Kavanaugh has become a stand-in for Republicans, Christians and self-identified “deplorables” who feel bullied and smeared by liberals, while Ford has come to symbolize the many women who have been victimized with impunity by powerful men.
“It’s the culture war on steroids, an incredible divide and intense to the point where people won’t talk to each other in some cases,” said William J. Bennett, a conservative commentator and former education secretary in the Reagan administration. “You have the anti-Trump resistance, the MeToo movement and the Supreme Court making for a perfect storm of controversy.”
Supreme Court nominations are nearly always contentious because justices serve for life and make decisions on hot-button issues such as abortion and religious liberties. An opening on the court prompts a reflection on where the country has been and where it should aim to go.
But many prominent Republicans and Democrats say they have never seen a nomination process like this one, with the hyper-charged politics, 24-7 news coverage and social media firestorms. They say the contentiousness surpasses the failed high-court bid of Robert Bork in 1987 and Justice Clarence Thomas’s hearings in 1991, when he was accused of sexual harassment.
The divisions have come to define the debate in the closely divided Senate, which has the responsibility to confirm or reject Kavanaugh’s nomination and where most members have dug in for or against the nominee along party lines.
That has left his fate largely resting in the hands of a few GOP senators who sometimes cling to a vanishing ideological middle — including two of the chamber’s Republican women, Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.
The tensions stem in part from the unusual significance of Kavanaugh’s nomination. A former Bush administration official who is widely considered a conservative in the mold of the late justice Antonin Scalia, he would replace the court’s perennial swing justice, Anthony M. Kennedy, who retired this summer. His confirmation could tilt the ideological balance of the court for a generation.
Kavanaugh has strenuously denied Ford’s accusation and that of a second woman, Deborah Ramirez, who alleged in an article in the New Yorker on Sunday that he exposed himself at a party while the two were freshmen at Yale University.
Kavanaugh and Ford have faced threats of violence and have worried about the safety of their families. Ford’s home address was publicized on Twitter, and Kavanaugh’s wife reportedly received an email that said in all-caps: “May you, your husband and your kids burn in hell.”
A chorus of conservative activists are mounting a crusade to block efforts to stop his confirmation. Some have suggested that if Republican senators do not confirm Kavanaugh, the party will lose its majorities in Congress in the midterm elections, with one commentator adding #bloodbath to his cautionary tweet.
Many Republicans also have accused Democrats of unfairly smearing Kavanaugh, using similarly graphic language. The scrutiny of Kavanaugh has been called an “ambush” and a “drive-by shooting” by elected Republicans. Kavanaugh called it a “last-minute character assassination” in a letter to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.
“The GOP is getting bullied. It must stand up to the bullies and defend Brett Kavanaugh,” conservative commentator Erick Erickson wrote in a column this week. “The GOP rejecting Kavanaugh will be rejecting the desires of its base, embracing false accusations, and rendering itself utterly useless.”
Media personality Michelle Malkin sounded even more ominous in a Sunday tweet. “This is a cultural & sociopolitical battle of all battles,” she wrote. “The stakes are high for all upstanding Americans, not just GOP candidates.”
Meanwhile on Monday, thousands of women rallied in support of Ford and Ramirez on Capitol Hill and in communities throughout the country, including at Yale Law School, Kavanaugh’s alma mater. Twitter was filled with testimonials and messages of support from politicians, actresses, Hollywood writers and hundreds of others, accompanied by the hashtag #BelieveSurvivors.
“I stand in solidarity with women and men who share their stories. Every single allegation of sexual assault and sexual harassment should be heard and believed,” tweeted Lauren Baer, who is running for Congress in Florida’s Palm Beach area.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) framed the nomination standoff this way on Monday: “Republicans in Washington now have an important decision to make. Will they stand with women and survivors or stand against them? History will remember whether they #BelieveSurvivors.”
After Trump criticized Ford last week for waiting decades to publicly accuse Kavanaugh of assault, a host of women came to her defense and shared why they kept their experiences a secret. Their stories of shame, embarrassment, confusion and fear were united by the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport.
Democrats hope this nomination process has reminded voters — especially women living in battleground states — of the importance of the upcoming midterm elections. They often note that after the contentious Supreme Court hearings for Thomas, who was accused of sexually harassing attorney Anita Hill, a wave of Democratic women sought office nationally and won in 1992, which was then called the “Year of the Woman.”
“This could be the second ‘Year of the Woman’ if Republicans are seen as having total tone-deafness and a willingness to put aside the expectations women have about these things, in order to get this guy confirmed,” veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said. “Sometimes, history does repeat itself.”
For years, America has become more and more polarized — a trend hastened by Trump’s election. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in January found that 84 percent of Democrats were concerned about the issues raised through the #MeToo movement, compared with 59 percent of Republicans. A Fox News poll released this weekend found that 59 percent of Democrats believe Ford’s accusations, compared with 14 percent of Republicans.
A rallying point for the right came in recent days at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington, where talk of Kavanaugh dominated speeches. The message from GOP leaders to the party’s evangelical base: Stand by Kavanaugh, and blame Democrats.
“Don’t get rattled by all of this,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged the crowd. “We’re going to plow right through it and do our job.”
The tone was similar on the other side of the ideological spectrum Monday. At a rally in Denver, one protester held a sign that read: “Women are screaming ‘NO’ while the GOP just turns up the music & plows ahead.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Murkowski and Collins were the only Republican women in the Senate. There are six female GOP senators, and the story has been corrected.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.