Sen. Joni Ernst was rushing through a nearly vacant Senate walkway Thursday morning as Christine Blasey Ford was recounting in gripping detail the assault she said she suffered at the hands of Brett Kavanaugh three decades ago.
Asked if she was planning to watch Ford’s testimony, Ernst said no. “I trust Senator Grassley,” she said, referring to her fellow Republican senator from Iowa, who was presiding over the Judiciary Committee hearing.
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But a few hours later, Ernst showed up in the hearing room to watch Grassley and his all-male Republican panel hear Kavanaugh describe the “ordeal” he’d been through in recent weeks.
“I have been a supporter of the MeToo movement,” Ernst told Iowa reporters on a conference call that day. “But these are very difficult situations that happen…. And sometimes they can’t be corroborated.”
It turns out that party loyalty still trumps the #metoo movement, at least for most women in Congress.
Over the past year, women across the nation and regardless of ideology have united over their stories experiencing assault, harassment and rape. But on Capitol Hill, female lawmakers are still very much divided along party lines about whom they trust most, the accuser or the accused.
In Kavanaugh’s case, female Democratic lawmakers are siding with the women, including Ford, outraged by Senate Republicans’ attempt to jam Kavanuagh’s confirmation through the upper chamber without an investigation of accusations against him. But Republican women on both sides of Capitol are largely backing the party’s decision, sticking by their nominee.
“I believe Judge Kavanaugh when he says these humiliating events never happened,” recently appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) said in her first floor speech on Wednesday. She later tweeted that it was “my duty… as the first woman to represent” Mississippi to defend Kavanaugh.
Democratic women, by contrast, couldn’t emphasize enough that their sympathies were with Ford. When it was Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-Calif.) turn to speak during the Judiciary Committee hearing, she declared to Ford, “I want to tell you, I believe you.” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) similarly said Ford “gave forthright and truthful testimony and I believe her and I believe millions of Americans believed her.”
There might turn out to be exceptions to the partisan divide — critical ones. Moderate Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, two GOP holdouts, will likely determine whether Kavanaugh gets through or not.
Notably, however, it was a Republican man, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who on Friday bucked his party to demand an investigation into the Kavanaugh matter, putting the confirmation process on hold for a week.
Collins and Murkowski’s hesitation to take a position on Kavanaugh stood in stark contrast to the cries of sexism by Democratic lawmakers in both chambers of Congress. Female Democrats were furious about the GOP-led hearing on Ford’s allegation, calling it a “sham” and a “disgrace” — or “crap,” in the words of Rep. Val Deming’s (D-Fla.) at a Friday press conference.
“They knew that they couldn’t have another ‘Anita Hill moment,’ so they did the bare minimum so they could say they checked the box, hear her out,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said Friday morning. “The reality is this was really worse than Anita Hill because there were no witnesses called, there was no background check.”
On Thursday, a handful of female House Democrats crossed the Capitol to watch Ford testify in a show of support. Those who didn’t were glued to their TVs in their offices, texting friends and family members or live tweeting their reactions.
But several House Republican women told POLITICO they didn’t even watch the hearing, saying they were busy conducting their official duties.
“I was in committee most of the day,” said GOP Rep. Kristi Noem, who is running for governor in South Dakota. Asked if she planned to watch the hearing eventually, she answered, “Probably.”
Some female Republican lawmakers have sought to avoid the issue entirely, caught between their Trump-loving base and female voters who could turn on them. Rep. Martha McSally, a House Republican running for Senate in Arizona whose track coach she said sexually abused her in high school, has issued vague statements about the Kavanaugh matter that avoid taking a position.
On Friday, the Arizona Republican’s campaign released an anodyne statement on basic civics: “[U]nder the Constitution, the Senate’s role is to provide advice and consent on this nomination, and to seek the truth,” it read. “I encourage [senators] to use the next week to gather any additional relevant facts, and then act on this nomination.”
McSally isn’t the only Republican woman who doesn’t want to talk about it. Hyde-Smith ignored multiple questions about what she thought of the hearing while exiting the Capitol Thursday night.
“I’m not making any statements, thank you,” she said repeatedly.
Democratic women say it’s unimaginable that any female lawmaker would not believe someone of their own gender who risked upending their lives to come forward — or at least call for an investigation into the allegation. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) argued in an interview that “93 to 97 percent of women who come forward with claims are telling the truth.”
“I’m sick, frankly. I’m despondent,” Speier said of her reaction to Republicans’ handling of the situation. “[Ford] is so specific about what happened. She’s taken a polygraph exam…. Who is the reluctant actor here? Who has the most to gain? Common sense tells you what happened.”
But several Republican women also have concerns about men being smeared by false accusations. And some of them have viewed Kavanaugh’s accusers skeptically because of the 11th-hour timing.
They want evidence, as Ernst told one newspaper.
“What we are looking for is the information that is coming forward and then has it been corroborated,” Ernst said, according to the Omaha World-Herald, which also reported that Ernst watched part of Ford’s testimony later. “I have no doubt that at some point she experienced some sort of traumatic event.”
If Collins and Murkowski end up siding with their party on Kavanaugh’s nomination, female Democrats say they would risk their reputation with women of all stripes.
“It would really undermine if not destroy their credibility on a whole host of issues where they’ve lifted up women,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said of the prospect of Collins and Murkowski backing Kavanaugh. “I don’t know how women could listen to [Kavanaugh’s testimony] and vote to confirm him, but I worry.”
Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.