Top Republican strategists said Tuesday that the Democrats’ caution in addressing internal sexual harassment scandals has exposed the party as brazenly hypocritical and compromised their image as champions of women.
Republicans have long bristled at Democratic claims that GOP policies, particularly opposition to unrestricted abortion, amounted to a “war on women.” They have fought, often fruitlessly, to change perceptions among women, who consistently deliver more of their votes to the Democrats.
But Republicans feel they might finally make headway after Democratic leaders didn’t immediately crack down on Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. The two influential Democrats accused of sexual misconduct have strong bases of support inside the party.
“The Democrats’ position as the party of women has always been a sham,” said Liesl Hickey, a GOP strategist who represents candidates running for office in 2018 and formerly ran the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Hickey said it was “no surprise” that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Conyers an “icon” and declined to take a tough stance against the 88-year-old lawmaker after he was accused of sexually harassing employees of his congressional office.
“Women voters were already onto their phony ‘war on women’ and rejected it outright last cycle. I look forward to their attempt to make this a thing. The Pelosi/Conyers ads will be terrific to watch,” Hickey said.
Congress has been rocked by sexual misconduct scandals in the past several weeks, as women came forward to reveal stories of abuse and harassment at the hands of powerful men in the wake of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein being outed as a serial predator. Neither political party has been spared.
In Alabama, retired judge Roy Moore, 70, the Republican Senate nominee in a Dec. 12 special election, has been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct decades ago when they were teenagers, some under the legal age of consent. Moore vehemently denies the allegations and refused Senate GOP leaders demands to withdraw from the race.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is threatening Moore with expulsion from the Senate if he wins. The fiery social conservative nonetheless threatens to cause problems for GOP candidates up and down the ballot in the midterms, just as Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin did in 2012.
Yet Democrats could be grappling with similar political challenges if they don’t take harsh, swift disciplinary action against transgressors in their own house in the aftermath of the Conyers and Franken scandals, not to mention the firestorm in California. There, sexual misconduct allegations are forcing Democrats out of the legislature.
“It’s important that we’re consistent,” said. Sen. Claire McCaskill, the Missouri Democrat who won re-election in 2012 after voters in her overwhelmingly Republican state rejected Akin after he suggested that some forms of rape were not legitimate.
“I don’t care who does the conduct, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, Green Party, independent. If you’ve harassed women in a public position, you should not hold the public position,” she added.
Franken has been accused by one woman of forcibly kissing her, alleged to have occurred years ago when he was working as a comedian; another accused him of groping her since he became a senator. The Minnesotan is now under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee, a move called for by leaders of both parties.
Many Senate Democrats donated money Franken had raised for their campaigns over the years to charity. None have called for him to resign or be expelled, and this week he returned to work. In the House, some Democrats have said Conyers stepping down as the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee was insufficient, saying he needs to resign.
In the Senate, at least, Democrats appear satisfied with the party’s response to Franken. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said an ethics committee investigation is “the appropriate way to go about it.”
“I think we’ve taken a hard line,” said Tester, who is up for re-election. “We’ve been very, very clear that this is unacceptable behavior … I have not heard one Democrat say that this is appropriate behavior — not one.”
Some liberal activists aren’t satisfied, saying either that Franken’s apologies weren’t good enough, that he should step down, or both. “Al Franken must be held accountable if our party wants to live up to our commitments too,” senior Democratic strategist Guy Cecil tweeted soon after the revelations surfaced.
Republicans certainly aren’t satisfied.
Just as Republicans used to suffer when a high-profile member of the self-anointed party of family values was caught in an extramarital affair, Democrats risk drowning in hypocrisy if they let transgressions against women slide after years of marketing themselves as the party that cares about uniquely about women and their issues.
“It has been shocking how hypocritical the Democrats have been on Franken and Conyers. I’m pretty critical of them, but I thought this was a place where they would have been consistent,” Republican strategist Brad Todd said. “They’re morally bankrupt.”