The ground shifted beneath our feet last week.

Here’s what I mean: I suddenly heard from a Republican source who had been a ghost for a while, expressing newfound optimism about November. He sent me an opinion piece by Bret Stephens in which the Trump-bashing conservative writes, “In [President Donald] Trump, at least one big bully was willing to stand up to others,” referring to what he called the bullying tactics of Democrats’ attempt to derail Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.

And so, negative polarization reared its head in this court confirmation fight. In that theory of politics, loathing of the other team is the overriding political principle, even more than your own ideology. In this case, Stephens harks back to the old formulation, said by Franklin Roosevelt about Anastasio Somoza, or maybe by Cordell Hull about Rafael Trujillo (the historical record is unclear): “He’s an SOB, but he’s our SOB.”

The point is that Democratic pushback on Kavanaugh has revved up GOP enthusiasm, which had been flagging. Indeed, a National Public Radio poll last week showed the Democrats’ enthusiasm gap has evaporated.

That suddenly optimistic GOP source of mine I mentioned? He was detecting so much new energy on the right — and soft suburban Republicans returning to the fold — that he was willing to make optimistic predictions, including victory for U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen and a continued majority for Republicans in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, the fraught sex and gender politics could only serve to remind Democrats of 2016, when they lost even in light of the disclosure of Trump’s lewd boasting about women, caught on tape.

But let’s not get out of hand. Democrats often assume the worst is coming.

Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel has been around the block enough times to be wary of claims of #Demsin­Disarray.

“You can make your own news cycle at home,” Weigel wrote. “Just start with ‘Dems panic about,’ then add some words.”

What was looking more likely as the week progressed was that the Kavanaugh confirmation battle was benefiting red state Republicans in key Senate matchups. As for places like Minnesota? It’s a little less clear.

Republicans still must contend with Trump’s flagging poll numbers here. Midterm elections have in recent years been referendums on the party that controls the White House, and Trump’s approval rating was just 39 percent in the recent Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll.

But Minnesota Republicans embraced Trump during his visit to Rochester last week anyway. If they hadn’t, they risked losing the GOP base they may have just won back during the Kavanaugh battle.

 

J. Patrick Coolican 651-925-5042 Twitter: @jpcoolican patrick.coolican@startribune.com