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A House divided

Even as a contentious Supreme Court nomination deepens political rifts, Democrats seek to grab Republican House seats by playing to the center

A House divided

(Krieg Barrie)

Less than four months before November’s midterm elections, a Reuters poll reported voters ranked immigration, healthcare, and the economy as their top concerns heading into the fall campaign season.

By early October, another issue had skyrocketed to the top: Supreme Court nominees. The Pew Research Center reported 76 percent of registered voters said the issue of Supreme Court nominees was “very important” to them in choosing candidates this fall.

That’s highly unusual for a midterm election, according to Pew, and it’s a higher level of concern over the Supreme Court than voters expressed in June 2016 during the presidential campaign.

It’s been a highly unusual season.

The excruciating hearing with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford—the California professor who accused the judge of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school—unleashed a tide of rancor that seemed even more acrid than the already-bitter political environment.

Even as the Senate moved to confirm Kavanaugh in the wake of a supplemental FBI investigation that apparently showed no corroborating evidence for Ford’s accusations, the divisions deepened, and Democratic senators said the inquiry wasn’t comprehensive enough. As Chief Justice John Roberts swore in Kavanaugh on Oct. 6, protesters swarmed Capitol Hill and beat on the doors of the Supreme Court.

Though the breach grew, the divisions already existed. That was clear months before the accusations against Kavanaugh, when Democratic senators reacted to President Donald Trump’s nomination of the judge to the high court.

At a press conference in early July—two months before Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing—Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., used Biblical language to decry the nomination and to warn against how the judge would rule on “a woman’s right to control her body.”

Declaring America was facing “a moral moment,” Booker warned, “You are either complicit in evil … or you are fighting against it.” The senator invoked Psalm 23 to condemn approving a presumably pro-life and conservative appointment to the high court: “We are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Harris and Booker arrive for the final confirmation vote on Kavanaugh (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

During the same week, the pro-abortion group NARAL was even blunter: “We’ll be DAMNED if we’re going to let five MEN—including some frat boy named Brett—strip us of our hard-won bodily autonomy and reproductive rights.”

By mid-September, staffers for Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., had posted some 3,600 ads on Facebook urging voters to sign a petition against Kavanaugh and citing what Harris called his opposition to Roe v. Wade. (Harris serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversaw the confirmation hearing.)

Beyond the tumultuous ordeal of the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing—and the questions it raised in many voters’ minds—the nomination process still made clear from the beginning that abortion loomed large in Supreme Court matters, no matter the judicial nominee.

What does all this mean for November’s elections?

Predictions aren’t prophetic, but heading into October, many pollsters thought Republicans still were likely to hold on to a narrow majority in the Senate and Democrats were likely to gain control of the House—though it wasn’t clear by how little or how much. That question could likely hinge on turnout and which party motivates more voters to the polls.

Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics says historically when it comes to turnout, “If you’re the party that’s angry, that’s a good thing.” After a brutal September, it was hard to gauge which party was angrier heading into the midterm elections.

Abortion likely won’t be a top concern for most voters in the fall campaigns, but even as the Supreme Court process underscored Democratic senators’ commitment to a pro-abortion agenda, it also revealed a tricky dynamic for some Democratic House candidates in races where Republican incumbents are vulnerable: How could they project a moderate image—and talk less about abortion—even while holding pro-abortion views that could affect future legislation?

The weeks ahead will tell if that’s possible, even as the weeks past told how divided the political and cultural landscape in America remained—no matter who gets more votes in November.

Jose Luis Magana/AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrators protest the appointment of Kavanaugh outside the Supreme Court (Jose Luis Magana/AFP/Getty Images)

EVEN AFTER THE PAINFUL HEARING with Ford and Kavanaugh in September, and the highly rancorous confirmation process that stretched into October, it wasn’t clear that the Kavanaugh ordeal would persuade large chunks of voters to change their minds about how they plan to vote in November.

Henry Olsen—a senior fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center and a political contributor to WORLD—noted the dynamic in a key group of voters: Women who are independent or swing voters were already moving toward Democratic candidates, as many of them did in the 2016 presidential election. Most women supportive of the GOP or Trump seemed likely to stick with Republicans.

As political campaigns heat up this fall, it may be difficult to gauge how much the Supreme Court drives voters to the polls, but an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll published in early October reported Democrats’ enthusiasm advantage going into the midterms had vanished.

In July, only 68 percent of Republicans said the November elections were “very important” to them. By October, that number had risen to 80 percent—just two points shy of Democrats, at 82 percent.

In the House, all 435 seats are up for grabs this year. Pollsters consider 48 of those seats competitive. Of the 48 seats, Republicans hold 41. To gain control of the House, Democrats need to flip at least 24 Republican seats and keep control of the 194 they hold.

Historically, that’s more than doable. The party in control of the White House has lost House seats in 18 out of the last 20 midterms. The average loss of seats: 29.

Pollsters have predicted at least double-digit losses for Republicans, and have estimated anywhere from 20 to 50 seats lost. (Olsen thinks the current trends suggest a 30- to 35-seat gain for Democrats.)

 Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP

Brat speaks with reporters ( Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP)

Virginia’s 7th District is one of the close races to watch, in a contest where Republicans are trying to hang on. Rep. Dave Brat, the Republican incumbent, grabbed the seat in 2014 after an upset GOP primary victory over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Brat rode a still-cresting tea party wave to victory in a seat few expected him to win.

Now he’s on the ropes: Brat is in a tight race with Democratic opponent and former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger. A Monmouth University poll reported Spanberger maintained a slight edge in September, and the report attributed her success to an advantage in the Richmond suburbs.

“This is a tale of two districts,” said pollster Patrick Murray in a statement about the survey. “The Richmond suburbs that backed Clinton in 2016 support Spanberger, while the Trump strongholds are firmly behind Brat. The reason this race is so close right now is because there are more voters in suburban areas.”

It may not have helped Brat when he told a conservative audience last year that since he voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), “the women are in my grill no matter where I go.”

Steve Helber/AP

Spanberger at a rally in Richmond, Va. (Steve Helber/AP)

If Spanberger is in Brat’s grill, she’s also an example of the kind of candidate Democrats have tried to put forward as centrists in tight districts: She’s a former CIA operative and says she wouldn’t support Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for House speaker. Still, she’s endorsed by the pro-abortion group Emily’s List, though it’s unclear how much abortion will sway this particular race.

It’s trickier in Kentucky. In a seat Republicans are surprised to be battling for, Republican incumbent Andy Barr is in a close fight with Democrat Amy McGrath. He won his seat by 22 points two years ago.

McGrath is another candidate with patriotic appeal: She’s a former Marine combat aviator and has said she’ll work across party lines on issues like national security and opioid addiction. Meanwhile, Barr has faced crowds back home who aren’t happy about his opposition to the Affordable Care Act.

Barr has tried to convince voters that McGrath is too liberal for the state, and he points out her support of abortion. McGrath hasn’t sought endorsements from pro-abortion groups, but also has said she thinks of abortion as “a personal liberty issue” for women. She’s said that the government shouldn’t interfere on abortion, but also that the current restrictions on abortion are appropriate.

Barr: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP • McGrath: Timothy D. Easley/AP

(Barr: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP • McGrath: Timothy D. Easley/AP)

That’s a line Conor Lamb is trying to walk as well. The Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District was double digits ahead of Republican incumbent Keith Rothfus heading into October.

Lamb grabbed national attention earlier this year when he won a special election for the 18th District seat—a spot held by a Republican for over a decade in a district Trump won by 20 points in 2016.

After Pennsylvania redrew its political map, Lamb’s residence ended up in the 17th District, and he entered the race against Rothfus, who grappled to keep as much support in a redrawn district that included more suburbs and Democratic towns.

Lamb is another Marine veteran who also runs as a centrist. And he’s another Democratic candidate who says he personally opposes abortion but doesn’t favor legal restrictions.

Rothfus may not get far in pressing that point against Lamb: The National Republican Congressional Committee considered the race far gone enough to pull funding from Rothfus’ campaign by October, even though the gap wasn’t impossible for the candidate to close.

Keith Srakocic/AP

Lamb (left) and Rothfus (Keith Srakocic/AP)

IF DEMOCRATS DO GAIN CONTROL of the House in November, what should voters expect? A slate of investigations is possible, including probing the inquiry into the assault allegations against Kavanaugh.

Paul Kengor, political science professor at Grove City College, expects to see efforts to impeach Trump, though Democrats have been careful not to tout the idea and risk firing up Trump’s base. (It’s also very unclear how far this would go, since a majority of House members must vote to impeach.) Either way, Kengor doesn’t think the broader cultural fallout from the Kavanaugh hearing is over.

Neither does Sen. Ben Sasse. In a floor speech on Oct. 3, the Republican from Nebraska lamented the Kavanaugh ordeal and criticized the president for mocking Ford’s memory gaps regarding the night she says Kavanaugh attacked her. Sasse voted to confirm Kavanaugh, but he grieved a bitter process that exposed a nation that is “accelerating our descent into tribalism.”

Shadow of death

Beyond the politics of a midterm season, abortion and its victims remained a reality less talked about in its tragic details.

A few weeks after Sen. Cory Booker’s July press conference in which he quoted Psalm 23, a health inspector in Columbia, Mo., visited a Planned Parenthood center there and reported the facility’s suction machine for abortions was in an unsanitary condition.

Don Shrubshell/Columbia Daily Tribune via AP

Abortion supporters outside the Planned Parenthood in Columbia, Mo. (Don Shrubshell/Columbia Daily Tribune via AP)

The report said parts of the machine were covered in rust. A reusable tube contained a moldy substance. A single-use suction tube was still attached to the machine’s glass canister and contained “reddish colored fluid.” The report said a staffer acknowledged the liquid was likely bodily fluid. The tube hadn’t been changed since the last abortion five days earlier.

The director of the facility said it had corrected the problems, but a judge ordered the center to cease offering abortions on Oct. 2 because its abortionist didn’t have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The director vowed to fight to continue offering abortions.

For mothers, the reported conditions posed a potentially unsafe environment. For unborn babies, the machine—whatever its condition—truly represented the valley of the shadow of death that many politicians never acknowledge. —J.D.

How do they know that about me?

by Les Sillars

Canvassing for a candidate is as old as politics, but “walking apps” for smartphones have made the practice far more efficient. The apps can provide volunteers with detailed information on the particular households, from income to hobbies to political leanings. The idea is to help canvassers not waste time on hard Democratic or Republican households and reach people who might be swayed by a targeted argument or a “touch” from the campaign.

Walking apps (i360 and Advantage are popular with Republicans) set up a route through a neighborhood and provide the canvasser with details about the residents of each home. Algorithms predict residents’ positions on everything from gay rights to the environment, and campaigns can set up the apps to prompt the canvassers with a series of personalized questions. Canvassers then upload the answers through the apps to update the companies’ records on each resident.

The apps are a simple application of data mining technology developed years ago to target online ads. They combine public records, such as tax rolls and primary voter lists, with data purchased from giant third-party tracking firms like Axiom and the credit bureaus. Tracking firms buy massive amounts of data from retailers, social media and photo-sharing sites, and “free” smartphone games and services that track users’ behavior by device using IP addresses.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Volunteers canvassing in Palmdale, Calif. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Some of that data is from websites or apps that require authentication, which lets tracking firms link up IP addresses and all the data connected with them to individual names. About 7 out of 10 smartphone apps share personal data with third-party tracking companies, according to a 2017 report by two researchers from the IMDEA Networks Institute and Princeton.

Ryan Jessop, president of OptML, an Atlanta firm that produces predictive algorithms, says people are not anonymous online, even if they don’t sign in to any websites. Data mining companies can have thousands of pieces of information about each of hundreds of millions of people, but  “a lot of the data is wrong,” Jessop said. The information is only as good as the predictive algorithms, and 80 percent accuracy is considered pretty good. —with reporting by Kara Brown

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


  • AlanE
    Posted: Wed, 10/10/2018 05:25 pm

    A couple random thoughts here...

    1. I'm not sure how not supporting Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House and being a former CIA operative makes Spanberger a centrist. She may well be a "centrist" in a Democratic sort of way, but not supporting Pelosi doesn't seem to logically drive one to that conclusion. I seem to recall Kirsten Gillibrand was once a Democratic "centrist," too, but that sort of thing seems to change once they get elected. Former CIA operative? I can name a couple who aren't very centrist...

    2. Is anyone else growing weary of House and Senate investigations? If we're serious about having them and anything worthwhile coming of them, maybe we shut off all the cameras so aspiring presidential candidates would be less motivated to use these as grandstanding sessions. I don't recall ever voting for a candidate so they could go to DC to conduct investigations (mostly of the other party). 

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Wed, 10/10/2018 09:46 pm

    You could have picked a better picture of Rep. Brat...

  • Xion's picture
    Posted: Wed, 10/10/2018 11:37 pm

    I am always amazed (but shouldn't be) that the cornerstone of the Democratic platform is the slaughtering of children.  They will stop at nothing to continue the genocide.  Equally surprising is how the party of unbridled sex suddenly becomes prudishly Puritan if it means utterly destroying a Republican.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Thu, 10/11/2018 07:48 am

    I live in the 2nd district in Kansas and we have a democratic candidate who is making progress by pretending to be independent in politics and almost conservative in some areas.  Interesingly he promises not to support Pelosi and to fight for rights of the working class.  I try to warn people he is a DEMOCRAT but with many his "middle of the road take on the establishment" cherade is working.  I think the most important issue in this election is the disruption the left will cause if they get control of the House.  They will go after everybody who has opposed their will.  

  • John Cogan's picture
    John Cogan
    Posted: Sat, 10/13/2018 10:51 am

    Senator Booker is going to the Bible to defend ripping children from their mothers' bodies? Where have we seen the use of Scripture before to attack righteousness? Maybe the temptation of Jesus by Satan? Perhaps Senator Booker should read his Bible rather than just pound it.