WASHINGTON – A Capitol Hill firestorm over sexual harassment that felled three U.S. lawmakers in one week allows Democrats to draw a loud contrast with Republicans on a cultural flash point rocking the nation – even if it’s hard to measure how much the party will ultimately gain politically.
The downfall of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who resigned after a series of accusations from women who said he groped or harassed them, is part of a broader Democratic effort to purge the accused harassers from the party. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the longest-serving current member of Congress, also resigned this week after support among his party collapsed amid several harassment allegations.
Following Franken's Thursday resignation announcement on the Senate floor, Democrats drew an immediate distinction with Republicans and President Trump, who was accused by several women during the 2016 campaign of having groped or forced himself on them.
"This will place the parties at a very stark contrast going into 2018. The Democrats have now become the party of real family values and the Republicans look incredibly hypocritical," said Maria Cardona, a longtime party strategist. "They have an accused sexual assaulter in the White House and they will never be able to claim to be the party of family values until they come to a reckoning with that fact," said Cardona.
“The Republicans have accepted it, just as they accepted President Trump, who admitted to outrageous things, violating women,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., did push one of his own, Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, to resign Thursday amid reports he discussed with female staffers the possibility they could be surrogates for his and his wife's baby. Yet in the same week, Trump officially endorsed Roy Moore, the GOP Senate candidate in Alabama who has been accused of courting and improperly touching teenagers when he was in his 30s. The Republican National Committee also gave Moore a cash infusion. “Go get ‘em Roy!” Trump told Moore.
Even some Republicans are sending up flares.
“It’s a huge problem with women and particularly college-educated white women if Republicans come to be perceived as the party that accepts and defends men credibly accused of assault and being sexual predators," said GOP pollster Whit Ayres.
The challenge for Democrats in trying to seize this moment of national reckoning is balancing their race to cleanse the party with the danger of over-compensating. As more lawmakers are accused, Democrats must grapple what specific behavior merits resignation, how many accusers are needed to justify action and what to do when some members could very well be falsely accused.
For instance, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called for freshman Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., to resign after a report that he made sexual advances toward a campaign worker, but he has not stepped down. Kihuen denies any misbehavior.
Republicans say Moore is an isolated case and that many lawmakers, including Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has promised an ethics investigation of Moore if he is elected, have condemned him. They also point to Pelosi's early hesitation to condemn Conyers as evidence that both parties are vulnerable on this subject.
Polls show combating sexual harassment is a rare issue that is bipartisan. About three-quarters of the public says it is “very important” for the country to address, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
Democrats are protecting their brand as champions of women’s equality, said Michael Golden, author of “Unlock Congress,” a book about legislative dysfunction, and a senior fellow at the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy. “The parties are choosing to handle these cases in dramatically different ways, and their strategies just might determine who holds the majority after November 6th, 2018,” he said.
“It keeps Trump’s problems in the public eye because the president himself is much more important than any single person in a midterm (election),” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan newsletter at the University of Virginia. Analysts point to recent special elections this year in which Democrats have dramatically outperformed historical margins with the help of educated women voters swinging to their column, including a Georgia House race and the Virginia statehouse elections.
Sensing an opening, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee says it will challenge vulnerable Republicans to "unequivocally disavow" Moore and refuse funding from the RNC. Further, Democratic parties in at least nine states are seizing on the issue in Senate races, according to a USA TODAY review of official statements. That includes Arizona and Nevada, the two most competitive Senate seats next November, a leading indicator of how the campaigns hope to gain an advantage with suburban women voters.
Yet there are rumors swirling that dozens more lawmakers could become ensnared in the debate. That raises serious questions for Democrats about how far they are willing to go in order to maintain the moral high ground, said Kondik.
“Any time a credible allegation comes out, are Democrats going to feel like they have to throw that person overboard?” said Kondik. And then there’s former President Bill Clinton, who was impeached for lying about his sexual dalliance with a female intern. “Is he going to be banned from the party? Is he going to speak at the 2020 convention?” said Kondik. As more names come out, “it could really be anyone who gets caught up in this,” he said.
What’s more, the more members who are forced out, the greater the likelihood that some false accusations are leveled. “Can a party just make this determination that every single allegation is correct? If the Democrats do that it just seems like you could be inviting scurrilous accusations at some point,” said Kondik.
Cardona, the Democratic strategist, agreed there is potential danger ahead. "There are a lot of open questions moving forward" and "I do think this could become an over-correction," she said. "The big question is can there be gradations of this kind of behavior?"
At the same time, said Cardona, "I do believe that the Democratic Party is taking care of this in the right way for the moment in time that we’re in," she said.