Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California may have won reelection, but she is arguably Tuesday’s biggest loser. Her handling of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings was an embarrassment to the ordinarily decorous Senate and ruined any chance her party had of retaking the upper chamber.
Democratic Senators Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri all voted against Kavanaugh and lost their races. Florida’s Bill Nelson also opposed Kavanaugh and is likely to lose his seat as well. Montana’s Jon Tester, another Kavanaugh foe, was able to eke out a win, but West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, the only “Red State Democrat” to vote for Kavanaugh, also won.
Even in Tennessee, where the GOP held onto the seat being vacated by Republican Senator and Trump critic Bob Corker, the Kavanaugh hearings may have tipped the balance. The race between popular former Democratic governor Phil Bredesen and Republican congresswoman Marsha Blackburn was neck and neck until the Kavanaugh hearings. And although Bredesen said he backed Kavanaugh, Tennessee voters understood that a Democratic Senate would mean gridlock on judicial appointments.
Democratic analysts and #MeToo activists who predicted that Kavanaugh’s confirmation would lead to a backlash against Senate Republicans were wrong. To the contrary, it mobilized an army of conservative voters, many of whom are not particularly thrilled about the Republican in the White House and were not originally enthusiastic about this off-year election. Polling data indicate that Feinstein’s 11th-hour attempt to sink the nomination by bringing forward a decades-old claim she had sat on for months woke a sleeping giant, nearly wiping out the 10-point enthusiasm advantage held by Democrats in July. The significance of this shift cannot be overstated. Feinstein’s mistreatment of Kavanaugh not only angered Trump’s base but brought legions of principled Never-Trumpers back into the Republican fold — at least for the time being.
Put simply, the Democrats overplayed their hand. And while they tried mightily to spin these midterms as a national referendum on Trump, moderate to conservative voters saw it as a referendum on fairness, due process, and the over-reach of the #MeToo movement.
To be sure, the Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives. But that was to be expected. In the past 100 years, only two presidents have held the House in their first term (Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 and George W. Bush in 2002). The interesting aspect of the contest for the House is not that the Democrats took control by a relatively slim margin, but that they did so by defeating moderate Republicans such as Barbara Comstock from Virginia. In defeating these members, Democrats have eliminated the very Republicans most likely to compromise on policy. And many of the new Democratic additions are radical spit-fires like democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, who will only increase the partisanship in the House. Meanwhile, the members likely to assume House leadership roles and committee chairmanships are the same polarizing figures who have held power in their caucus for decades: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters of California, and Jerrold Nadler of New York, to name a few.
Ironically, while the media will be loath to admit it, this is perhaps the best possible outcome for President Trump: With many of his GOP critics gone, Trump’s influence with Republicans in both chambers grows stronger. And with the increase in GOP senators, no longer must the White House bend over backwards to accommodate moderate Republicans like Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
At the same time, divided government may rein in many of Trump’s worst impulses and force him to moderate his rhetoric, while providing him with the perfect political foil. As comedian Dennis Miller put it last night, “Paul Ryan is ostensibly a friend who can only make Trump look bad. Pelosi is an enemy who can only make Trump look good.” Ultimately, and much to the Democrats’ chagrin, all of this will only increase Trump’s prospects for reelection in 2020.
Love him or hate him, it’s hard to deny that even when Trump loses, he wins.
Jennifer C. Braceras is a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum.