Republicans were already battling a current to get Brett M. Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court after he was accused of sexual assault when it was reported Sunday that a second woman publicly accused him of sexual misconduct.
Kavanaugh has denied both the allegations, calling the second one “a smear.” But the emergence of a second accuser has been enough for the top Senate Democrat involved in the judge’s nomination process to request that the whole thing be paused, perhaps indefinitely.
It’s an open question what Republicans will do next. They have no good options. Whatever action they take to address this second accusation will slow down Kavanaugh’s time-sensitive nomination, which the GOP wanted to get done before November’s midterm elections.
But the worst-case scenario of taking no action beyond letting Kavanaugh’s first accuser testify Thursday could cost the party its Senate majority — and maybe even the chance to control this and future Supreme Court nominations.
Here are the best of the not-great options Republicans face — and why each might backfire.
1. Start a campaign to raise questions about the second accuser: Deborah Ramirez told the New Yorker that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party when they were students at Yale University. She acknowledges that she had been drinking heavily and said that there are some gaps in her memory but that she remembers another student shouting Kavanaugh’s name.
The New Yorker spoke to fellow Yale classmates who recalled hearing this and others who didn’t — which is to say that if Republicans want to spend this week questioning and even discrediting Ramirez, they have evidence to use to go that route.
How that could backfire for Republicans: Even before President Trump nominated Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, Republicans were in politically dangerous territory when it came to female voters' perceptions of them. Polls show that right now more women prefer Democrats than Republicans.
A concerted effort to question Ramirez could get even uglier for the party. After Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, shared her story, a number of Republican politicians tried this strategy on Ford — including Trump, who questioned why Ford didn’t immediately tell the authorities after the alleged assault. That prompted a key swing-vote Senate Republican to say she was “appalled” by the president’s comments.
2. Hear the first accuser out but not the second, then proceed as normal: Republicans have reluctantly agreed to pause Kavanaugh’s nomination at least a week so that Ford can testify in Washington on Thursday. Kavanaugh will testify as well and is already under intense preparation for doing so. The hope is that with one hearing, Republicans can accomplish two tricky things:
- Come across as genuinely open to hearing what Ford has to say.
- Ensure that Kavanaugh clears his name, at least enough to persuade 51 senators to vote for him to be the next Supreme Court justice.
Kavanaugh could try to indirectly address the Ramirez allegation in the Ford hearing by answering questions about his partying habits and sexual proclivities in a way that gets across that he didn’t expose himself to Ramirez.
How that could backfire for Republicans: What if Ramirez and her lawyer find more people to corroborate her story? What if another woman comes forward with an accusation? Then Republicans risk coming off as doing the bare minimum to investigate allegations about Kavanaugh’s background by listening to just one woman.
3. Acquiesce to an FBI investigation: Republicans won a standoff last week with Ford on this issue, meaning that the FBI will not investigate her claim before she tells it to Congress. But now Ramirez is calling for an FBI investigation of her claim.
There’s precedent for the FBI to look into sexual misconduct allegations of Supreme Court nominees. The bureau wouldn’t determine who’s right or wrong. But the benefit for Kavanaugh’s accusers is that investigators would interview witnesses under the threat of jail for lying, including those who have said they wouldn’t testify before the Senate.
Such an investigation could create a shared set of facts for senators to question Ford on, and Ramirez seems to believe her story would be corroborated. “At least look at it,” she told the New Yorker. “At least check it out.”
How that could backfire for Republicans: The FBI investigation of Anita Hill’s allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas lasted three days, so in theory this could be done relatively quickly. Or not. Who knows what might hold up investigators?
Plus, by acquiescing to an FBI investigation, Republicans would be acknowledging the opposite of what they spent all last week implicitly telegraphing: that Ford’s allegation is serious enough for the Senate to examine it but not serious enough to bring in a law enforcement agency.
4. Pause Kavanaugh’s nomination: This is both the least politically risky option for Republicans and the most politically risky option for Republicans.
If they were to pause the nomination, it could help reinforce their narrative that they are taking this all extremely seriously. That could help them with the concerns outlined above about how female voters perceive them.
How that could backfire for Republicans: A Republican donor in Arizona, where the GOP is trying to hold on to an open House seat, best outlined this option’s risk when he wrote in an email to The Washington Post’s Seung Min Kim and Josh Dawsey:
"The Republicans need women voters, but all hell will break loose (or it will be chaos) if this nomination unravels. If we can’t get the nomination done, why vote Republican?”