News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Will Kavanaugh Controversy Play A Role In Arizona Senate Race?


It was impossible to ignore the ticking clock underneath the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Every day that went by was a day closer to the midterm elections, a reality Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee were very aware of. And both sides tried to leverage the hearings to their political advantage. So how are those hearings playing out among voters? NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben went to find out in Arizona, where there's a tight Senate race between two women, Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Mary Preble is super politically active. She's a regional director for the Arizona Federation of Republican women and a member of the Pima County Republican Women's Club. But today, she's at a pizza restaurant in Casa Grande, Ariz., to have lunch with another Republican women's group.

MARY PREBLE: I'm from Tucson. I drove up here. I'm trying to help these ladies get their club up a little bit.

KURTZLEBEN: And, like a lot of Republican women, she has some strong feelings on Christine Blasey Ford's accusations.

PREBLE: I don't know. I feel that she was put up to it. I really feel she was put up to it. But I could tell when she was talking that she was lying.

KURTZLEBEN: That puts her at odds with McSally, who has said she believes Ford is an assault victim. But still, Preble is firmly on Team McSally. And she thinks the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings have amped up enthusiasm in her party.

PREBLE: I think it helped escalate, but I think it escalated on both sides. I'm not saying one side more than the other because I'm hearing from our side. How does a Republican protest? We go to the vote. We put money down on the table.

KURTZLEBEN: All of that is one reason why Jim Vogt was phone banking for Democrat Kyrsten Sinema one night last week to stave off any Republican surge.

JIM VOGT: Well, a lot of my friends that are more progressive, they're going to vote. They're going to canvas. They're going to do everything they can, just like I am.

KURTZLEBEN: And while he hasn't seen evidence of the Kavanaugh controversy boosting turnout, he has seen it inching Democrats into becoming even more engaged.

VOGT: That just made it even more. I'm not sure if it said, OK, I wasn't going to vote, but now I am, but it was - I'm definitely going to vote. What else can I do?

ANDY BARR: People tend to do stuff out of anger. I think our side has more than enough of that in the tank at the moment.

BARR: For whatever anger the Democrats in Arizona might be feeling over the Kavanaugh controversy, Sinema, the Democratic candidate, doesn't sound outraged. Sinema has focused a lot of her rhetoric around process, like the FBI investigation of Ford's claims.


KYRSTEN SINEMA: When I learned that we were not going to get access to the report, I was very disappointed, as I think many Americans were. So I was forced to make a decision without being able to see that report.

KURTZLEBEN: Forced to make a decision. That's a far cry from other Democrats who have emphasized that they believed Kavanaugh had assaulted Ford. Right now, the race is in a dead heat. Polling shows that Sinema's slight lead on McSally has narrowed in the last couple of weeks. Republican strategist Jon Seaton thinks Kavanaugh played a part in that trend.

JON SEATON: Really, what I think it did do is - somewhat, anyway - galvanize kind of center-right Republican voters to come home, if you will, and make sure that they mail in their ballots, vote the Republican ticket.

KURTZLEBEN: But, especially with the candidates and their allies sticking to other areas like immigration and health care, as well as personal attacks, Democratic strategist Barr says it's hard to say that the confirmation hearings are what narrowed that gap.

KURTZLEBEN: The undecided group is typically more Republican. They always start to come home right around, you know, a week or two before ballots drop.

KURTZLEBEN: In a debate this week, both candidates chose not to weaponize the Kavanaugh fight too much. While the president has gone so far as to call Ford's accusations a hoax, McSally focused her criticism on Democrats and activists, not Ford herself.


MARTHA MCSALLY: We have seen the mob rule in Washington, D.C. And in the end, Arizonans wanted a yes vote on Justice Kavanaugh. I can be for survivors as one myself and for Justice Kavanaugh.

KURTZLEBEN: Meanwhile, moderators had to ask Sinema multiple times before she'd say how she'd have voted.


TED SIMONS: We still haven't got an answer - we've received no answer from you as...

SINEMA: Ultimately, I would have voted no on Justice Kavanaugh.

SIMONS: You would have voted no.

SINEMA: And I did put out a statement saying as such.

KURTZLEBEN: Whether the Kavanaugh confirmation gave either campaign a lasting boost, the candidates are much happier talking about health care, immigration and the economy. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.