Updated at 8:35 p.m. ET
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a message for Republican voters who are celebrating the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh: Get to the polls in November if you want more conservatives sitting on judicial benches.
"Lose the Senate, and the project of confirming judges is over for the last two years of President Trump," McConnell said in an interview with NPR in his Capitol Hill office. "That, I think, is a scary prospect to the people who like what we've been doing on the judge project and I hope will help us hold on to our majority."
McConnell said the raucous, sometimes aggressive fight over Kavanaugh's nomination came at a perfect time for Republicans. Polls showed GOP voter enthusiasm slumping over the summer as energy for Democrats spiked.
All that turned around when Republicans grew frustrated with the protracted battle over Kavanaugh. The Kentucky Republican said it awakened them to the Supreme Court cause — an issue that inspired many of the same voters to back Trump in 2016.
"As of the last week or so the hottest issue in our races has [been the] Kavanaugh nomination," McConnell said, even outpacing tax reform, which the top Senate leader listed as a major legislative accomplishment. "We knew the Democrats were fired up. They have been all year. No question about that."
"But what we are now seeing is that the enthusiasm and energy on the Republican side comes close to matching the Democratic side, and given the states that we're competing in, that's really good news for us," he said.
McConnell also called activists opposing Kavanaugh a "mob" and criticized Democrats for encouraging their actions. He said Republicans were inundated with protesters in recent weeks and had their lives disrupted.
"We were literally under assault ourselves," McConnell said. "Trailing members for their homes; getting in their faces here in the Capitol. An effort clearly to try and intimidate us. And one of the reasons I was so proud of the result last Saturday on Judge Kavanaugh is that we stood up for two things. We stood up to the mob and we also stood up for the presumption of innocence in this country."
He also rejected any comparison between those protesters and the conservative Tea Party activists who protested the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act or the raucous crowds that chant "lock her up" and jeer at reporters at many of Trump's own campaign rallies.
Democrats say the Kavanaugh fight was equally energizing for their voters and for women in particular. At the same time, Republicans are losing support among women in addition to already low numbers among Hispanic and African-American voters.
All problems McConnell admits.
"We've always had something of a gender gap," McConnell said. "It's never been as wide as it is now."
He said he hopes electing qualified women to the Senate, like Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee and Martha McSally in Arizona, will help close that divide. He also pointed to Hispanic Republicans like Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as evidence of diversity within the GOP ranks, but he noted that attracting black voters has been a bigger challenge.
"I think we can improve our position with women voters and with Hispanic voters for sure," he said. "With African-Americans, we haven't been able to make much headway."
He did point to Sen. Tim Scott, the first African-American senator elected in South Carolina, as a "noteworthy" addition to the GOP conference.
"He's arguably the most popular politician in South Carolina," McConnell said. "So there is hope with African-American voters as well. But I'm more optimistic about closing the gender gap and by improving our position with Hispanics."
Several key issues Republicans once touted as the central themes for the midterm elections have faded in recent weeks. McConnell says tax reform remains one of his top accomplishments, despite the fact that it is playing a smaller role in campaigns this year, and has been eclipsed by the Supreme Court debate.
The GOP message on health care has also shifted. Gone are the days of candidates vowing to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Now Republicans are actively embracing protections for people with pre-existing conditions — a central tenet of the law they all opposed.
McConnell said many Republicans are explicitly vowing to keep those protections, even as two GOP Senate candidates, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, are suing to weaken consumer protection provisions in the health care law.
"Every one of our candidates have been able to respond to it by saying that they are in favor of making sure that people with pre-existing conditions are covered," McConnell said. "You can favor the lawsuit and still be in favor of maintaining coverage or adjusting conditions."
McConnell sidestepped whether Republicans would take another run at rolling back Obamacare next year after failing to get the votes for their scaled down repeal legislation. He called that failed effort "the single biggest disappointment this Congress and really the only major disappointment" after moving bills through "on so many different fronts."
The top Senate Republican distanced himself from the unusual public criticism that President Trump leveled of the Federal Reserve Bank's economic policies. Trump said the Fed had "gone crazy" for raising interest rates.
McConnell instead said of his own posture on monetary policy, "I generally avoid commenting on the market. It goes up and it goes down. Or giving the Fed advice."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
OK, let's go back to that moment when two women confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator on Capitol Hill about the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Look at me when I'm talking to you. You're telling me that my assault doesn't matter.
KELLY: After that confrontation, Flake insisted on an FBI investigation, prompting some to praise the moment as evidence that protest works. Well, protests continued. Here's this past Saturday.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Hey-hey, ho-ho, Kavanaugh has got to go.
KELLY: People rushing the doors of the Supreme Court as Kavanaugh was sworn in. But what some see as constructive protests others, including the president, call a mob.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You don't hand matches to an arsonist. And you don't give power to an angry left-wing mob. And that's what they've become.
KELLY: The president speaking at a rally in Kansas shortly after Kavanaugh was confirmed. Well, he is not the only Republican talking about mobs, using that word, prompting us to wonder whether a new Republican strategy might be taking shape right before the midterms. Well, Whit Ayres is a pollster who has advised Republicans for years. Welcome back to the program, Mr. Ayres.
WHIT AYRES: Good to be here.
KELLY: So we just heard the president there talking about a left-wing mob. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called the protesters a mob. Senator Marco Rubio has been tweeting. He tweeted over the weekend saying, imagine what the cable news coverage would have looked like if an angry mob of conservatives had stormed the steps of the Supreme Court. So what do we think is going on here?
AYRES: The Kavanaugh confirmation battle united the center-right coalition unlike any event during the Trump presidency other than the Gorsuch nomination. And part of the reason for that are the loud protests. So the tactics of the left ultimately undermine their cause.
KELLY: Just take a step back with me for a minute. We all talk about the lack of civility in Washington these days. A direct question, but does calling one's political opponents a mob help?
AYRES: I think it is symptomatic of the politics of our age.
KELLY: Is it the president's responsibility, leading the entire country, to try to rise above the politics of our age even four weeks out from the midterms, to find some way to try to bring Americans together and not divide?
AYRES: Mary Louise, there is no way I can answer that question...
KELLY: (Laughter) Why not?
AYRES: ...Without getting myself in trouble.
KELLY: Let me put it to you this way. There are practical consequences of hardening battle lines. And while no party is blameless in Washington these days, it makes it harder and harder to cross party lines and actually get anything done.
AYRES: Yes, it does. And in order to actually get something done, we're going to have to have people like our clients in the Senate - Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham and Lamar Alexander and John Kennedy - who will reach across the aisle and form bipartisan coalitions - these are all clients of ours - as our clients have done repeatedly and will continue to do.
KELLY: You mentioned Lindsey Graham is one of your clients.
KELLY: He had quite the turn in the Kavanaugh hearing where he came out about as angry as I've ever seen him.
AYRES: Yep, me, too.
KELLY: Yeah. How do we square that with the politics of getting re-elected, the politics of doing the right thing in terms of the country?
AYRES: I don't think it's any more complicated than the Kavanaugh hearings bringing out intense emotions on all sides.
KELLY: And I guess this circles us back to my original question of, have the Kavanaugh hearings coalesced into a different strategy as Republicans look at these last four weeks before Americans go to vote?
AYRES: No, I don't think it's coalesced into a different strategy. What it has done is unite the various parts of the Republican center-right coalition in a way they were not united before.
KELLY: Whit Ayres, thank you so much.
AYRES: It's my pleasure being with you.
KELLY: That's Republican strategist and pollster Whit Ayres. He's president of North Star Opinion Research. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.