WASHINGTON — The country is closely following the Brett Kavanaugh saga, but will it sway voters in November?
In an era when the everyday deluge of news coming out of Washington can often feel too overwhelming, the Senate hearing last week to examine allegations of sexual assault against President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee seems to have broken through to an unusual degree.
Nielsen, the ratings agency, estimated nearly 20 percent of American households with a TV watched the hearing, while Google data on search trends showed Kavanaugh was a rare political story to eclipse pop culture and other news.
Kavanaugh's partisan rage at hearing calls fitness into questionSept. 29, 201803:23
Partisans on both sides say what's happening with Kavanaugh will matter at the ballot box and, with the announcement of the FBI investigation on Friday and a delay in the Senate confirmation vote, it will remain front and center as Election Day approaches.
Independent polls and election handicappers have found recently that Democrats are solidifying their status as favorites to retake the House. The Senate, where several Democratic incumbents face tough races in states Trump won by large margins, looks less likely for the Democrats to capture, but their fortunes have been improving with candidates in Texas and Tennessee mounting unexpectedly strong challenges to GOP incumbents.
In Indiana, Republican Mike Braun, who is challenging vulnerable Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, slammed his opponent last week for participating in a "media circus designed to smear and destroy Judge Kavanaugh's reputation." Nonetheless, Donnelly announced Friday he will vote against Kavanaugh's confirmation if it reaches the Senate floor.
The issue is also bleeding into campaigns for the House and governor, even though those offices have no impact on whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not.
In New Jersey, Democrat challenger Tom Malinowski is running an ad hitting Republican Rep. Leonard Lance over his pro-Kavanaugh comments, while Democratic officials expect Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., to face heat for her own remarks. She has been a prominent advocate for the #MeToo movement in Congress, but is a friend of Kavanaugh's and has declined to say whether she believes his accusers.
Democrats predicted the wave of women who marched against Trump, shared stories of abuse in the #MeToo era, and powered female candidates to primary victories this year, would only build after watching Christine Blasey Ford’s poised testimony on Thursday describing Kavanaugh laughing as he assaulted her. A record number of women are running for Congress this year, and 75 percent of them are Democrats.
"The women of this country identify with Dr. Ford and will not forget what is happening here," said Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "They are not angry, they are furious, and I expect the largest women's turnout in a midterm — ever."
Democrats likened the turn of events to the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings, which ended with his confirmation to the Supreme Court, but also inspired a surge of elected women and shined a national spotlight on sexual harassment.
"The fallout out of this, regardless of whether he's confirmed, will last for a decade," said Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist and executive editor of Shareblue Media. "It's the worst possible thing that can happen for women. It looks like putting your high school rapist in charge of abortion."
Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, which grooms young Democratic candidates for state office, said she'd seen a spike in people reaching out to volunteer in races and even prepare to run for office in the next election cycle in 2020.
"It's breaking through in a way I don't think other things have, because it feels personal to us, especially younger woman, a group Democrats have had problems with," she said. "We've built the infrastructure to absorb that rage and do something meaningful with it."
ActBlue, an online clearinghouse for Democratic donors, reported that they raised $10 million from small donors on Friday, their highest daily total ever since the site was founded in 2004.
"Voters have been rightfully glued to this hearing, and women and millennials in particular will be further enraged and motivated by the state of the Republican Party in the final stretch of the midterms," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson Meredith Kelly.
Red state Democrats could face a tough choice between upsetting liberal supporters or courting crossover voters who typically support Republicans.
Guy Cecil, who runs Democrats' largest super PAC, Priorities USA, tweeted that he won't back any member of the party who stands with Kavanaugh. Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have yet to make a final decision on Kavanaugh.
But Republicans said they see signs that Kavanaugh's defiant testimony brought the GOP together and fired up apathetic base voters the party needs to stave off a disaster in November.
Conservatives cheered the judge's Trump-like denunciations of "the left," "the media," and his claim that he was the victim of a "political hit" from opponents who wanted "revenge on behalf of the Clintons."
"I think the Democrats' campaign to smear Kavanaugh has united Trump and Bush Republicans as never before," said Cesar Conda, a former chief of staff to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. "The GOP base will be energized to stop the Democrats from taking over the Congress."
Conda and other Republicans who spoke to NBC News pointed to recent polls by Gallup and others that showed that the GOP's enthusiasm matched that of Democrats after months of imbalance.
Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster with Public Opinion Strategies, said he'd seen a similar trend, but couldn't predict whether it would last.
"There hasn't been any lessening in Democratic enthusiasm, but the gap between Democrat and Republican enthusiasm has gone away," Bolger said.
While he acknowledged that women's antipathy toward Republicans, especially in the suburbs, is giving a boost to Democrats around the country, Bolger argued that it would be hard to push their turnout beyond its current highs.
"They're already angry at the president, they're already angry at the Republican Party," he said.
The partisan debate was especially stark over how the issue would play in key Senate races.Brian Fallon, a former aide to Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, predicted Republicans will "pay dearly this November," while Josh Holmes, a former aide to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said the treatment of Kavanaugh was a "grenade" that internal polls suggested could take out Democratic incumbents.
In Florida, the state Democratic Party ripped Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis for not speaking out after Kavanaugh's testimony. And in Connecticut, GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski said he would take a "pass" on answering a question about Kavanaugh during a debate Wednesday.
"I've got three daughters," he said at the debate. "I think any allegation of sexual abuse should be taken very seriously. ... Guys, I'm running for governor of Connecticut. I'm not running for Senate."