The confirmation battle playing out in the nation's capital over the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court may also have implications in Montana's midterm elections.
On Friday, Montana's Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who is running for re-election against Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale, said he would not vote to confirm Kavanaugh because of concerns over sexual assault allegations, as well as the judge's views on privacy and dark money in politics. Rosendale has supported Kavanaugh since days after his nomination.
Nationally, parallels have been drawn between the emotionally wrenching testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her, and Anita Hill's sexual harassment allegations in the 1991 confirmation hearings for Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Many credited the Thomas confirmation for fueling the "year of the woman,'' which sent a record number of women to the Senate in 1992 elections.
"This is certainly a galvanizing issue," Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College in Helena, said last week. "Based on what happened in 1991 plus the things that have happened in the last couple of years in reaction to President Trump, (Kavanaugh's confirmation process) could potentially help Democratic candidates both in the 2018 and 2020 elections."
Johnson said as the #MeToo movement continues to build momentum, discussion of sexual harassment, sexual assault and other issues will be a larger part of the conversation than in previous elections. That combined with a growing gender gap in American politics, where women vote more Democratic than men, could lead to increased support for Tester because of his opposition to Kavanaugh.
But Johnson cautioned it could also be an energizing force for Republicans.
"The flip side of this is it's very important for many conservative voters to have a Supreme Court that they want,” Johnson said. “For many of them, it’s less about the biography of the nominee. And we’ve already seen that certain people are willing to dismiss things about a candidate,'' such as conservative evangelical voters who continue to support Trump even after events like the Access Hollywood tape where Trump joked about sexually assaulting women.
"If it goes against your candidate, you’re not going to focus on these sorts of allegations,” Johnson said.
On Friday afternoon in Helena, after Tester announced he'd oppose Kavanaugh, a group of 40 people — mostly women — gathered to protest outside the office of Montana's junior Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican who said he'll vote for Kavanaugh. Shouting "hell no, Kavanaugh must go," the loud rally showed women were already cementing political energy around Tester's opposition.
Barbara Allen of Helena is a survivor of rape and has two adult daughters. Sexual assault is a huge issue that needs to be talked about more, not less, Allen said. If Tester hadn’t opposed Kavanaugh, she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to support him in November.
“It would have been really hard. I won’t vote for the other option, but it would have been very difficult,” Allen said.
Kasandra Reddington, also of Helena, said she also hadn't been totally decided on how she’d vote in November, but Tester’s opposition to Kavanaugh pushed her toward voting for the Democrat.
“That definitely helped. I think it’s important to believe survivors,” Reddington said.
David Parker, an associate professor of political science at Montana State University in Bozeman, said Friday that without specific polling in Montana, it's hard to say if the Kavanaugh debate will move the electorate one way or another. What’s more clear is people are increasingly seeing events through their own partisan lenses.
“I suspect Republicans will see (the Kavanaugh nomination process) the way they want to see it and Democrats will see it the way they want to see it. Democrats will be glad, Republicans will be less happy with Sen. Tester’s position,” Parker said.
In Tester's 2012 election victory against then-U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, older Republican women who had concerns about Rehberg broke to Tester and pushed him to victory. Parker, who wrote a book about that race, said how that same group viewed the Ford-Kavanaugh hearing last week may well sway this year’s elections.
Parker offered one anecdote from an older woman who votes Republican and was largely disgusted by what unfolded in Congress last week.
“She thought it was partisan on both sides,” Parker said. “But one comment that stuck with me was that she said, ‘I thought Kavanaugh looked like a jerk.’
"Are there enough people out there who were turned off by Kavanaugh, by his performance, that they will be hardened by Tester’s stance and come out in support of Tester?” Parker said.
Montana State University and Montana Television Network have a poll out now, conducted by mailed surveys, that could provide a snapshot of the impact of the Kavanaugh confirmation process among Montana voters. Some surveys already have been returned, while others have not.
“Depending on when we get back surveys, we might see the effect of Tester making his position known (Friday),” Parker said.
What's also unclear is the Kavanaugh effect in the election for Montana's lone U.S. House seat. Incumbent Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte is running against former Bozeman lawmaker Kathleen Williams, who is one of a record number of women running for the House this year.
Kavanaugh was one of the main issues during the first debate of the general election between Tester and Rosendale on Saturday night in Missoula. But it didn't come up at the U.S. House debate held an hour earlier in Helena between Gianforte, Williams and Libertarian Elinor Swanson in Helena. Though the House does not vote on court nominees, pundits say some of the energy among women voters could spill over to candidates there.
A poll on the Senate race released by CBS earlier this month showed a significant enthusiasm gap already among Republicans and Democrats. Among those that identify as Democrats, 46 percent said they have paid a "great deal" of attention to the midterm election campaigns. That number was 29 percent for Republicans.