Republicans fear political fallout from Kavanaugh turmoil

NEW YORK (AP) — Whether or not Republicans ultimately confirm President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, some on the front lines of the GOP's midterm battlefield fear the party may have already lost.

In the days after a divided nation watched Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser Christine Blasey Ford deliver conflicting stories about what happened when they were teenagers, Republican campaign operatives acknowledged this is not the fight they wanted six weeks before Election Day.

Should they give Kavanaugh a lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court after Ford's powerful testimony about sexual assault, Republicans risk enraging the women they need to preserve their House majority. Vote him down, they risk enraging the party's defiant political base.

In swing state New Hampshire, former Republican Party chair Jennifer Horn said Republicans are "grossly underestimating the damage that would be done" at the ballot box in the short and long-term should they confirm Kavanaugh.

Horn, a lifelong Republican, and frequent Trump critic, described Ford as "the most credible person I have ever seen publicly talk about this." One young friend of Horn's family was so inspired by the testimony that she revealed her own painful experience with sexual assault on social media for the first time Thursday.

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U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Family members of of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, including his wife Ashley (R) and mother Martha (L), listen to him testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies to the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., September 27, 2018. Win McNamee/Pool via REUTERS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. Supreme Court nominee�Brett Kavanaugh�angrily, tearfully and 'unequivocally' denied sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford, after she told senators at a dramatic hearing that shes 'one hundred percent' certain he is the one who attacked her when they were teenagers. Photographer: Tom Williams/Pool via Bloomberg
White House Counsel and Assistant to the President for U.S. President Donald Trump, Donald McGahn, as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the US Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 27, 2018. SAUL LOEB/Pool via REUTERS
Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh testifies in front of the Senate Judiciary committee regarding sexual assault allegations at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC, U.S. September 27, 2018. Gabriella Demczuk/Pool via Reuters
Senate Judiciary Committee ranking members Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) (R) and Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) question Judge Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., September 27, 2018. Win McNamee/Pool via REUTERS
Supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., September 27, 2018. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, left, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. Supreme Court nominee�Brett Kavanaugh�angrily, tearfully and 'unequivocally' denied sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford, after she told senators at a dramatic hearing that shes 'one hundred percent' certain he is the one who attacked her when they were teenagers. Photographer: Win McNamee/Pool via Bloomberg
Supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh arrives with his wife Ashley to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., September 27, 2018. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) presides over a hearing as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S., September 27, 2018. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, leaves for a break from the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing with U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Palo Alto University professor Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of a sexual assault in 1982, in Washington, U.S., September 27, 2018. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert
U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NB) speaks during U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's testimony before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 27, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
Judge Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in before testifying before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 27, 2018. Tom Williams/Pool via REUTERS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, smiles during Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, on September 27, 2018. - University professor Christine Blasey Ford, 51, told a tense Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that could make or break Kavanaugh's nomination she was '100 percent' certain he was the assailant and it was 'absolutely not' a case of mistaken identify. (Photo by Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDREW HARNIK/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 27: Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) questions Judge Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. Kavanaugh was called back to testify about claims by Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her during a party in 1982 when they were high school students in suburban Maryland. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON D.C. - SEPTEMBER 27: U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) displays a judiciary committee document while questioning Judge Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. Kavanaugh was called back to testify about claims by Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her during a party in 1982 when they were high school students in suburban Maryland. (Photo by Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)
Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) questions U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as he testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., on September 27, 2018. - University professor Christine Blasey Ford, 51, told a tense Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that could make or break Kavanaugh's nomination she was '100 percent' certain he was the assailant and it was 'absolutely not' a case of mistaken identify. (Photo by Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANDREW HARNIK/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 27: Senate Judiciary Committee members (L-R) Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) talk at the conclusion of the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Judge Brett Kavanaugh in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. Kavanaugh was called back to testify about claims by Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her during a party in 1982 when they were high school students in suburban Maryland. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON D.C. - SEPTEMBER 27: Judge Brett Kavanaugh testifies to the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. Kavanaugh was called back to testify about claims by Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her during a party in 1982 when they were high school students in suburban Maryland. (Photo by Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 27: Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is sworn in to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on September 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. Kavanaugh was called back to testify about claims by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her during a party in 1982 when they were high school students in suburban Maryland. (Photo by Andrew Harnik - Pool/Getty Images)
Ashley Estes Kavanaugh, wife of Supreme Court nominee�Brett Kavanaugh, listens during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. Kavanaugh�angrily, tearfully and 'unequivocally' denied sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford, after she told senators at a dramatic hearing that she's 'one hundred percent' certain he is the one who attacked her when they were teenagers. Photographer: Jim Bourg/Pool via Bloomberg
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. Supreme Court nominee�Brett Kavanaugh�angrily, tearfully and 'unequivocally' denied sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford, after she told senators at a dramatic hearing that shes 'one hundred percent' certain he is the one who attacked her when they were teenagers. Photographer: Andrew Harnik/Pool via Bloomberg
U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) listens to U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., on September 27, 2018. - University professor Christine Blasey Ford, 51, told a tense Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that could make or break Kavanaugh's nomination she was '100 percent' certain he was the assailant and it was 'absolutely not' a case of mistaken identify. (Photo by JIM BOURG / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read JIM BOURG/AFP/Getty Images)
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"Republicans have to ask themselves if they're willing not only to sell the soul of the party but sell their own souls to get this particular conservative on the Supreme Court," Horn said in an interview.

Another wing of the party was just as convinced that Republicans would trigger Election Day doom should they fail to confirm Trump's Supreme Court pick.

"If Republicans do not get this vote taken and Kavanaugh confirmed, you can kiss the midterms goodbye," conservative icon Rush Limbaugh boomed from his radio studio this week, a message that Trump echoed on Twitter and Republican strategists repeated privately on Friday.

In what has become the year of the woman in national politics, there are no easy answers for a party aligned with a president who has dismissed more than a dozen allegations of sexual misconduct of his own.

The GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee voted along party lines Friday to send Kavanaugh's nomination to the full Senate, with the informal understanding that the FBI would investigate the allegations against Kavanaugh. A final vote would be delayed by a week.

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona crystalized the challenge before the GOP. After announcing his support for Kavanaugh early Friday, he was confronted by tearful victims of sexual assault as he tried to board an elevator in the U.S. Capitol.

"Look at me when I'm talking to you," one woman cried as Flake stood uncomfortably in the elevator. "You're telling me that my assault doesn't matter, that what happened to me doesn't matter, that you're going to let people who do these things into power."

Flake later insisted on the FBI investigation to secure his vote allowing Kavanaugh's nomination to move out of the Judiciary Committee. He is retiring at the end of the year and the Republican congresswoman seeking to replace him, Martha McSally, said nothing for much of this week before releasing a statement Friday afternoon noting Kavanaugh and Ford were "heard."

"The Senate's role is to provide advice and consent on this nomination, and to seek the truth," McSally said. "I encourage them to use the next week to gather any additional relevant facts, and then act on this nomination."

The balancing act reflects the impossible politics ahead for some Republican candidates, particularly those in swing states and suburban House districts.

McSally has come out as a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of her high school track coach. At the same time, she has strongly embraced Trump and his combative ethos, which Kavanaugh exemplified during his Thursday testimony.

She indirectly criticized Trump last week after he questioned why Ford didn't report her assault decades ago.

"A lot of people who have not been through this — thank God they have not been through this — don't understand that a lot of us don't immediately go to law enforcement," McSally said.

Two key Republicans — Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins — have also avoided taking a firm position so far. Neither is up for re-election this year, yet both are facing intense political pressure from the right and left back home, with the potential that aftershocks from their votes could be felt for years to come.

Cindy Noyes, a registered Republican in Maine, attended public schools with Collins and usually agrees with her. But not if she backs Kavanaugh.

"It'd be hard for me not to support her, but I really, really, really encourage her to vote against him," Noyes said of Collins, who doesn't face re-election until 2020.

In Alaska, Juneau voter Sally Saddler, an independent, said she voted for Murkowski in the past, but likely wouldn't back her again if the Republican senator decides to confirm Kavanaugh.

Murkowski also faces the prospect of a primary challenge from the right should she break with her party.

That potential has already convinced Anchorage Republican Women's Club president Judy Eledge to consider supporting a Murkowski primary challenger in 2022.

"I would support the other person, and I think there's a lot of other people that would," she said.

Republican candidates in states Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016 have been far more eager to follow Trump's lead on Kavanaugh. Meanwhile, some vulnerable Democratic incumbents like Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly and Montana Sen. Jon Tester announced Friday they would stick with the Democratic minority in opposing the nomination. Others, including Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, remain undecided.

Evangelical leaders in contact with the White House have quietly launched an influence campaign designed to rally 1.5 million evangelical voters behind Kavanaugh across five key states: Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia, Florida and North Dakota. The campaign features a video on social media and a series of direct text messages.

Republicans are on their heels in the nation's suburbs, the region that features the most competitive House races.

GOP Rep. Leonard Lance, running for re-election in a suburban New Jersey district Trump lost in 2016, was forced to backtrack this week after being caught on tape questioning Kavanaugh's accusers. After Ford's testimony, he endorsed calls for an expanded FBI inquiry. 

Democratic challenger Tom Malinowski says the issue goes beyond whether Kavanaugh should be on the court.

"It's precisely that tendency to dismiss accusers of powerful men that makes it hard for survivors to make what is already a wrenchingly difficult decision to come forward," Malinowski said in an interview, adding that it's particularly important for male politicians to speak up instead of leaving all the difficult votes to women.

Republicans are betting that Democrats are already so motivated by their opposition to Trump that the Supreme Court fight won't make much difference, said Republican pollster Ed Goeas.

Most off-year elections are decided by which side is more energized. Most polls suggest that Democrats have a distinct advantage on that front.

"All Republicans can do is close that gap at this point," Goeas said.

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Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta, David Sharp in Portland, Maine, Nick Riccardi in Denver, Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska, and Thomas Beaumont in Washington contributed to this report.

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