One thing that drives me nuts is how conservative state Democrats consistently buy into the conventional wisdom that governing to the right and voting with Republicans is how to win an election. Now, I don’t question their predicament. I know that Manchin and Heitkamp and Donnelly and so many in the past face tough election battles. What I am saying is that I don’t think running or governing to the right actually helps them very much, if at all, and I’ve never seen any useful evidence to the contrary. I think the nadir of this sort of politics was Alison Grime’s pathetic 2014 run against Mitch McConnell, when she refused to say publicly whether she voted for Barack Obama. This was just stupid. She would have lost either way, but no one wants politicians afraid to even say who they voted for two years earlier. The most important factors over whether red state Democrats can win are structural–is the nation in a Democratic wave election or not? A secondary factor is the interpersonal reality of the race. Is the candidate actually good at their job? Do they actually live in their home state? Do they have a record of saying horrifically awful things, a la Todd Akin? What there isn’t any evidence for is that allying with Republicans on critical issues actually satisfies an electorate who wants a right-winger to represent them. Yet this strategy, like so many moldy Democratic strategies, never fails to die. Not everyone does it. I think Jon Tester is a great example of how you can be a senator from a right-wing state, do the right thing on most issues, and still be reelected. Tester is also very good at his job and is probably going to win a 3rd term. But at the heart–and I think Tester knows this–he’s been very lucky to have elections in 2006, 2012, and 2018.
If the past is prologue, what looks like the politically safest course now may turn out to be just the opposite later. Certainly, this was the lesson of 1991, when eleven Democrats defected from their side and voted to confirm George H. W. Bush’s Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Several Democrats evidently hoped to placate voters in their home states who were incensed at Anita Hill after the previously unknown law-school professor accused Thomas, her former boss at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, of sexually harassing her on the job. At the time, for centrist Democrats, casting a vote in favor of Thomas seemed the course of least political resistance.
But Klain, who was an aide on the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, recalls that, instead, the Thomas confirmation triggered an unexpected political backlash, particularly among women who felt that the men in the Senate had disrespected women’s rights. The following year, a wave of female candidates ran for office, much as they are running now. In fact, 1992 came to be known as “the year of the woman.” Unexpectedly, several of the Democratic senators who had voted to confirm Thomas, including Alan Dixon, of Illinois, and Wyche Fowler, of Georgia, found themselves defeated. Dixon, in fact, was knocked out in the Democratic primary by a black female candidate, Carol Moseley Braun. Others, such as Chuck Robb, of Virginia, were reëlected but never fully escaped the cloud that hung over their records. Even Joe Biden, the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who opposed Thomas’s confirmation, but whose treatment of Thomas was seen by critics as too deferential, continues to be dogged by it almost three decades later.
“The Senate had a revolution because of that vote,” Klain said. “All of these people wrongly believed that their constituents wouldn’t forgive a no vote. But it was exactly the opposite,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who suffered because they voted no on Clarence Thomas. But I know plenty who did because they voted yes.”
OK, the specifics of the Thomas confirmation hearings were perhaps unique. But in the face of a rising left, no Democrat is going to gain anything by voting for Kavanaugh. Republicans will still see them as evil Democrats, Democrats will see them as traitors. There is no meaningful middle in American politics at this time. But even so, there is evidence to suggest that all Democrats should oppose Kavanaugh, strictly from an electoral standpoint.
According to the poll, conducted by Hart Research Associates, Democratic senators may actually be better off politically, even in states that went overwhelmingly to Trump in 2016, if they cast votes against Kavanaugh. The polling data, which was gathered between June 30th and July 5th from about twelve hundred voters in those four states, are, of course, self-serving. But it makes the case that, if Democratic senators in conservative states frame their opposition to Kavanaugh clearly as a matter of conscience, based on one of three possible arguments, a majority of voters will likely accept and support the decision. The survey shows that fifty-four per cent of voters polled in these states said they would approve of a Democratic senator opposing Trump’s choice for the Supreme Court if it protected the independence of the Court as a check on Presidential power. The same slim majority of voters would support their Democratic senator opposing a Trump nominee if his or her opposition was based on the nominee having “a record of siding with corporations” and “consistently ruling against workers’ rights.” Additionally, fifty-two per cent of these voters said they would approve of their senator opposing any nominee who was “likely to overturn/eliminate protections” in the Affordable Care Act for those with “pre-existing conditions, people over age fifty,” and“women.”
According to the poll, two-thirds of the voters in these states, including a majority of Republicans, want the Supreme Court to uphold protections in the health-care act for people with preëxisting medical conditions. Democratic voters, of course, overwhelmingly take this position, and support their senators opposing a Supreme Court nominee on these grounds, but, interestingly, the poll suggests that sizable majorities of those categorized as “swing voters” and “independents” share the view.
In any case, if Heidi Heitkamp or Joe Donnelly lose, it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to be because they voted against confirming a Supreme Court justice who will overturn many of our fundamental freedoms.