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Analysis: Republicans taking grave risks in Kavanaugh case

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 9/20/2018 By Liz Goodwin and Jess Bidgood

Slideshow by Business Insider

WASHINGTON — Republicans are taking grave risks by openly marginalizing Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault and barreling toward a committee vote on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. Democrats are already decrying their actions as callous and sexist ahead of crucial midterm elections that are likely to hinge on women voters.

But for President Trump and the GOP, the alternative to their strategy poses even greater peril.

Failing to win Kavanaugh’s confirmation before the Nov. 6 midterm elections could demoralize their base. And there’s a small possibility Republicans could lose the Senate before they are able to fill the Supreme Court vacancy with a conservative — a hair-raising scenario that explains the GOP’s evident plan to steamroll Ford despite the negative impression it will likely leave on many women voters.

Senate Republicans and Trump say there is no need for the FBI to investigate Ford’s allegations that Judge Kavanaugh attempted to take off her clothes and covered her mouth to stop her from screaming when the two were teenagers at a party in Bethesda, Md. Instead, the Judiciary Committee has begun its own inquiry into her claims, and the committee has invited her to address the panel in an open or closed setting on Monday, where Judge Kavanaugh will also speak. It’s an invitation Ford’s lawyer has ruled out for now, citing her desire for an FBI investigation to take place first and for Ford to have more time to prepare.

With the clock ticking down toward the midterms, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell signaled that if she doesn’t testify on Monday, a vote is in the offing. “Monday is her opportunity,” he said this week.

Republicans are keenly aware that appearing to be insensitive to Ford in the era of #MeToo could damage their credibility with women voters up and down the ballot. They have even considered having female staff question Ford if she decides to appear, to avoid the optics of their all-male Judiciary members cross-examining her, according to Politico.

But some GOP lawmakers have nonetheless taken a hard line with Ford, defending Kavanaugh, who has emphatically denied the allegation. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, compared her account to a “drive-by shooting” in an interview with the Washington Post and tweeted that her request for an FBI investigation was just about “delaying the process till after the midterm elections.”

Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, suggested Tuesday that Kavanaugh’s lawyer be allowed to question Ford and vice versa, setting up a potentially intimidating, courtroom-like setting. “I think it’s not fair to Judge Kavanaugh for her not to come forward and testify,” Collins said Wednesday in a radio interview, saying the allegations would then hang over Kavanaugh’s head. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah told reporters Ford seems to be “mixed up” and may have confused someone else for Kavanaugh.

Meanwhile, Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault or harassment by multiple women, said he feels “terribly” for Kavanaugh and doubts Ford.

“Very hard for me to imagine anything happened,” the president said on Wednesday.

The sidelining of Ford during a cultural moment when women’s stories of harassment and assault have toppled key figures in entertainment, business, politics, media and other industries has unleashed a fresh wave of anger on Capitol Hill — and could spur more Democratic voters, already fired up, to head to the polls in November.

Democrats see women voters, especially in swing suburban districts, as the key to their plans to take the House. Recent polls show Democrats holding a 5 to 10 percentage point lead on Republicans in a generic ballot this fall, and most of that lead comes from female voters. A recent CNN poll showed 60 percent of women back Democrats compared to just 44 percent of men.

“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, said Tuesday at what is usually a fairly staid weekly press conference. “And I just want to say to the men in this country: Just shut up! And step up. Do the right thing for a change.”

“I would use terms like ‘rage’ and ‘fury,’” said Erica Mauter, an organizer with the grass-roots liberal group Move On on the base’s reaction to how senators are treating Ford. “This is not a process with integrity. You are refusing to honor, to listen to and respect the courage of this survivor who has come forward with her story and has been receiving death threats.”

The issue was already bubbling up in Nevada, where Senator Dean Heller is the only Republican running for reelection in a state won by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. On Monday, Nevada Democrats immediately evoked Heller’s statement, in July, that he had “no reservations” about voting to confirm Judge Kavanaugh.

“Nevadans deserve to know if Senator Heller still has ‘no reservations’ about confirming Kavanaugh to a lifetime appointment to our nation’s highest court,” wrote his Democratic opponent, Representative Jacky Rosen, on Twitter Tuesday.

Still, it was likely to echo louder in House races, where Republicans are struggling to hold onto suburban districts. In Northern Virginia’s Tenth District, Jennifer Wexton, the Democrat hoping to unseat Barbara Comstock, called for a delay of the vote to confirm Kavanaugh and tweeted, “This is bigger than our politics and will impact whether victims can trust Congress.”

Democrats compare Ford to Anita Hill, who faced aggressive questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 after she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. He was confirmed to the Supreme Court anyway, and the next year brought record-breaking numbers of women into political office in the “Year of the Woman.” This year a record-breaking number of women are again seeking national office, many spurred by anger at Trump’s treatment of women.

“I think the Republicans are trying for a replay of muscling through this nomination and ignoring the woman who raises serious allegations about his character,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in an interview with the Globe, referencing the Anita Hill hearings.

“The Senate rolled over a woman 27 years ago,” Warren said. “They can’t do it a second time.”

Democrats are also still hopping mad over McConnell’s decision three years ago to block President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick, Merrick Garland. He refused to hold a hearing on the vacancy until after the 2016 election, holding open the seat that eventually went to Neil Gorsuch.

Whether Ford decides to testify in public or not will go a long way in determining the impact of her accusations. Her lawyer said on CNN Tuesday Ford would speak to committee members but was not ready for Monday.

Carrie Severino, who’s pushed for Kavanaugh’s nomination as the chief counsel of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, said Democrats have used Ford “as a political pawn.” She stressed that two other men Ford identified as at the party where she says she was attacked have denied any memory of that event.

But even some of Kavanaugh’s most ardent supporters acknowledged that, even if he is confirmed, the allegations could shadow his career.

“It’s a bell that you can’t unring,” said Elizabeth Slattery, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has long recommended Trump nominate Kavanaugh to the bench. “This will forever be associated with Judge Kavanaugh.”

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