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GOP congressman jokes about Ruth Bader Ginsburg being groped — by Abraham Lincoln

The Republicans who would judge the credibility of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh's accusers are already judging their credibility. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

A South Carolina congressman kicked off an election debate Thursday with a joke — which got a few laughs inside the room, but drew condemnation from observers across the state and country who didn’t find it funny at all.

“Did y’all hear this latest late-breaking news on the Kavanaugh hearings?” Rep. Ralph Norman (R) asked the audience at a Kiwanis Club in Rock Hill, S.C., referring to the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out saying she was groped by Abraham Lincoln.”

At 85, Ginsburg is the oldest Supreme Court justice and its preeminent liberal dissenter.

The comment from Norman, who is running for reelection in November, comes at the height of the controversy surrounding sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, who has denied the accusations. Elsewhere, Republicans have taken a cautious approach to commenting on the allegations, wary of the potential political fallout if their party is seen as dismissive of Kavanaugh’s accuser.

Norman’s off-color attempt at humor drew swift criticism, and many felt the congressman was making light of women who come forward to talk about their experience with sexual violence.

“Ralph Norman just proved he may be rich but he doesn’t have any class,” tweeted Trav Robertson, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party.

The Twitter account for the party elaborated, writing that the joke is sexist and disgusting.

A spokesperson for Norman’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Norman, who won his seat in a 2017 special election and describes himself as a “pro-family conservative,” has been in the national spotlight before. He made headlines in April when he pulled out a loaded gun at a meeting with constituents. He said he wanted to make a point about gun safety, according to news reports, and refused to apologize.

“I’m not going to be a Gabby Giffords,” Norman told the Post and Courier, referring to the 2011 shooting of an Arizona congresswoman during a public appearance. “I don’t mind dying, but whoever shoots me better shoot well, or I’m shooting back.”

In an interview with the Post and Courier week later, Norman remained defiant.

“I have a message for the liberals,” Norman said, while, according to the paper, he smirked. “An unloaded gun doesn’t do you any good.”

Norman was criticized across the political spectrum.

However, Norman’s Democratic opponent, Archie Parnell, is not without his own set of controversies. As the Post and Courier reported, Parnell has faced allegations that he physically abused his ex-wife, which, according to the paper, he has not denied.

Despite the allegations, and the loss of state and national party support that followed, Parnell managed to soundly defeat his opponents in the Democratic primary.

Parnell didn’t immediately respond to Norman’s comments but, after the debate, he issued a statement to the Post and Courier: “My opponent apparently thinks sexual assault is a joke. It is not,” Parnell said in the statement. “But I guess that’s the best we can expect from someone who pulled a loaded gun on his own constituents.”

FiveThirtyEight gives Parnell just a 1 in 40 chance of beating Norman in November.

Norman was the second GOP lawmaker to draw criticism Thursday for tone-deaf comments about Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party in the 1980s when the two were teenagers.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said the accusations against Kavanaugh represented a mere “hiccup” and that the judge would soon be confirmed and sitting on the Supreme Court.

Over the weekend, Donald Trump Jr. posted a meme to his Instagram account that appeared to mock Kavanaugh’s accuser before she was named. The picture featured a grade-school love letter, written in crayon with words misspelled, that asked “will you be my girlfriend” and was signed “love, Bret.” The picture was captioned with the words “Judge Kavanaughs sexual assault letter found by Dems.”

The Washington Post’s Amber Phillips has a running list of “the most egregious things politicians have said about the Kavanaugh allegations so far,” which begins:

Is it too much to ask that politicians handle an extremely delicate national debate about sexual misconduct, the credibility of women accusing powerful men and the foundational American value of one’s right to a fair trial with sensitivity and care?
Seems like it.