By James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The sexual-misconduct allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh may remove pressure that some Democratic senators faced to back his confirmation as a way of reassuring conservative voters in congressional elections just seven weeks away.
Since Kavanaugh was nominated to the high court by President Donald Trump, Democratic senators from states that Trump won in 2016 were locked in a dilemma. If they didn't vote in favour of Kavanaugh's confirmation, they would have appeared to be out of step with voters at home and risked losing re-election. Vote for him, and they would hand the president a bipartisan victory.
The allegation that Kavanaugh assaulted a woman while in high school, however, now gives those endangered Democrats an escape hatch. They can oppose the nominee without appearing to voters as if they are defying the president, strategists said. Kavanaugh has denied the assault allegation, calling it "completely false."
“For those Democrats up for re-election from states that Trump carried, they now have absolutely no reason to vote for Kavanaugh. Period. End of story,” said Jim Manley, a former high-ranking Democratic Senate aide. “They have all the cover they need.”
November’s congressional elections will determine whether Republicans retain a majority not only in the Senate but in the House of Representatives as well. Democrats are currently favoured to take the House, while becoming increasingly confident of adding the two Senate seats that would give them control of that chamber.
The most vulnerable Democratic senators such as Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have not indicated whether they would side with most of their party members in opposing Kavanaugh or join the Republicans in confirming him. All three backed Trump’s first Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch.
Republicans would like those votes just in case a few Republicans defect.
Prior to the Kavanaugh allegations, Republicans were expressing alarm that a number of Senate races were not going as well as they had expected. Donnelly and Manchin, in particular, have held solid leads over their opponents.
Republicans had hoped Trump’s second Supreme Court nomination would galvanize conservative voters while placing incumbent Democrats in a tough position of having to back Kavanaugh to reassure Trump's base.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said on Monday the committee would hold a public hearing with Kavanaugh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, in a week.
This would delay a planned vote in the Judiciary Committee on Thursday to move the nomination to a floor vote.
With their narrow Senate majority, Republicans could ram through Kavanaugh’s nomination without any Democratic support, but doing so might prove risky in a year that has seen a surge of women, motivated by their opposition to Trump, vote in primary and special elections.
“If [Republicans] overreach and try to demonize this woman, I think it’s got the potential to blow up in their faces politically and drive more Democrats to the polls than ever before,” Manley said.
Manley was a young Senate staffer in 1991 when Anita Hill’s sexual harassment accusations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas roiled Capitol Hill. Thomas was confirmed in a close vote, but repercussions were felt the following year when several women Democratic senators were elected and a Democrat, Bill Clinton, won the White House.
“Any Senate Democrat, hailing from a red or blue or purple state, is wise to think deeply about how the larger cultural shifts over the past year-plus should affect their political beliefs,” said Tracy Sefl, a Democratic consultant in Chicago. “For the Kavanaugh vote, there is a litany of valid concerns that are larger than a partisan issue.”
Senate Republicans seemed to recognise the danger of appearing insensitive, said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist.
Trump, too, offered some temperate remarks at the White House, stressing the importance of going “through a full process.”
Not everyone was as measured. One Republican Senate candidate, Corey Stewart, who is looking to unseat Senator Tim Kaine in Virginia, called the allegations a “Democratic smear tactic,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
O’Connell said a concerted stand against Kavanaugh could motivate Republican voters to go the polls.
Alex Conant, a former aide to Republican Senator Marco Rubio, said there remains risk to Donnelly and the other red-state senators if they oppose Kavanaugh on any grounds, given they at times have boasted of their ability to work with Trump.
“Red-state senators are not going to win re-election by running against Trump,” Conant said. “They’ll win if they are actually independent.”
(Reporting by James Oliphant; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)