WASHINGTON — Gender politics have been a defining issue of this election cycle, beginning back with the mobilization by women against the victory and inauguration of President Donald Trump.
But it’s not clear whether the #MeToo movement — and the controversy that sometimes surrounds it — will translate into political success for either party on Tuesday.
More women than ever before won major party primaries for Congress and governor this year, giving women the chance to significantly increase their numbers in office. They’re donating more money to political campaigns, too, and they’ve become a well-established force in the 2018 elections.
“I feel very good about where women are going to be,” said Christina Reynolds, the vice president of communications for EMILY’s List, a group dedicated to supporting Democratic women in politics. “I think regardless of what happens, women have shown that they are no longer happy with other people representing them and speaking for them.”
But Republicans, too, feel the focus on gender politics could benefit them. The fight over Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court galvanized their voters, they say, and could be a factor in races including the close re-election campaign for Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
Meanwhile, #MeToo’s impact has had ripples in other races, too. In Minnesota, Rep. Keith Ellison is fending off allegations of abuse from an ex-girlfriend that have turned the race for state attorney general on its head. Ellison has denied those allegations. In the same state, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat, and Karen Housley, a Republican, are fighting over the seat that Smith was appointed to after Al Franken resigned following allegations by women that he touched them inappropriately.
Like most midterm elections, the 2018 campaign is also a referendum on the incumbent president. And among women, who vote historically at higher rates than men, Trump’s standing is still bleak. In the latest NPR/PBS News Hour/Marist poll, 49 percent of women said that they disapproved of Trump’s performance, compared with 44 percent of men. And 51 percent of women overall said that Trump would be a major factor in their vote.
“Women have been energized for a long time, and it’s connected to Donald Trump,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, a senior adviser for MoveOn.org and a veteran of four Democratic presidential campaigns. “We are in this really awful time where people are just tired and ready and there’s been such an energy around electoral politics, for at least a year since the Women’s March.”
Republican women say they, too, can lay claim to a share of the energy, particularly in the weeks since the bruising fight over Kavanaugh’s nomination. Alice Stewart, a veteran of Republican presidential campaigns, said it’s critical that the #MeToo movement “stay strong and continue.”
“It has done a lot of good to hold men in power and men who have committed these acts accountable,” she said in an interview. “In terms of significance, it is greater than the midterm elections.”
But, Stewart added, in the case of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, the movement was “temporarily hijacked for certain groups for their own gain,” a tactic that she believes ended up hurting Democrats.
“In that instance, it backfired. It galvanized Republicans. It made them unite behind Brett Kavanaugh,” she said. “I say it backfired in that it reignited the intensity of Republicans due to the levels that the Democrats would go to, to turn the confirmation process into such a character assassination.”
But women who opposed Kavanaugh said the energy from recent protests in Washington and elsewhere over his nomination would fuel Democratic women in 2018 and beyond.
Kelley Robinson, the national organizing director for Planned Parenthood Action Fund, remembered standing on the Supreme Court steps, addressing a rally after Kavanaugh was confirmed. “I’ve never felt that kind of wave of sadness, of grief and of anger that I felt in front of that large group,” she said.
Robinson said she believes that voters — and particularly women — will remember that fight. Every senator that voted for Kavanaugh, Robinson said, “they sided with folks that disbelieved, that mocked survivors and sided against women.”
Sarah Sherman, who founded Vote MeToo PAC to support female candidates this year, said that after the Kavanaugh vote she personally felt “really steamrolled, but we peeled ourselves off the pavement” to continue to fight on behalf of women.
The fight was “definitely something that has galvanized Republicans,” she said. But she also said there may be women — some survivors of assault themselves — who will be propelled to the polls by the Women’s March, the Kavanaugh battle and in rebuke to the Trump presidency who go unseen.
“When you’re walking in there, you don’t have to explain yourself to anyone. You don’t have to explain yourself to your boss,” she said. “You still have your vote.”
Some women said that while #MeToo is not explicitly aimed toward electing more women or driving female voters to the polls, the movement and the new wave of women in politics share the same fuel.
“It’s about ways of approaching the same basic problem: A group of people who have not seen themselves reflected in the power system is stepping up and saying, ‘This isn’t working for me. I want to push back against the status quo because otherwise, I won’t be protected or fought for,’” said Amanda Litman, a co-founder of Run For Something, which helps left-leaning millennials run for office.
At its core, the #MeToo movement is a cultural movement, and cultural movements often far outpace national politics, said Shaunna Thomas, a co-founder of Ultraviolet, which advocates for women’s rights. She noted that November’s elections are the first “since women around the country started demanding that sexual abusers be held accountable.”
“An electoral outcome at this stage is a lot to expect of a movement that is about challenging patriarchy -- it’s a huge goal,” offered Thomas. “It’s not just, we want fewer women to be sexually assaulted or raped or harassed. What we’re demanding is a world where women have control over their own bodies, their own minds. That’s a project that goes far beyond needing to build and exercise electoral power.”
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