What “Kavanaugh’s Revenge” Means for 2020

Sunday marks one year since Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. For many women, the outrage still seethes over the treatment of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez and the Senate’s ultimate 50-48 vote to confirm.

Conservative pundits and Republican officials at the time warned of “Kavanaugh’s revenge” and predicted that Democrats who took a stand against the Supreme Court nominee would be punished at the polls or would underperform in the 2018 midterm elections as a result of their vote.

As proof of their prediction, they point to three formerly Democratic Senate seats—Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota—re-captured by Republicans in the 2018 midterms, just one month after the Kavanaugh confirmation. 

Upon closer examination, however, this take is flawed. In fact, the Kavanaugh fight appears to have had a different effect, resulting in an overall net gain for Democrats in Congress. The hearings seemed to instead energize voters, especially women of color and suburban women, ultimately helping the Democrats take back the House of Representatives and limited damage in the Senate. 

In the Senate, five Democratic incumbents who voted against the Kavanaugh nomination—Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester in Montana—held onto their seats in states that Trump had carried in 2016. 

Additionally, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, who publicly announced her opposition to Kavanaugh, beat out Republican opponent Martha McSally—who backed the nomination—for the open Senate seat in the state. Similarly, Nevada Republican incumbent Senator Dean Heller lost his reelection campaign to Jacky Rosen after he voted to support the Kavanaugh nomination.  

The result: a net loss of one seat in the Senate for Democrats. Moreover, the Democrats picked up a net of 40 seats in the House of Representatives to take the majority—nearly half of these in districts Donald Trump won in 2016. 

A PerrryUndem poll conducted in April of this year found that “feeling unfavorably toward Justice Kavanaugh motivated people to vote for the Democratic candidate … above and beyond typical factors, such as party affiliation.” 

Clearly, women figured prominently among those motivated to vote for Democratic candidates. Overall, 62 percent of women believe Kavanaugh lied under oath about his teenage years—11 points higher than the 51 percent of men who think it’s likely he lied. Among a key swing constituency, independent voters, 64 percent of women say it’s likely he lied under oath, versus 49 percent of men. 

Kavanaugh’s nomination process and inherent injustice also made voters think more closely about male-female power dynamics in politics and the overrepresentation of men in this sphere. This too proved to have a favorable impact for Democrats—especially for women and people of color. The PerryUndem poll found “respondents who say Justice Kavanaugh’s hearings made them think about men having more power than women in government were twice as likely to vote for the Democratic House candidate as those who did not evaluate gender representation as a result of the hearings.” These findings were most evident in specific subsets of voters: namely, women of all races and ages, suburban women and people of color. 

And the result: record numbers of women were elected to Congress, flipping many seats from red to blue, accounting for 60 percent of Democratic gains in the House. As Ms. wrote in the Winter 2019 issue, Democratic victories were “propelled by a gender gap as great as any of the past 20 years, led by women of color, young women and college-educated women.” Suburban women voters abandoned Trump in droves, ultimately helping to flip the House and electing a record number of women candidates to political office in the most diverse freshman class Congress has ever seen. 

As the polling suggests, revelations about power dynamics are likely to come into play in next year’s presidential, Senate and House elections, as it is impossible to “unsee” power imbalance. As author Arundhati Roy famously said, “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out.”

As the 2020 elections are coming into focus, Republicans are again predicting the impeachment debates will benefit Republican candidates.  In an October 2 memo by the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) regarding impeachment, conservative analysts warn that “Democrats are only harming themselves” and “voters are less likely to vote for a congressional candidate who supports impeachment.” 

But given how women’s attitudes are driving public opinion on impeachment, and how the Kavanaugh hearings and nomination battle played out in the 2018 elections, it seems premature to predict an “Impeachment Revenge.” 

About and

Roxanne Szal (or Roxy) is the managing digital editor at Ms. and a producer on the Ms. podcast On the Issues With Michele Goodwin. She is also a mentor editor for The OpEd Project. Before becoming a journalist, she was a Texas public school English teacher. She is based in Austin, Texas. Find her on Twitter @roxyszal.
Katherine Spillar is the executive director of Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms., where she oversees editorial content and the Ms. in the Classroom program.