WASHINGTON – Republicans have been trying, with some success, not to blame the accuser in the high-stakes he-said-she-said roiling the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. They have calibrated their comments to avoid antagonizing Christine Blasey Ford — and by extension female voters ahead of the November election.
But in a single tweet, President Donald Trump appears to have upended that strategy.
“I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local Law Enforcement Authorities by either her or her loving parents,” he wrote.
“Judge Brett Kavanaugh is a fine man,” he added, “with an impeccable reputation, who is under assault by radical left wing politicians.”
Judge Brett Kavanaugh is a fine man, with an impeccable reputation, who is under assault by radical left wing politicians who don’t want to know the answers, they just want to destroy and delay. Facts don’t matter. I go through this with them every single day in D.C.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2018
Attacking Ford, as Trump did, hardened the standoff between Ford and Senate Republicans into a risky — and now direct — confrontation. With the midterm election just 46 days away, the GOP can’t afford to lose more female voters than it already has in the Trump era, particularly in crucial suburban districts that could decide control of the House of Representatives.
Yet even before Trump’s outburst, the party discipline on Kavanaugh’s accuser was cracking. Stoking outrage, a prominent conservative floated an unsubstantiated theory on Twitter that someone else had actually committed the assault.
Republicans quickly tried to distance themselves from the tweets. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who is facing a difficult re-election race, told supporters in a conference call that the accusations were a “hiccup” and Kavanaugh would be confirmed, according to the Nevada Independent.
In South Carolina, Rep. Ralph Norman opened an election debate at a Kiwanis Club, an international service organization, by making light of the allegations with a joke. “Did y’all hear this latest late-breaking news from the Kavanaugh hearings?” he said, according to the Post and Courier newspaper. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out that she was groped by Abraham Lincoln.”
A Senate candidate in Mississippi, Chris McDaniel, dismissed the “made-up” scandal. “All of the sudden, that disqualifies this man?” he said on the “Focal Point” show on American Family Radio. “No, not a chance.”
The party has been down this road before. Since the 2016 election campaign, Trump has been fending off allegations over his own behavior — including a recording from years ago saying that, being famous, he could grope women with impunity — and lawsuits. And Trump backed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore despite allegations of sexual impropriety with young teens.
Kavanaugh’s nomination was supposed to be a centerpiece of the GOP’s argument for keeping control of the Senate. It would be a major accomplishment, showing conservatives and Christian evangelicals why they had supported Trump for president in the first place.
But that was before Kavanaugh’s confirmation was transformed into a do-over of the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings, which launched the Year of the Woman in 1992. Law professor Anita Hill accused the Supreme Court nominee of sexual harassment when he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thomas denied the allegation and was confirmed to the court.
Ford went public in The Washington Post on Sept. 16 with her accusation that Kavanaugh had pinned her to a bed and tried to pull off her clothes during a party in high school, putting his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream. She said she feared he might inadvertently kill her. She said she was around 15 at the time, and he would have been about 17. Friends say she struggled with the decision to come forward.
Kavanaugh, a Yale-educated appellate court judge who worked in the White House under President George W. Bush, denies the claim and said he wants to testify “as soon as possible so that I can clear my name.”
Ford initially appeared reluctant to follow through on her offer to testify. Republicans seemed relieved that she might not show and began to talk of how they might move on.
But now Ford says she is willing to testify publicly. Her attorneys are in negotiations with Republicans about how and under what conditions.
Steve Schmidt, a veteran political strategist who left the Republican Party this year, said Ford testifying before the Judiciary Committee is “the worst conceivable outcome” for the GOP, because all 11 Republicans on the panel are men.
The hearing will appear in campaign ads and further “sever” the GOP’s relationship with college-educated suburban women, Schmidt said. “For a generation of American women, it will cause PTSD because of the Anita Hill hearings.”
Republicans are mindful of mistakes made during the Hill hearings and do not want to repeat them. Their solution: hiring a female attorney to question Ford. That would save them from the optics of 11 Republican men questioning a woman about a sexual assault. The Republicans are reaching out to potential hires now.
Democrats face their own complications. Senators from states that Trump won — Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Joe Donnelly in Indiana and Joe Manchin in West Virginia — have yet to decide how they will vote. Before the assault allegation, supporting Kavanaugh had offered them a chance to side with Trump, who remains popular in many “red” Republican-dominated states, and show independence from their own party.
“This was always going to be a difficult vote for red-state Democrats, and it’s only become harder,” said Alex Conant, a GOP strategist. “Now it’s the biggest story in the country, and everybody is looking to see how the Democrats in Trump country vote.”
Strategists from both parties were awaiting fresh polling that could provide better insight on how voters were viewing the situation.
But for Republicans, particularly in the Senate, it appeared that the only outcome potentially worse than confirming Kavanaugh is not confirming him.
“We’re supposed to listen, but we’re also supposed to get results,” said Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota. “Judge Kavanaugh clearly is supported to be the next member of the United States Supreme Court, and we’ll move forward with this process and allow the votes to be counted.”