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In the wake of Kavanaugh, who owns the Wisconsin voter enthusiasm edge?

In the wake of Kavanaugh, who owns the Wisconsin voter enthusiasm edge?

From the Cap Times election roundup: Coverage of the Wisconsin U.S. Senate race series

The contentious confirmation process for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh may serve to fire up the Republican base ahead of the Nov. 6 election, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said this week.

A new national poll released Wednesday suggests that could be true. But Democrats argue Republicans will be hurt by President Donald Trump mocking a woman who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault. And one Wisconsin-based pollster is cautioning against reading too much into polling measures of partisan enthusiasm in the first place. 

"I think it’s going to motivate people on both sides for the wrong reasons," Vos said Tuesday during an event hosted by "I want to motivate people to vote because we have a good agenda."

But Vos said he thinks national Democrats have "overplayed their hand" by aggressively opposing Kavanaugh's confirmation.

It was announced on Thursday that the FBI had completed its investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh. Members of the U.S. Senate were set to review the FBI report one week after Kavanaugh and his first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

An NPR/PBS/Marist poll released Wednesday suggested the debate over whether Kavanaugh ought to be confirmed has activated a Republican base that has, throughout much of the election season, trailed behind Democrats in its enthusiasm to vote. 

"The result of hearings, at least in short run, is the Republican base was awakened," Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, told NPR

The NPR/PBS/Marist poll found that nationally, Republicans and Democrats are statistically tied in a measure of how important they think the November elections will be. A July poll showed Democrats with a 10-point lead in enthusiasm over Republicans. 

"People are energized, they want (Kavanaugh confirmed)," said state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, during a recent Fox News interview. "I'm hearing it on the phones as I'm talking to people as well ... I think it is going to increase our turnout."

Vukmir is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who announced her opposition to Kavanaugh before the assault allegations against him were made public. Baldwin said last month she found the allegations against Kavanaugh to be "serious" and "credible."

Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, said up until the president went after Ford during a rally on Tuesday, he felt like most of the energy related to the issue from voters in both political parties was occurring naturally. Voters brought it up to him in conversations, he said, and whatever side of the issue they were on, they were angry.

Before Trump publicly mocked Ford, Steineke said, he hadn't seen people overtly using the accusations against Kavanaugh to rile up their base. 

"Donald Trump doesn’t usually make things better when he speaks on issues like this. Let’s put it that way," said Steineke, who has often been critical of the president. "I think that unfortunately, political parties, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, tend to, when they’re going into campaigns, want to drive the wedge as far and as deep as they possibly can. And unfortunately that is discouraging to a vast majority of people that aren't highly partisan. So in an effort to energize your base, which is 25-30 percent of the population on either side, the 40-50 percent of people in the middle are disgusted and turned off by the whole thing, honestly by both sides."

Gov. Scott Walker, asked about Trump's comments on Wednesday in Milwaukee, told reporters he hadn't heard the president mock Kavanaugh's accuser. Walker said he continues to believe the allegations against Kavanaugh should be "treated seriously" by the Senate, but said he hasn't been following the president's comments.

State Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, who has been a vocal critic of Wisconsin Republicans backing Kavanaugh, called Walker's response "appalling." 

Mandela Barnes, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, said during a Wednesday event on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus he doesn't think Kavanaugh's confirmation process will help drive Republicans to the polls.

"These are some very serious allegations that we’re talking about. We have a president who’s mocked someone who’s said that she’s been a victim of sexual assault. If that is what’s going to drive enthusiasm amongst Republicans then we’re in a really bad place," Barnes said.

Barnes and Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, criticized a letter signed by 43 legislative Republicans last month voicing support for Kavanaugh. The allegations against Kavanaugh were not made public until after the letter was sent.

"We find no reason why anyone would stand in the way of another affirmative vote for this outstanding nominee," the letter, dated Sept. 5, reads. 

Taylor said it is "shameful" that Vos and other Republican lawmakers have not revoked their support of Kavanaugh, and cast doubts on his expectation that the issue will energize Republican voters.

"I think he’s wrong about it," Taylor said. "I think that women watching, once again, how we’re being treated and how our credibility is under attack, I think women are going to be more motivated than ever to come out and defeat Republican politicians who continue to minimize the impact of sexual abuse and continue to deny that it exists."

A new measure of Wisconsin voters' enthusiasm to vote and their opinions on Kavanaugh is set to be released by the Marquette University Law School poll next week. 

Throughout the year, Wisconsin Democrats have had, on average, a seven-point enthusiasm advantage over Republicans, according to poll director Charles Franklin. But Franklin warns against reading too much into enthusiasm measures or making any direct connections between a particular event and a fluctuation in voter enthusiasm.

While enthusiasm may fluctuate throughout a campaign, Franklin said, voter certainty tends to remain steadier. In other words, the percentage of people who are certain they will vote doesn't change much, but at times they might be more or less excited about doing so. 

"Enthusiasm is a worthwhile subject, but I think we may invest more importance in it than it really deserves, and certainly every fluctuation in it is not necessarily a major headline," Franklin said.

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.