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Kavanaugh allegations could be monster storm brewing for midterm elections     

Kavanaugh allegations could be monster storm brewing for midterm elections     
© Anna Moneymaker

It's only September, but the October surprise for the 2018 campaign seems to be happening ahead of schedule.  The accusation of sexual assault against Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh could have powerful repercussions in this year's midterm.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will very likely have to delay a vote on Kavanaugh until his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, testifies.  When that happens, the issue will become her credibility versus Kavanaugh's.  Not unlike the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, which tested his credibility against Anita Hill's. 

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I covered those confirmation hearings for CNN.  The Republican strategy in 1991 was to turn the Thomas confirmation hearings into a trial.   Americans “get” trials.  They had been watching Perry Mason on TV for years.  For a senator to vote against Thomas's confirmation became tantamount to declaring the nominee guilty of sexual harassment.  Since Hill could not “prove” that Thomas had harassed her, Thomas was (narrowly) confirmed.  Nevertheless, Hill's testimony raised the political consciousness of women and made sexual harassment a major issue.

The Thomas hearings occurred a full year before the 1992 election, but the repercussions could be seen a year later.  1992 was the Year of the Woman.  The number of female senators went from two to six and the number of women elected to the House from 28 to 47.

Things may be different now.  We're in the “me too” era.  It is no longer possible to dismiss women's claims of sexual harassment as “a fantasy,” as Republicans tried to do with Anita Hill.  Trump supporters may argue that Kavanaugh is being accused of sexual misconduct during his high school years when he was 17 years old, more than 30 years ago.   The problem is that Kavanaugh said last week, “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation.  I did not do this back in high school or at any time.”  If he is seen to be lying now, at age 53, it would raise serious doubts about his fitness to serve on the high court.

There is one huge difference between the Kavanaugh and Thomas confirmation hearings: Donald Trump is president.  Thomas was nominated by President George H.W. Bush.  Bush did not play a conspicuous public role in the Senate confirmation process.  We can hardly expect President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Trump believes Kushner relationship with Saudi crown prince a liability: report Christine Blasey Ford to be honored by Palo Alto City Council MORE to stay on the sidelines.  Trump's most enduring legacy may be his judicial appointments, especially if he creates a conservative majority on the Supreme Court.  Anyone who threatens that legacy will be met with Trump's signature response – defiance.

If Ford testifies against Kavanaugh, it's hard to see President Trump restraining himself.  His Twitter fingers will be itching to go on the attack.  Trump likes to dominate every news cycle.  Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsDem senators urge Pompeo to reverse visa policy on diplomats' same-sex partners 15 Saudis identified in disappearance of Washington Post columnist The Senate needs to cool it MORE (D-Del.) put it this way to the Washington Post: “He has taken at times dramatic, sometimes alarming, often unsettling steps to ensure that he is what we're talking about, for better or worse, almost every day.”  President Trump is unlikely to concede that primacy, even for a few days, to a woman who gets in his way.   Particularly if she is a registered Democrat who contributed to Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSanders: Trump setting 'terrible example' for our children Gabbard considering 2020 run: report Sanders, Harris set to criss-cross Iowa MORE.

Trump's intervention in defense of his nominee would very likely generate a backlash, particularly among women voters.  Two thirds of women already hold an unfavorable opinion of Trump (30 percent favorable and 67 percent unfavorable in the September CNN poll).  Trump's army of supporters can dominate Republican primaries, but they wield less power in general elections.  Republican candidates who were fearful of offending Trump in the primaries could now become fearful of offending women in the November election. 

Republicans are already facing big problems this year with college-educated white women in affluent suburban districts.  “Almost every week, Donald Trump does something that makes these suburban women clutch their pearls,” Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher told the Post.

Kavanaugh's accuser, Christine Ford, is offering to testify at great personal risk.  Trump's army will aim to destroy her.  She is a professor of educational psychology who has taught at the Stanford School of Medicine and has written extensively on trauma.  If this is a battle over credibility, she comes well armed.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).