In public, Republicans have been growing more defiant by the day about Brett Kavanaugh’s prospects to reach the Supreme Court. But as Christine Blasey Ford prepares to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual assault, Republican campaigners are, in private, fretting about the potential political repercussions of sticking with Kavanaugh.
And that was before a new allegation of sexual misconduct surfaced Sunday evening.
With Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) vowing to “plow right through” the confirmation process, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pledging to stand by Kavanaugh no matter what Ford tells the committee this week, some Republicans see a party that has not properly and fully grappled with the political realities of the #MeToo movement.
On Sunday night, The New Yorker revealed that Deborah Ramirez, who attended Yale with Kavanaugh, alleges that he exposed himself to her at a party 35 years ago.
Kavanaugh and the White House quickly issued statements on Sunday night denying the allegations. Kavanaugh, in a statement, called the claims a “smear, plain and simple.”
Even before the most recent allegations surfaced, Democrats were increasingly bullish that November’s elections could be a re-run of 1992, when women stormed into office after the Senate confirmed Clarence Thomas to the high court despite Anita Hill’s sexual-harassment allegations against him.
“How the Senate handles this and the Senate Republicans handle this will be a test of this time, of 2018, in the #MeToo movement. Can we do better? And I fear we are failing that, if we don’t do it correctly,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who was first elected in the 1992 “year of the woman,” said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Graham and other Republicans who sit on the judiciary committee have said Ford should be respected and heard, but they have publicly pushed back on her decades-old allegations, pointing to alleged witnesses who said they have no memory of the party where Ford says Kavanaugh pinned her down and tried to take off her clothes. President Donald Trump has also cast doubt on Ford’s claims.
Murray had a stark warning for Republicans who dismiss Ford’s allegations, in a year when Democrats are already favored to re-take control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate.
“If the Senate ‘plows through’ this, if it’s a ‘hiccup,’ if they don’t do it right, there will be a tremendous backlash again,” she predicted.
Republicans don’t disagree. They point to Trump’s falling approval numbers in addition to the enthusiasm among female voters which was already a concern for the party even before Ford and Ramirez came forward with their allegations. And they’re worried that unforced errors on the part of some of their candidates who are running against Democratic women this year could cause them to be swept away by a new, more powerful blue wave. Moreover, Kavanaugh’s approval rating in a recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll is under water, with women and independent voters fueling his collapsing popularity from when he was first nominated.
All of those factors combined, strategists say, could spell disaster for Republicans come November.
“This is an election year with a highly motivated Democratic party that is electing historic numbers of women, minorities and outsiders to Congress,” Sophia Nelson, a former Republican counsel for the House Oversight Committee, told The Daily Beast. “The Republicans act at their peril if they just ‘plow through’ this nomination, when America’s biggest demographic—women—are making clear they do not want Kavanaugh on the high court.”
At least two prominent Republican candidates running against a woman this year have taken heat from their opponents in recent days for making comments about Ford’s allegations that were criticized as tone-deaf and insensitive. The remarks have GOP strategists fretting that if voters believe Ford—who is testifying on Thursday—is being treated poorly, there could be political consequences.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), perhaps the most vulnerable Senate Republican this year, appeared to dismiss Ford’s allegation as a “little hiccup” in Kavanaugh’s path to the Supreme Court. Heller later said he was referring to how Democrats were handling the matter, but his opponent, Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), called his remarks “tone-deaf” and “disappointing.”
In another race, Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) said Ford’s allegation was “even more absurd” than Hill’s “because these people were teenagers when this supposed alleged incident took place.” His opponent, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), called those comments “disturbing,” adding: “They don’t reflect the values of North Dakota.”
Before Ford’s and Ramirez’s allegations were made public, Republican candidates like Cramer who are running against vulnerable Democrats in conservative states were using the Supreme Court nomination to their advantage, insinuating that their opponent was too aligned with national Democrats in opposing Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Now, Republicans worry that that line of attack, once an easy blow against conservative Democrats, no longer works—especially in states like North Dakota, where the incumbent Democrat is a woman.
“Assuming there are no new revelations and Kavanaugh is confirmed, I think the biggest impact is that Republicans can’t use SCOTUS as a cudgel against red-state Democrats,” said a Republican strategist working on a 2018 Senate race. “SCOTUS nominations always motivate the base on both sides. I don’t think that’s changed. If anything I think it’s been amplified.”
Indeed, some GOP candidates have stopped mentioning the Supreme Court nomination altogether when attacking their opponents. For example, Indiana businessman Mike Braun, the Republican running against Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) in a state Trump won by 20 points, has not mentioned Kavanaugh in a campaign email ever since Ford went public.
But while many Republicans fear the political costs of pushing Kavanaugh through to the end, other conservatives and allies of the president have criticized the judiciary committee and its chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), for being too accommodating to Ford and her attorneys—even delaying the planned vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination to make time for another hearing. Some Republicans, echoing the Trump base, have argued that the Ford legal team’s efforts to prolong negotiations over her testimony amount to a delay tactic, and they’ve encouraged Grassley to put his foot down and barrel ahead with a vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination.
“At this point one must conclude that some Repubs on the [Senate Judiciary] Committee enjoy being held hostage to maintain a facade of sensitivity. So weak,” tweeted Fox News host Laura Ingraham, a staunch supporter of the president. She also accused Ford’s attorneys of “emotional and political extortion.”
On Friday, Republicans and Kavanaugh allies mounted a full-court press across Washington. On one end of the city, more than 75 women who have known Kavanaugh at various points in his life surrounded a podium in the J.W. Marriott hotel to attest to his character and respect for women. Of the six women who spoke at the press conference, two had known Kavanaugh in high school.
“Brett was the kind of guy you wanted to take home to meet your parents,” said Maura Fitzgerald, who said she knew Kavanaugh in high school and briefly dated him in college.
Meghan McCaleb, another longtime friend from high school, said, “More than five dozen of us, the girls who were his closest friends in high school and hung out with him virtually every weekend, had no choice but to stand up and say, ‘that’s not the Brett I know.’”
—Additional reporting by Jackie Kucinich