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Republicans and Democrats will spend the final month of the midterm election campaign in an unprecedented test of the potency of gender politics.
With the gender gap already a chasm during Donald Trump's presidency, the fight over Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation closed with dueling displays of male and female rage. Deepening familiar party divisions, an outsized number of battleground House and Senate races on Nov. 6 match Democratic women candidates against Republican men.
Republicans hope those male candidates, the symbolic representatives of traditional gender roles, benefit from a backlash against allegations about Kavanaugh and Trump-stoked fears about the vulnerability of other men to similar attacks. With polls generally on their side, Democrats hope women candidates have added drawing power with unhappy voters seeking change.
Female office-seekers "should be able to benefit from it," said Ruth Mandel of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. "This is a moment when different faces, different voices are a high priority."
At the same time, the decisive vote to confirm Kavanaugh blurs that formulation. Cast by a Republican woman, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, it reinforced the idea that party label matters more than gender in how politicians behave.
That has been the lesson of recent years as growing numbers of women have entered politics. Gender stereotypes among voters, which once ascribed strength to male candidates and empathy to female ones, have almost entirely yielded to the tribal magnetism of partisanship.
Yet Trump has sent fresh electricity into the politics of gender since he defeated Hillary Clinton for the presidency two years ago. The share of women who call themselves Republicans has fallen, while the share who call themselves Democrats has risen.
Anti-Trump sentiment has been particularly pronounced among college-educated white women. That once Republican-leaning constituency now favors Democrats for Congress by 53 percent to 31 percent, according to the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Their swelling influence shaped 2018 Democratic congressional primaries across the nation. Of 254 House races without incumbent Democratic nominees, primary voters selected women candidates in half of them, calculates Cook Political Report analyst Dave Wasserman.
Since Republicans didn't follow suit — just 18 percent of their non-incumbent nominees are women — the race for Congress now features an extraordinary number of contests that overlay a gender choice on a partisan one. Of 84 GOP districts that Democrats consider top targets, 33 pit Democratic women against Republican men.
The same is true of key Senate battles in Missouri, Nevada and North Dakota; in Arizona, two women square off for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake. Only Tennessee, where a Republican woman faces a Democratic man, flips the script.
Those patterns won't shift votes among strong partisans. But with roughly one-fourth of all voters viewing both parties unfavorably, House GOP pollster David Winston sees independents tilting the outcome.
"There's a gender dividend, but it's among independents," says Jennifer Lawless, a University of Virginia political scientist who has written extensively about women candidates.
The Kavanaugh hearings sharpened their choices by juxtaposing older Republican men with younger Democratic women on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Democratic women grilled Kavanaugh in the wake of Christine Blasey Ford's testimony, while Republican men angrily defended him.
Those images may nudge tradition-minded voters to back Republican men for Congress, Lawless said. For Democratic women, she added, "the potential benefit is "this general sense that our political institutions look like a relic from the past, with women's voices not only muted but absent."
Joel Benenson, Clinton's pollster in 2016, sees the backdrop of Trump's presidency magnifying the Kavanaugh effect. "Given the entire year and a half, the #MeToo movement and this debacle of a hearing, women candidates could very well perform better," he said.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres isn't sure, since "we have so many more pieces to look at this time." The number of women nominees for the House — 235 counting both parties — shattered the previous record by 40 percent.
But Ayres warns that, to remain competitive, the GOP must heed a changing America and nominate more women in future races.
"Better to be a party that reflects people of both genders and all races with conservative principles," he concluded. "That's going to be more true with each passing year."