Dakota, Missouri and Arizona, trying to boost Republican candidates with riffs about Kavanaugh.

Trump also seized on a caravan of migrants traveling north through Central America to blast Democrats on illegal immigration, the defining issue of his 2016 campaign. But at interviews at GOP campaign events in various states in October, Republicans spoke more passionately about the lingering impact of the Kavanaugh accusations. Large boisterous crowds at Trump rallies often erupted into chants of “KA-VA-NAUGH!” even before Trump mentioned him by name.

“I think because of what happened...with Judge Kavanaugh, people are starting to wake up to the idea that the Democratic Party is not the party of being open or honest or fighting fair,” said Paula Christo, a member of the San Antonio Republican Women’s Club as she knocked on doors in San Antonio in October.

In the last two weeks before the election, Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, helped keep Kavanaugh in the news by referring two of Kavanaugh’s accusers — not Ford — to the Department of Justice for possibly making false statements during the confirmation process.

The first Trump adviser said the caravan did motivate some conservatives — in states on the border or states that have a high number of immigrants — but that more Republicans were galvanized by Kavanaugh because it showed that anyone could be “smeared by the political left.”

But the back-to-back incidents of the bombs and the shooting replaced Republican talking points and “highlighted the divisiveness that some people blame the president for,” the second adviser said.

“What he has to probably do is become more inclusive,” said David Gonzalez, 70, a retiree who backed Trump in 2016 but voted for all for all Democrats Tuesday in Wake County, N.C. “Maybe this midterm will shake him up a bit and he’ll realize, you know what, I can’t be saying the things I’m saying or doing the things I’m doing.”

Lindsay Wise and Bryan Lowry in Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri; Brian Murphy in Raleigh, Lesley Clark and Alex Daugherty in Miami and Andrea Drusch in San Antonio contributed to this report.

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01