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How Will The Kavanaugh Controversy Play Into Midterm Elections?


The midterm elections are just five weeks away, so now we want to consider how the drama surrounding the Kavanaugh nomination could influence those midterms. We called David Axelrod and Mary Kate Cary for that. Mary Kate Cary was a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's now a senior fellow at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. David Axelrod was a campaign strategist and White House adviser to President Barack Obama. Now he's director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago.

Thank you both so much for being with us today.

DAVID AXELROD: Great to be here.

MARY KATE CARY: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So let me start with one of the issues that people are already familiar with, which is the intensity question. Polls have been showing that Democrats are more energized about voting in the midterms. And this is important because, in the past, Democrats have not been as likely to vote. So do you think that the Kavanaugh hearings will change the momentum? So, David Axelrod, why don't you take that first?

AXELROD: Well, it's hard to say. I think the Republicans made a decision to kind of tribalize the fight in a way that has probably spurred some engagement on the part of the base. And that will favor Republicans trying to unseat Democrats in some of these red states that Trump won in 2016. On the other hand, I think you're also going to see further galvanization of voters in these suburban House districts, including many women, where there's already a historic gender gap. So you might actually see a bifurcated effect with the house going one way and the Senate going another.

MARTIN: Mary Kate, what do you think?

CARY: I think it's still too early to tell because I think things are going to change based on the results of the FBI investigation. You know, there is this conventional wisdom that there's going to be a blue wave, but I'm not so sure I buy into it because I don't really trust the polling right now because I think there's a lot of people who are understandably afraid to say what they think, especially in terms of expressing support for either Trump or Kavanaugh to a pollster. To me, the fact that the most-watched television network during the hearings was Fox News - that tells me more than the polls tell me.

MARTIN: Well, you know, there is some polling out - I'll just tell you what it is, although even the pollsters are saying that there's a lot of noise right now, just as both of you are saying. But, according to the Pew Research Center, large majorities of both parties said appointments to the Supreme Court will be very important to their votes this fall. And that's interesting because, in the past, the court has been a bigger issue for Republicans. But this latest polling found that it's now more important for Democrats. Eighty-one percent of Democrats listed the court as a big factor in their vote. And so, Mary Kate, what do you think that means?

CARY: I think that's right. I think there were a tremendous number of Republicans, many of whom I knew (laughter), who voted for Trump simply because of the Supreme Court - for the Scalia seat. What I don't think they anticipated was Kennedy's seat going up as well. And that, too - I think the left is a much more pivotal seat because that's the swing vote in their minds.

MARTIN: David Axelrod, what do you think?

AXELROD: Well, look - I think that there's no doubt that this has galvanized Democrats, who are still raw from the experience of Merrick Garland. But I think that, at the end of the day, two things. One is I quite agree that we won't know the effect of this until we know how the story ends - if Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed. But it's also possible that an election that happens a month after this vote is likely - is going to turn on other issues, and this will recede.

MARTIN: So much - it just seems like there was so much emotional pingponging (ph) over just the course of a couple of days. But then, at the end of the week, you know, which was so angry and so polarizing, there was this glimmer of bipartisanship when Jeff Flake - Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, called for this FBI investigation. And I just wanted to ask each of you, how do you think that is being received? Maybe - Mary Kate, do you want to go first on that?

CARY: Yeah. I think the FBI investigation should have been called for a long time ago by either side - by the Democrats, when they first got these allegations in July, and the Republicans as soon as it became public. And, you know, my old boss, President Bush 41, did the same thing. He called for a FBI investigation during the Clarence Thomas hearings, and it set a good precedent. It made him look fair-minded. So I think the FBI investigation will hopefully calm some of the frayed nerves and stop this feeling that there's just this tremendous rush to judgment.

MARTIN: David Axelrod, on the other hand, though, it's been reported that the White House is circumscribing the scope of the investigation, which is upsetting to some people.


MARTIN: So I don't know. What do you think?

AXELROD: First of all, I give credit to President Bush for having involved the FBI when he did. The difference here is that he did that of his own volition. But, you know, my concern is not just that the investigation might be limited. But you heard on the Sunday shows this morning Lindsey Graham, Tom Cotton and others who were openly disdainful of this FBI investigation and made very, very clear that it is of little moment to them.

And one of the problems, I think, with the hearing on Thursday is that there were no witnesses called. There was no corroborating evidence for anybody. So it had a feeling of a box-checking exercise. And if that is the case with the FBI investigation, I think there are people who are going to be angry about it. But I am sure - you know, this whole issue - like, everything in our deeply divided country has become kind of a Rorschach test for your political views.

MARTIN: Well, where do we think - this is the last question I have for each of you - where does this leave the country? I mean, either way, this has been a really sort of ugly, painful process. Does it matter whether Judge Kavanaugh is confirmed or not? I don't know. David Axelrod, why don't you take this first, and I'll give Mary Kate the last word. David?

AXELROD: Well, look. One of my concerns is that all our institutions are under assault and under suspicion. This is the highest court in the country. Judge Kavanaugh's testimony was deeply political. And I'd be the first to say he was under attack, and he wanted to respond. But he chose and the members of that committee chose to respond in a very partisan way. And I think that contributes to a sense of jaundice about our courts, which are supposed to be, to some degree, removed from that kind of politics.

MARTIN: Mary Kate?

CARY: I would say I have two hopes for how this ends up. One of the reasons this fight got so big so fast is because of the increasing reliance on the Supreme Court to make decisions about our everyday lives, and that has been because the Congress and the Senate have become so gridlocked and so dysfunctional that we turn more and more to the courts for the results that we want. And I'm hoping this spurs Congress to start fixing that.

And then my second hope is, you know, when you think about our criminal justice system, it's built on the theory that the human mind acts like a camera, and it does not. And I think that's why we see so many cases being exonerated by DNA evidence these days. And, hopefully, this will shine a light on some of the reforms that we could have going forward.

MARTIN: That's Mary Kate Cary. You can listen to her podcast, "Bipodisan" - you know, get it? Bipartisan?

CARY: Get it?


MARTIN: Speaking of which, David Axelrod is a former Obama campaign strategist, and now he is a senior political commentator on CNN. Thank you both so much for talking with us.

AXELROD: Thank you.

CARY: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEIL COWLEY TRIO'S "SLIMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.