Andrew Harnik/AP
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa (R) speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee markup meeting on Capitol Hill, in Washington, on Sept. 13, 2018.

Republicans face challenges in courting electorate focused on women's issues

The Supreme Court confirmation process of Judge Brett Kavanaugh has embroiled the country in the latest #MeToo moment around sexual assault. But this is just the latest in a string of events that have left Republicans alienating women voters. 

Eleven Republican men, backed by a Republican president plagued by sex scandal, will soon judge the credibility of a woman accusing President Trump's Supreme Court nominee of sexual assault.

Ahead of the extraordinary moment, never has the GOP's problem with women been more apparent. And it comes six weeks before the midterm elections of Mr. Trump's presidency amid a political realignment of the sexes that could shape US elections for a generation.

While there are political risks for both sides, a vocal minority in Trump's GOP warned that their party's strained relationship with women could suffer permanent damage if the Republicans who control the confirmation process ignore mounting allegations of sexual misconduct by Brett Kavanaugh and give him a lifetime seat on the nation's high court.

"I do not believe the claim of sexual assault is invalid because a 15-year-old girl didn't report the assault to authorities, as the president of the United States said just two days ago," Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona (R), who is not running for re-election this fall, said Wednesday. "How uninformed and uncaring do we have to be to say things like that, much less believe them?"

The Arizona senator added: "How many times do we have to marginalize and ignore women before we learn that important lesson?"

Mr. Kavanaugh has vehemently denied all sexual misconduct allegations.

Even before his accusers came forward, 2018 had emerged as the year of the woman in politics. But with control of Congress and state houses across the nation at stake, it's Democratic women who are most engaged.

A total of 603 women are still in the running for Congress or statewide office this year, according to Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. Of that group, just 108 – fewer than 2 in 10 – are Republicans.

Thursday's hearing has highlighted the GOP's deficit with women.

None of the Republicans on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee is a woman. Party leaders hired what Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called a "female assistant," a special victims prosecutor based in Arizona, to question Christine Blasey Ford, who alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school.

At least two more women have alleged misconduct, though Republican leaders who control the process have excluded them from the hearing. Nor have they allowed witnesses or further federal investigation.

Trump lashed out at the women during a Wednesday press conference while acknowledging his personal experience with allegations of sexual misconduct – he has denied accusations from more than a dozen women – has shaped his perspective on Kavanaugh.

"What they've done to this man is incredible," the president declared in New York. "It's a big, fat con job."

Trump also described the uptick of allegations of sexual misconduct allegations in the #MeToo era as "a very dangerous period in our country."

"This is beyond Supreme Court," he said. "This is everything to do with our country. When you are guilty until proven innocent, it's just not supposed to be that way."

Jennifer Pierotti, co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, disagrees with the Republican president's assessment. She's frustrated with their party's moves on Kavanaugh and the absence of Republican women on the Judiciary Committee.

"They never really invested in getting more women into the pipeline to run for office," Ms. Pierotti said. "When you don't do any of those things for a long enough time, you're not going to have women at the table on the Republican side when you're coming up with policies or you're making big decisions."

For now, the GOP is moving forward quickly.

Procedural votes on Kavanaugh's appointment to the Supreme Court could come as early as Saturday. Activists are urging the party to slow down.

"It's never too late for Republican leaders to begin to repair their strained relationship with women," said Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women, who declared that men like Kavanaugh "don't care about women."

"The way they can make amends is by canceling the hearing, by admitting it's a sham, by admitting they have disrespected women their entire lifetimes," Ms. Van Pelt told The Associated Press.

The Republican Party's problem with women began long before Trump's rise.

It hit a low point after conservatives blocked the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s, fell lower in the early 1990s after Republicans grilled Anita Hill about sexual harassment claims against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, and fell yet again in 2014 after one Republican Senate candidate raised the prospect of "legitimate rape."

The GOP's relationship with women may have plummeted again in 2016 after Republicans elected a president who bragged on video about grabbing women by their genitals.

More women supported Democrats than Republicans for the first time in the 1980 presidential election – a phenomenon commonly referred to as a "gender gap." The disparity repeated itself for the first time in a midterm election in 1986, said University of Virginia professor Jennifer Lawless.

With few exceptions, Democrats have enjoyed a significant gender gap ever since. In the 2016 presidential election, for example, 54 percent of women backed Democrat Hillary Clinton while 41 supported Trump, according to exit polls.

While Trump survived the 13-point gap, Republican strategists are particularly concerned about the shift in college-educated white women, who play an outsized role in the suburban districts that will decide the House majority this fall.

While Clinton won a narrow majority of the demographic in 2016, polling suggests that the overwhelming majority of college-educated white women now hold an unfavorable view of Trump and his party. The most recent Gallup poll shows that 35 percent of women nationwide approve of Trump.

At the same time, men appear to be leaving the Democratic Party.

A Reuters/Ipsos polls earlier in the year found white millennial men who favored Democrats by a significant margin in 2016 now favor Republicans. Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster working on several campaigns this fall, has found a similar phenomenon.

"The Republican Party has less of a problem with women than the Democratic Party has with men," Mr. Wilson said.

GOP leaders have particularly seized on a second accuser who named Kavanaugh after admitting she spent several days working to recall the decades-old episode.

Republican political analyst Mona Charen, who was booed at a conservative conference earlier this year for criticizing Trump's questionable background with women, said the second allegation against Kavanaugh "looked like a political hit" and "does a real disservice to women who are victims."

Still, she said the Republican Party has moved sharply in the wrong direction with women by embracing Trump.

"They've endorsed and circled the wagons around Donald Trump, which sends a very, very bad signal," Ms. Charen said. "They've signed on with someone who was like from the Rat Pack of the 1950s. Those are his values. He's like the Hugh Hefner of politics."

For now, Trump and his Republican allies in Congress are downplaying their challenge with women.

In New York, the president falsely claimed he won the female vote in the 2016 election and suggested that women actually support the GOP approach on Kavanaugh.

"Women are so angry," Trump said. "And I frankly think, I think they like what the Republicans are doing."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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