On a recent evening in the suburbs of Los Angeles, two dozen women gathered to talk about sexual assault.
They did so at the campaign office of Katie Hill, a Democrat running in a district that has been held by Republicans for more than two decades, and amid the drama unfolding thousands of miles away in Washington, DC, over the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who stood accused of sexual assault himself.
In this culturally tumultuous moment when Donald Trump seems to believe that Republicans can win the midterm elections in part by stoking a backlash to the #MeToo movement, the most intensely personal experience for 31-year-old Hill – and for so many other women across the country – has suddenly entered the realm of the political.
Hill was sexually assaulted as a teenager, and watching the testimony of Kavanuagh and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, she and her campaign decided to invite a group of women together to talk about why so many stay silent after a sexual assault.
“It brought up a lot of trauma. … I decided, if we’re reacting like this, if this is happening for us, and you’ve got millions and millions of people across the country who are glued to the TV, then this is happening across the board,” Hill said. “Regardless of what happens with Kavanaugh, this is here. Right? We have to deal with this.”
In interviews with dozens of women in competitive congressional districts across the country, the frustration with Trump — and the impression that Republicans have simply yielded to his whims — has built steadily over the past year and hardened during the Kavanaugh fight as the midterm election approaches.
The prime time ceremonial swearing in of Kavanaugh at the White House on Monday night highlighted a crowning achievement for Trump and conservatives – tipping the ideological balance of the Supreme Court potentially in their favor for generations. Republicans say that the achievement – particularly after the bitterly partisan confirmation fight – will mobilize their base heading into November.
But Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle has also been a galvanizing force for Democratic, independent and even some Republican women and not a singular one.
Long before Trump mocked Ford’s testimony on stage at a rally in Mississippi and pronounced the #MeToo era a “very scary time” for young men, his support among women was cratering, dragging the image of the GOP along with it. In CNN’s latest polling, Democrats top Republicans among white female likely voters with college degrees by a 67% to 31% margin.
It is most palpable here in the more than a half-dozen California Congressional districts that could determine control of the House: a convergence of the long-roiling anger at Trump among Democratic women, and the deepening disdain for the President among independent and moderate women, who were once willing to give the GOP a chance but now want change in Washington.
Women historically are less likely to turn out in midterm elections. But they are springing from the sidelines to canvass and activate less engaged female voters at campaign headquarters like Hill’s in California’s 25th district, and that of Katie Porter, an Irvine law professor who is challenging Republican Rep. Mimi Walters in the 45th district in Orange County.
Hill, surrounded by young men and women from the University of Southern California who drove north to canvass for her, said, “We have the power right now. This is literally how we change everything. So let’s freakin’ do it.”
Voters like Meryl Cook, a marketing director from Foothill Ranch, describe a new sense of urgency. For her the tipping point was Trump’s tweets about Ford, the California research psychologist who testified that Kavanaugh assaulted her in high school.
“It put me over the edge, I said, ‘Ok, game over, I’m totally behind getting rid of him,’” said Cook, a Democrat in Walters’ district who had tuned out of politics for much of the year due to what she calls “post-election stress trauma.”
“There was a long period of time where I couldn’t even put the news on, because I was so depressed. Now I’m paying more attention,” Cook said during an interview at an Irvine mall. “My goal is to pick candidates and help them campaign.”
That same level of disgust brought Michelle Thomas, 52, and her 23-year-old daughter Brenna to Porter’s headquarters on a recent Saturday where they were trained as first-time canvassers.
In the year of #MeToo, Thomas found Trump’s rhetoric on women appalling. When asked about the drift of female voters away from the GOP, she answered in a word: “Trump.”
“It’s the lack of stability (in the White House). It is the disrespect for women that is incredibly polarizing, and frankly a little bit scary,” said Thomas, a clean energy strategist from Orange, California. The Kavanaugh nomination “just keeps reminding women that he doesn’t have respect for women,” she said. “He doesn’t see women as equal. Anything he does say in support of women is just lip service. His actions do not support it.”
Brenna Thomas, who recently graduated from University of California-Santa Barbara, decided to join her mother on the midterm campaign trail in part because of her regret that she didn’t vote in the 2016 presidential election.
The last two years under Trump have been “a rude awakening, specifically for my generation,” she said, noting the low turnout among millennials in 2016.
“It’s exciting, coming to this place of – you do have the power to actually do something,” Brenna Thomas said after listening to Porter kick off a day of canvassing. “But at the same time, it’s power that needs to be wielded in order to actually do something.”
Here in Orange County, once a Republican stronghold, the excitement is being fueled, in part, by the closeness of the race and the sense that flipping control of the House could come down to a few seats. A recent New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll conducted in late September showed Porter leading Walters 48% to 43% with a 4.5% margin of error.
“I think Trump’s rhetoric just rubs everyone in this community the wrong way,” Porter said in an interview outside her garage-like headquarters. She noted the rich diversity of Orange County (which is now more than a third Hispanic and one fifth Asian): “It’s just not who we are as people.”
Pocketbook issues still rule, however, in close congressional districts across the country, including this one.
But Democrats here have also been helped by Trump’s taunting attitude toward California. In conversations with independent and moderate voters, Porter often argues that Trump and Walters are backing policies at odds with the state’s interests. The Republican tax bill is deeply unpopular here because it reduced state and local deductions.
In a politically nimble move to show independence from her party, Porter said she opposed the state’s Democratic-led increase in the gas tax and that she will support the Republican-led ballot measure that would repeal it.
When asked why women are leaning away from Republican control of Congress, Porter, who has spoken openly about her own history of domestic violence, quickly steered the conversation back to pocketbook issues.
“You want to talk about women’s issues? Let me tell you how hard it is as a parent to make ends meet and try to save for college while I’m paying for daycare,” said Porter, a single mother of three. “It’s not enough to just check the ballot for anyone who has a name that’s a woman. It’s about making sure that you know what that person is doing and what they are fighting for.”
How the GOP lost women
Under the shadow of Trump, the shift among women away from the GOP is stark.
That tilt toward Democrats is stunning when compared against the long-term trend of how white women with college degrees voted in House races.
Exit polling from 1980 to 2016 shows that the best that Democrats have ever done with that group is 53% (twice in 2006 and in 1990).
One of the most prescient observations about the GOP’s troubles with women came earlier this year from former White House strategist Steve Bannon who told Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman that “the Republican college-educated woman is done. … Trump triggers them.”
Countless national polls this year have traced how female support for Republicans tumbled off a cliff after Trump won the White House in 2016. Even before the Kavanaugh nomination became the central focus in Washington, the yawning gender gap was evident.
Sixty percent of women likely voters polled by CNN recently said they were leaning toward the Democratic candidate in their congressional race, compared with 36% who said they were more likely to support the Republican. (Among men, 49% were leaning Republican, while 44% were leaning Democrat).
Trump was a negative driving force behind those numbers: 60% of women voters said they were more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who opposes Trump (compared with 30% who said they’d favor a candidate who supports Trump).
While Trump is clearly repelling many college-educated female voters, UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck, notes that antipathy toward the President overlays two longer-term trends that spell trouble for Republicans.
“White women are moving away from the Republican Party, that’s been happening. And white college-educated people are moving away,” said Vavreck, a co-author of “Identity Crisis,” a new book about the 2016 election.
“People have created this character out of college-educated women, because they seem to be the leading indicator of this decline for the Republican Party,” Vavreck said. “But the story is about white college-educated people and white women.”
Still, Trump’s role as a driving force in Republican problems at the polls has been evident in interviews over the last year. Many Democratic women were immediately activated by the GOP vote against Obamacare shortly after Trump took office.
First-time female activists protested outside the offices of conservative members of Congress like Darrell Issa, the congressman representing parts of Orange and San Diego counties who ultimately announced he would retire and leave an open seat in California’s 49th district (where the Democratic candidate is now leading, according to the NYT Upshot/Siena College poll).
In interviews late last year, many moderate or independent women who supported Trump — or skipped the presidential line of the ballot altogether in 2016 — said they were exasperated with the President’s tweets and the atmosphere of chaos he sows within his administration.
This year, the mood notably soured on Republicans at various inflection points. Some women were unnerved by Trump’s standoff with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Then this summer, alarm seemed to peak among women who had a visceral response to children being separated from their parents at the border as a result of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Donna Oberg, a 67-year-old retired secretary from Aurora, Colorado, who is an independent, said she got goosebumps when she heard the recordings of young children crying after being separated from their parents.
“He just thinks he can bully everybody,” Oberg said of Trump in an interview earlier this summer in Colorado-6, a closely divided district in the suburbs of Denver. Of Republicans, she added: “I think they are afraid of him. There’s got to be a better way.”
(In a telling move, the Republican super PAC known as the Congressional Leadership Fund recently pulled out of Colorado-6 where they had intended to help GOP Incumbent Mike Coffman in his race against Democratic newcomer Jason Crow).
In Utah-4, where Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams is challenging Republican Congresswoman Mia Love, 72-year-old independent voter Loraina Anderson said she was leaning away from Love for similar reasons, even though Love has openly criticized Trump’s immigration rhetoric and some of his policies.
“I’m just frustrated, not so much with her, but with Trump,” Anderson said in an interview this summer after McAdams showed up at her door while canvassing undecided voters.
“It’s just devastating, just him as a person. The lies,” Anderson said of the President. “The kids being separated. I don’t quite understand why he’s so into Un and (Russian Leader Vladimir) Putin. To me they are horrible men, they torture and do this and that. In my opinion, he wants to become a dictator. He’s following in their footsteps if you ask me.”
Trump’s cavalier attitude during the fight over Kavanaugh’s nomination has become the latest — but perhaps most powerful — rallying cry for women determined to rebuke to his agenda at the polls in November.
Strategists from both sides say the winners in November will be determined by which party has the better turnout game. What’s clear is that Democrats have a lot of female energy on their side.
Pausing outside Hill’s headquarters after picking up her 14-year-old daughter Emma, who attended the discussion on sexual assault, 41-year-old Sara Tisdell described the Kavanaugh debate as “scary” and said she was discouraged watching “our President stoop to the lowest common denominator constantly, and it gets glossed over somehow.”
“When I was her age, I didn’t have the same fears that we were drifting backwards,” said Tisdell, a Democrat who owns a local brewery. “I think we have an opportunity for change. We have an opportunity to continue on a path of moving forward, as opposed to regressing backward as a society.”
Tisdell had been texting her sisters from the parking lot about Katie Hill, and how she’d organized the closed-press event on sexual assault. She doesn’t plan to help canvass, but Emma (who can’t yet vote) is organizing her friends from Valencia High School to knock on doors for Hill.
“It’s easy to be comfortable as a white person in suburbia,” Tisdell said. “We really blew it collectively as a group in the previous election,” she added, referring to women. “Nobody said anything and everybody just kind of went along. … I hope this time people get out and vote.”