As high court battle roils DC, suburban voters shrug

By Thomas Beaumont
and Steve Peoples

Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — It stands to shift the direction of the nation’s highest court for decades, but President Donald Trump’s move to fill a Supreme Court vacancy has barely cracked the consciousness of some voters in the nation’s top political battlegrounds.

Even among this year’s most prized voting bloc — educated suburban women — there’s no evidence that a groundswell of opposition to a conservative transformation of the judicial branch, which could lead to the erosion or reversal of Roe v. Wade, will significantly alter the trajectory of the midterms, particularly in the House.

Many of those on the left who were already energized to punish Trump’s party this fall remain enthusiastic.

On the right, voters loyal to Trump often needed no encouragement either, though some Republicans who have soured on the president were heartened by the nomination of federal court judge Brett Kavanaugh.

And those in the middle? Many said they weren’t following the issue closely enough to have a strong opinion despite the prospect of dramatic changes to America’s customs and culture.

“I’m not going to know much about this, I’m afraid,” said 31-year-old Christian school principal Sara Breetzke, a self-described moderate Republican who lives in Omaha. “I really should know more, but I don’t have anything unique to say.”

Breetzke was among two dozen voters interviewed by The Associated Press in the days immediately after Trump tapped Kavanaugh to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was a swing vote on several key issues, including abortion rights.

Those interviewed live and vote in districts that are expected to decide the House majority this fall — places like suburban Philadelphia; metropolitan Omaha; Orange County, California; northern Virginia; and Denver’s western suburbs, where Republicans hold seats but Democrat Hillary Clinton performed well in 2016.

Democrats must pick up at least 23 new seats now held by Republicans to claim the House majority. They are starting with a focus on 25 districts where Clinton led Trump in the presidential vote, but the field now extends to several dozen more districts where Trump won by small margins.

The Supreme Court battle will be fought in the Senate, where Republicans are eager to vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination before the midterms.

The vote is especially crucial for Democrats seeking re-election in states Trump won in 2016 and could affect turnout in those races.

But for now, it’s unclear whether that enthusiasm will trickle down to contests for the House, where Democrats are better positioned to regain control.

In suburban Denver, 33-year-old realtor Marlene Corona said she was trying to tune out the Supreme Court debate, “so I don’t get too frustrated.”

The Democrat said she was already motivated to vote in November — against vulnerable Republican Rep. Mike Coffman — from the moment Trump was elected: “I don’t think anything is going to change that.”

In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia, Sandi Frederick said she’d be troubled if Roe v. Wade were overturned.

But having voted for Trump in 2016, she said she’d likely vote for freshman Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.

For now, Frederick, a 56-year-old registered independent, says Trump’s Supreme Court pick is a qualified candidate: He speaks well, seems like a family man and seems to have an acceptable resume.

And in northern Virginia, where two-term Rep. Barbara Comstock is considered one of the nation’s most vulnerable Republicans, Marlene Burkgren says she feels powerless to stop Trump’s party from confirming Kavanaugh.

“I’m a little disappointed with the way things have worked out,” said Burkgren, a 67-year-old volunteer tai chi teacher at a local senior center.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Burkgren said, noting that she still plans to vote in November to try to oust Republicans from control. Comstock faces state Sen. Jennifer Wexton in a campaign season that has seen a wave of new women candidates.

These voters echo the beliefs of many of Washington’s top political operatives, who are skeptical that the high-profile Supreme Court nomination debate in the weeks ahead will significantly change the fight for congressional control this fall.

The skepticism reflects the increasingly short attention span of most voters given the weekly turbulence in the Trump era and the likely timing of the Senate’s pre-election nomination battle.

Polling related to past Supreme Court nominees suggests there is typically little public awareness or informed opinion on the picks, especially within a few days of their unveiling.

Certainly, some Republicans who have been lukewarm to Trump said the president’s push for another conservative justice renews enthusiasm that has waned somewhat as the GOP-controlled Congress has failed on key promises to dismantle the 2010 health care law and enact new immigration restrictions.

Retired airline pilot Dave Stacy of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, voted for Trump but said he doesn’t like him. Kavanaugh’s nomination gives Stacy reason to vote for vulnerable Republican freshman Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.

“I don’t like (Trump) as a person,” Stacy said. “I think he’s arrogant. But I like what he’s doing.”

And Kavanaugh’s profile serves as a powerful reminder for some Democrats of what they don’t like about the Trump era.

“I think (Trump) doubled down on what divides us,” said Gavin Laboski, also of Doylestown. “That pick isn’t a reach across the aisle in any way shape or form.”

Despite the ambivalence from some, candidates in both parties are working to use the situation to their advantage.

Democrats in Washington and in congressional districts are warning voters that a conservative shift on the court could negatively affect women’s rights, health care and the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The party enjoys a consistent advantage generically in polling ahead of the Nov. 6 election, and the Kavanaugh nomination is expected to push more activists to volunteer and more donors to contribute to party causes, Democratic operatives said.

Likewise, Republicans cheered the prospect of new restrictions on abortion and other conservative priorities that help motivate evangelical voters who may be skeptical about Trump’s leadership style and personal baggage.

Still, Republicans will need suburban women, especially those like Republican-leaning Taylor Liesemeyer of Omaha, where first-term GOP Rep. Don Bacon is facing a spirited challenge from progressive Democratic newcomer Kara Eastman.

Bacon called Kavanaugh’s credentials “impeccable” and congratulated Trump on the pick, comments that could pose a risk in an election where women like Liesemeyer, a Republican who supports keeping abortion legal, will be key.

“I think as a country we need to be more progressive in certain aspects, though I have a lot of traditional values,” the 21-year-old occupational therapist said. “I think, as a woman, I should give other women that choice.”