Republicans were already concerned that sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh could turn off suburban women and lead to bigger losses in the midterm elections.
And then President Donald Trump tweeted.
Taking direct aim at the credibility of Kavanaugh’s accuser, California professor Christine Blasey Ford, Trump wrote, “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. I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!”
The tweet deepened some Republicans’ worries about the potential for the allegation to damage the party’s candidates. And it’s just the latest of two years of events that Democratic candidates and operatives say paint Trump and the Republican Party as callous toward women.
In swing states with governor’s races and districts with House seats up for grabs – particularly suburban regions where Democrats are counting on strong support from women – the allegation facing Kavanaugh could be most politically potent, Democrats said.
Democrats in some of those races are already talking about the issue.
Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic nominee in a competitive Michigan governor’s race and a sexual assault survivor, lambasted the Senate’s handling of the Kavanaugh allegation during an event with Michigan State University Democrats on Tuesday.
At the same event where she discussed the scandal at the school around university doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse of gymnasts, she said she is “seething angry” about Republicans’ rhetoric around the Kavanaugh nomination. “I go right back to that place where I was a survivor of sexual assault,” Whitmer said, according to The State News.
“I am horrified that they are denigrating this doctor who has come forward to share her story in the light of all the ugliest pressure in the world,” she said.
While Democratic strategists cautioned that the story will change in the coming days – particularly as the Senate Judiciary Committee continues to negotiate a hearing with Kavanaugh’s accuser – they said the GOP response is likely to feed into the narratives that have driven women to vote for Democrats.
Those operatives cast the Kavanaugh allegation not as a singular, galvanizing event – but instead as the latest in an intensifying string that dates back to the “Access Hollywood” tape during the 2016 election, which caught Trump bragging about being able to sexually assault women because he was a celebrity.
“It’s outraging for women. And remember, a large number of American women are survivors of assault,” said Krystal Ball, a strategist working closely with several Democratic House candidates.
“You could hardly think of a more galvanizing news event,” Ball said. “This election is about backlash to Trump. And this turns it up to 11.”
The female backlash against Trump first took shape with the Women’s March the day after his inauguration. It hardened during the battle over Obamacare in 2017, and additional flashpoints – including Trump’s support for accused child molester Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate special election, his mocking of the #MeToo movement and news of his hush payments to porn star Stormy Daniels – have come frequently since then.
That backlash has also led to Democrats nominating record numbers of women up and down the ballot this year.
Female opposition to Trump has already proven potent in races like the Virginia gubernatorial contest last year, when exit polls found that Democratic winner Ralph Northam won female voters by 22 percentage points amid a dramatic suburban swing in his favor compared to 2016 Virginia results.
“What has turned them off the Republican Party is not only the lewd behavior and things that were said by Donald Trump, but as much as anything that the entire Republican Party was willing to look the other way. I think women looked at that and they essentially said, ‘there’s no consequences,’” said Alixandria Lapp, the president of The House Majority PAC, a super PAC with ties to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“I think that’s really, ultimately, what’s driving that movement away from the Republican Party with these suburban women,” Lapp said.
Hiral Tipirneni, a doctor challenging Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko in the suburbs north and west of Phoenix, told CNN, “I do think that this cuts to the core of people’s concern about who they vote for. It’s not just the issues, it’s that you’re doing this for the right reasons.”
Voters, Tipirneni said, are “just feeling like, can we not just trust anybody anymore?”
Another cause for concern for Republicans: An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out Thursday found that 38% of voters oppose his nomination while just 34% support him.
The poll found support for Kavanaugh had plummeted compared to its August results among independents (+15 percentage points then and -16 points now), suburban women (-6 points then and -11 points now) and women over age 50 (+3 points then and -7 points now). Those results suggest that even if Kavanaugh’s nomination galvanizes committed GOP voters, Republicans’ hopes of using it to persuade moderate voters could be evaporating.
It all comes as the Senate Judiciary Committee’s GOP leadership negotiates with attorneys for Kavanaugh’s accuser to have her appear at a hearing next week.
“I don’t know if we know enough yet about how it will affect the midterms,” said one Republican strategist involved in midterm races. “I think if she testifies it could be devastating for us. Especially if it is 11 old white guys doing the questioning.”
Another GOP strategist, who is working on gubernatorial races, said voters who oppose Kavanaugh were already likely to vote Democratic or stay home on election day – but acknowledged the issue puts Republicans in a complicated position.
“Republicans are struggling with suburban women voters, however Republicans also need to ensure that ‘soft Republicans’ come out to the polls on election day. If Kavanaugh is not confirmed or forced to withdraw, I think you could see more Republicans sit out this election, viewing the Senate unable to get anything done,” the strategist said.
That strategist also said a hearing in which Republicans appeared dismissive of Kavanaugh’s accuser could damage the party’s candidates all over the ballot.
Still, don’t expect Democrats in competitive states and districts to use the Kavanaugh allegation in television advertisements.
Lapp said Democrats don’t need to highlight the Kavanaugh allegation or Republicans’ reaction to Trump’s treatment of women “because I think, if you look at polling numbers, voters seem to have really gotten that message already.”
“Honestly I don’t think they have to use it in paid media,” Ball, the Democratic strategist, said. “It’s there, it’s an energizer, just like the backlash to Trump is not something the candidates necessarily have to talk about.”