President Trump and Senate Republicans on Wednesday took a hard line: full-speed ahead on Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination for the Supreme Court despite an allegation of sexual assault decades ago.
But privately, discussions about the political fallout gripped the party, with Republican lawmakers and strategists unnerved by the charged, gender-infused debates that have upended this campaign season.
Already burdened by an unpopular president and an energized Democratic electorate, the male-dominated GOP is now facing a torrent of scrutiny about how it is handling Kavanaugh’s accuser and whether the party’s push to install him on the high court by next week could come at a steep political cost with women and the independent voters who are the keystone for congressional majorities.
The uncertainty in Republican ranks evoked uneasy memories of how the hearings for Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination spurred what became known as the “Year of the Woman” in 1992, when a wave of Democratic women won office, and underscored widespread GOP disquiet over the fast-changing culture and the power of the #MeToo movement.
“Republicans came off very poorly during the Thomas hearings when they questioned Anita Hill, and we just have to be so much better than we’ve been in the past in recognizing what’s appropriate and what’s not, in terms of the process,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said, referring to Thomas’s former colleague who accused him of sexual harassment. “Some of us are trying to be fair and do the right thing, to not jam it through, but obviously it’s been a challenge.”
Flake lashed out at the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., for appearing to mock the allegations against his father’s nominee on social media, an example of how many Republicans are straining to both firmly support Kavanaugh and not seem hostile to Christine Blasey Ford, who told The Washington Post on Sunday that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party in the early 1980s when they were teenagers.
“This is sickening,” Flake tweeted on Wednesday about Trump Jr.’s post. “No one should make light of this situation.”
Tensions were also evident as Republicans responded to the request of Ford to have the FBI investigate her allegations before she accepts an invitation to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has scheduled a hearing for Monday to hear testimony from her and Kavanaugh.
As GOP senators implored Ford to appear before the committee, there was a range in the tone of statements about her, veering from the flippant — “I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said this week — to the encouraging.
“I hope that Dr. Ford will reconsider,” tweeted Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate whose vote would be critical for Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “It is my understanding that the committee has offered to hold either a public or a private session, whichever would make her more comfortable.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) continued Wednesday to take command of the Republican response to Ford, refusing to budge on his plans for the Monday hearing and dismissing the request from Ford’s lawyers for additional investigation by the FBI. His position was praised by some Republicans as fair and decried by Democrats as stubborn and cruel, particularly since Ford has been inundated with threats since she shared her account, according to her lawyers.
Republican campaign veterans said the GOP’s reliance on Grassley — a sharp-tongued, 85-year-old conservative who has been in Congress since 1975 — as its point person brings complications as voters begin to pay closer attention, regardless of whether Ford ends up sitting before the committee.
“The perception of this, regardless of what the truth is, could be yet another political problem for Republicans,” said Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican consultant and Trump critic. “We’re living in the woke era and Supreme Court nominations have become TV shows. And if your cast is mostly older, white Republican male senators, you’re going to have issues in that environment.”
Beyond the Senate, Republicans are bracing for the impact of Monday’s scheduled hearing and the political consequences of an unpredictable and likely emotional session that could expand a Senate matter into a defining moment for the party, especially if Grassley or other Republican men aggressively question Ford about her personal life and the alleged assault.
“They’re putting on a brave face, but the party’s narrative with women has been unfortunate for the past three years or so and now they have this with Kavanaugh,” former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said. “In getting behind him, there is real worry that they’re making it easier for Republican candidates to be targets. There is no escape hatch here.”
In the House, where the GOP holds a 23-seat majority, there are rising concerns about how the Kavanaugh issue is beginning to overshadow the Republican campaign touting the GOP-authored tax law and economic progress, according to two senior Republicans involved with national campaign planning who were not authorized to speak publicly.
One of those Republicans said several top GOP lawmakers have told colleagues that they hope Ford declines to show up for the hearing even as they issue statements urging her to do so — helping the GOP avoid a risky televised drama and making it easier for Senate leaders to hold a vote next week.
Trump on Wednesday offered a robust defense of Kavanaugh but largely stayed away from joining the growing chorus of Republicans who have expressed skepticism about Ford’s credibility, heartening White House officials who are eager to contain the president’s remarks and to avoid being consumed by another national firestorm over allegations of sexual misconduct.
“If she shows up and makes a credible showing, that will be very interesting, and we’ll have to make a decision,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House for North Carolina to survey hurricane damage.
Trump’s comments echoed the message first articulated by White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who spent years advising Republican candidates on how to appeal to women.
“This woman should not be insulted and she should not be ignored,” Conway told Fox News earlier in the week.
Republicans are walking a tightrope in defending Kavanaugh without reinforcing the public perception that the party and president are unwilling to hold members of their party accountable for alleged sexual misconduct against women, including Trump and former U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was accused of pursuing and assaulting teenage girls while in his 30s.
On the eve of Moore’s defeat last year in Alabama, a national Associated Press-NORC survey found 60 percent of Americans thought Republicans are “too lenient” on fellow Republicans who have been accused of sexual misconduct, compared with 43 percent who said the same of the Democratic Party.
Kavanaugh’s standing among voters nationally is tenuous, complicating the Republican effort to defend the federal judge.
Unlike many past Supreme Court nominees, Kavanaugh lacked clear popularity before the allegations were made, with roughly equal shares of Americans supporting and opposing his confirmation and record-breaking divisions along party lines. A Post-ABC News poll found a sizable gender gap, with men significantly backing Kavanaugh’s nomination and women opposing it by a 16-point margin.
Still, saving Kavanaugh’s nomination has become a cause for conservative activists, who see the conservative ascendancy in the judiciary as one of the rare, strong bonds inside a fractured Republican Party. On Twitter and elsewhere, conservatives have rallied behind him and reminded each other that Kavanaugh’s vote on the Supreme Court could change the shape of federal law for generations.
“This is the defining issue for conservatives, and they look at the pattern of Judge Kavanaugh’s life and stand by him,” said Gary Marx, an adviser to the Judicial Crisis Network. The group has announced a $1.5 million advertising campaign to bolster Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Senate Democrats are keeping close watch of the Republican maneuvering, aware of how the GOP is determined to use the Kavanaugh nomination to drive out its core voters in an increasingly difficult election year — and making sure their own voters are informed about the stakes.
“I still think there’s a gulf between Republican voters and Democratic voters in terms of how much folks care about the courts,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “We have some work to do to explain to progressive voters why the courts should matter to them as much as it matters to conservatives.”
Seung Min Kim and Scott Clement contributed.