WASHINGTON ― Republican strategists charged with keeping control of the House and Senate in the midterm elections are dreading the possibility of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in which the all-male GOP members of the panel question a woman alleging sexual assault.
The hearing, which would feature testimony from both Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the psychology professor who has accused him of attempting to rape her when both of them were high school students, could take place next Monday. Republican lawmakers and conservative media figures, who have largely lined up in support of Kavanaugh, have already begun trying to poke holes in her story and question her credibility.
“The problem is, Dr. Ford can’t remember when it was, where it was, or how it came to be,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the Senate majority whip and a member of the Judiciary Committee. “There are some gaps there that need to be filled.”
“There’s some question whether she’s mixed up,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), another Judiciary Committee member, said this Monday. “I think there are lots of reasons not to believe it, but on the other hand, you can’t ignore and cast the issue aside.”
Republicans fear that the spectacle of male senators aggressively questioning Blasey would alienate female voters, who already favor Democrats by a wide margin in polling. College-educated women are considered key to Democratic hopes of taking back the House. GOP operatives worry that a replay of the Anita Hill hearings ― when an all-male panel of senators aggressively questioned the integrity of another woman accusing a Supreme Court nominee of sexual misconduct ― could provide those voters in particular with yet another reason to support Democrats in November.
One GOP strategist, granted anonymity to discuss his party’s position in this fracas, was blunt: “The optics could not be much worse. It’s not what we need right now.”
“Let’s see,” a second Republican strategist wrote in an email. “Eleven old white guys questioning a woman about teenage sex, what could go wrong? Hopefully someone will suggest hiring a female prosecutor to handle the questioning, it’s really our only hope of coming out of this thing alive.”
Indeed, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are considering using female staffers to question Blasey.
A CNN/SSRS poll conducted earlier this month found Democrats with an edge of 52 percent to 42 percent over Republicans on the generic ballot for Congress. That edge comes entirely from female voters, who back Democrats by a margin of 60 percent to 36 percent. Men support Republicans, 49 percent to 44 percent.
The Hill hearings are credited, in part, with sparking the “Year of the Women” election back in 1992. This year, Democrats have recruited and nominated a record number of female House candidates, including in a number of states crucial to control of the Senate.
A third GOP strategist was hopeful that any electoral damage could be limited to the House, where many battleground districts are filled with college-educated women. In crucial Senate states ― which are mostly in territory friendly to President Donald Trump ― the fight could actually help Republicans by drawing attention to the Supreme Court and firing up the party’s base, he argued.
“The worst thing for House Republicans is a conversation about anything other than the economy,” the strategist said. “Even though House Republicans have less than zero to do with Supreme Court confirmations, they’re going to bear the brunt.” Others suggested that Trump has already throughly damaged the party’s brand with suburban women, so next Monday’s proposed hearing couldn’t do much additional damage.
One strategist was hopeful the GOP could survive the hearing, provided senators avoided direct confrontations with Blasey and simply allowed her to testify. “I don’t think they have to question her at all,” the strategist said. “I don’t think there’s anything to gain by interrogating her like a criminal detective.”
The strategist thought the committee’s Republican senators ― a roster including Cornyn, Hatch, Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Ted Cruz (Texas) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa) ― were likely to behave themselves. “If this was in the House, I’d have no confidence,” the strategist added.
Cornyn appeared to share that sentiment about his colleagues. “No problem,” he said when reporters asked if he was confident the hearing wouldn’t go off the rails.
Other senators seemed more eager to go after Blasey.
“She’ll be challenged,” Graham said Tuesday night on Fox News. “You don’t have to be smart to know that there’s something going on here.”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.