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How Republicans treat Christine Blasey Ford will impact midterms

A Supreme Court nomination that had seemed all but certain is suddenly up in the air. 

Christine Blasey Ford, a research professor in California, dramatically stepped forward on Sunday and revealed herself as the woman who had anonymously alleged that Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were high school students.

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Ford told The Washington Post that in the early 1980s, during a party in Montgomery County, Maryland, Kavanaugh and a male friend, both students at a private high school and both “stumbling drunk,” maneuvered her into a bedroom. Kavanaugh pinned her to the bed, pushing his body against hers, groping her, and attempting to remove her clothes. 

When she tried to scream, he put his hand on her mouth. Ford was afraid that “he might inadvertently kill me.” She only freed herself when Kavanaugh’s friend jumped on top of them and all three went sprawling. She got up, locked herself in the bathroom, and later ran out of the house. 

Until Ford came forward, the Republican response to her then anonymous letter had been focused and effective. Both Kavanaugh and his former classmate denied that the alleged assault took place and Republicans released a letter signed by 65 women who knew Kavanaugh while he was in high school and who attested to his good character. Republicans went on the offensive against the Democrats, accusing them of a sleazy last-ditch effort to provoke a #MeToo uproar against Kavanaugh.

But now the Republicans are going to need a bigger boat because, while Kavanaugh is entitled to a presumption of innocence, Ford could be a formidable witness. She is a professor at Palo Alto University where she teaches in a consortium with Stanford University; she trains graduate students in clinical psychology; and her academic writings are published in leading journals. 

Her accusations are corroborated by notes taken by the therapist who treated her in couples therapy with her husband in 2012. The notes reflect Ford describing an attack by students from an “elitist” school who went on to become “high-ranking members of society in Washington.” Last month, as reported by the Post, Ford took and passed a lie detector test administered by a former FBI agent.

Ford has a potentially compelling story to tell about her years of anguish after the alleged assault and why she did not initially reveal herself when Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court. She told the Washington Post her first impulse was, “Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?” But when inaccurate stories about her began spreading she decided to go public.

How does this play out? Senate Judiciary Republicans will likely come under pressure to delay this Thursday’s confirmation vote, re-open the hearings, and allow Ford to testify. The confirmation hearings for Associate Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991 were re-opened to allow Anita Hill to testify that Thomas had made unwanted sexual remarks when she worked for him at the EEOC.

It’s hard to argue that a sexual assault of the nature described by Ford, even one that took place in high school, is facially irrelevant to a nominee’s qualifications to serve as a justice of the Supreme Court. And attempting to prevent the American public from hearing Ford’s testimony at an open hearing invites a political backlash, especially from women.

An open hearing also presents considerable political peril for Republicans. If Ford is an effective witness, then a polite, white gloves examination may not have an impact. But an aggressive examination that demeans her integrity could alienate women voters just six weeks from the midterms. A reprise against Ford of the “little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” attack on Anita Hill in 1991 will not play well in the #MeToo era.  

In fact, it didn’t play well for male politicians in the year after Hill testified because in 1992 more women were elected to Congress than in any prior decade. What became known as “The Year of the Woman” is attributed in part to Anita Hill’s treatment. This year, Democrats are fielding three times as many women congressional candidates as Republicans. 

Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations are a potential game-changer for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and could hurt the already grim prospects for Republicans in the midterms. 

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.