Saturday 25 May 2019

Comment: Bitter battle over assault accusation delivers jolt to election countdown

Anger: The claims by Christine Blasey Ford divided the US and sparked protests in her support. Photo: REUTERS
Anger: The claims by Christine Blasey Ford divided the US and sparked protests in her support. Photo: REUTERS

Julie Pace

The bitter battle over Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the US Supreme Court has exacerbated that nation's political divide and left many Americans feeling emotionally raw. It has also given new definition to the high stakes of November's election.

Until now, the fight for control of Congress has largely been viewed as a referendum on President Donald Trump's first two years in office.

But the turmoil around Kavanaugh has transformed the mid-term elections into something bigger than Trump, with implications that could endure long after his presidency.

The election is suddenly layered with charged cultural questions about the scarcity of women in political power, the handling of sexual-assault allegations and shifting power dynamics that have left some white men uneasy about their place in American life.

Both parties contend that the new contours of the race will energise their supporters in the election's final stretch.

Both may be right.

Republicans, however, may benefit most in the short term. Until now, party leaders, Trump included, have struggled to rev up GOP voters, even with a strong economy to campaign on.

The president's middling job-approval rating and independent voters' disdain for his constant personal attacks have been a drag on Republican candidates.

But Republican operatives say internal polling now shows that Kavanaugh's acrimonious confirmation has given the party a much-needed boost, with its voters viewing Democrats as over-zealous partisans following the public testimony by Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford - who accused the judge of trying to rape her while they were both in school.

The Democrats' "strategy to capitalise on the 'Me Too' movement for the political purposes backfired on them," Republican strategist Alice Stewart said.

"The fact that they were willing to use Dr Ford's story - that was uncorroborated - to launch character assassinations on Judge Kavanaugh did not sit well with voters. A lot of people looked at this as a bridge too far."

The surge in GOP enthusiasm could recalibrate a political landscape that was tilting toward Democrats this summer. Although Democrats still maintain an advantage in competitive House races, the past two weeks appear to have shifted momentum in the fight for the Senate majority back to the Republicans.

GOP operatives say they are seeing renewed Republican interest in states such as Wisconsin, where Democratic candidates have been polling strong.

"It's turned our base on fire," said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moments after Kavanaugh had been confirmed.

With just over four weeks until election day, there is still time for the dynamics to shift again - and the political headwinds from the Kavanaugh confirmation are unlikely to blow in just one direction.

To Democrats, Kavanaugh's ascent to the Supreme Court - in spite of decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct - will only deepen the party's pull with female voters, including independents and moderates who may have previously voted for Republicans.

Democrats point to the flood of women who have spoken out about their own assaults following Dr Ford's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Kavanaugh's confirmation will leave a lot of outraged and energised women in its wake," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster.

Democrats argue that some of the same tactics that helped energise Republican voters also motivate their base, particularly Donald Trump's attacks on Dr Ford.

Trump remains the campaign's biggest wild card. White House advisers are encouraging him to keep Kavanaugh in the spotlight in the campaign's final weeks.

Irish Independent

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