Who Survives a Sexual-Harassment Allegation?

There’s no clear pattern to the disparate trajectories of Al Franken, John Conyers, Joe Barton, and Roy Moore.

Senator Al Franken speaks to reporters outside his office in Washington on Monday.
Senator Al Franken speaks to reporters outside his office in Washington on Monday. (Yuri Gripas / Reuters)

Outside of Washington, the pattern to this wave of sexual-misconduct cases is clear enough: Accusation (or accusations), firing, and then maybe an apology. But within politics, there’s no pattern to follow, as a quartet of examples demonstrate.

Al Franken, John Conyers, Roy Moore, and Joe Barton all stand accused of various sexual indiscretions, but otherwise, save their gender and profession, they share little in common. Even the allegations against them range widely, from the criminal to the creepy to, in Barton’s case, the merely consensual. So far, so do their trajectories post-accusation.

Begin with Democrat Conyers, who is facing intense pressure to resign. Thursday alone, Speaker Paul Ryan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Representative James Clyburn all called for him to step down. The last two are fellow Democrats, and Clyburn is particularly notable because he was defiantly supportive of Conyers just Wednesday, and is the highest-ranking black Democrat in the House. Conyers, who at 88 is the dean of the House, has himself been quiet, and his lawyer said he entered a hospital last night with stress-related illness.

During a press conference on Thursday, Conyers’s attorney Arnold Reed was defiant. “First of all it is not up to Nancy Pelosi,” Reed said. “Nancy Pelosi did not elect the congressman and she sure as hell won’t be the one to tell the congressman to resign.” Reed may have hurt his client’s cause with his combative remarks, in which he argued that one of Conyers’s accusers was “jumping on the bandwagon” and questioned whether she would have accepted a settlement of some $27,000 if she was treated as badly as she claimed.

Reed also compared Conyers to Franken, the Minnesota Democratic senator who several women have accused of groping or unwanted kisses.

“There are to my count five of these allegations against Al Franken,” Reed said. “There are four, three or four against the congressman. At the end of the day I would suspect that Nancy Pelosi is going to have to explain what is the discernible difference between Al Franken and John Conyers.”

Reed is doing his best to defend his client, but this is not a difficult question. Franken’s alleged behavior is boorish and flatly unacceptable, but—and more on this later—it is possible and necessary to distinguish between different types of sexual harassment and abuse, from illicit groping to multiple accusations of rape, as in Harvey Weinstein’s case. The allegations facing Franken are not the same as the claims against Conyers: years of abuse, propositioning and grabbing employees, and forcing them to speak to him while he wore only his underwear. These allegations are more serious in type as well as in the employee-employer power dynamic. Some listeners also heard in Reed’s remarks a suggestion that Conyers, as an African American, was being treated differently than Franken, who is white.

So far, most national Democrats have not called for Franken to resign, instead getting behind a call for a Senate Ethics Committee investigation. But some Minnesota Democrats have said he should step down, as have Representatives Kathleen Rice of New York and Tim Ryan of Ohio. But with each new accusation against Franken—including a story from an Army veteran who says he groped her on 2003 USO tour and a former elected official who says he tried to give her a “wet, open-mouthed kiss”—his position appears more precarious.

There are other factors potentially at play: After some dithering, Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, has decided to speak forcefully on Conyers, but her Senate counterpart Chuck Schumer has been more reserved on Franken. Conyers, at 88, is also clearly already in the twilight of his career and his is a safe Democratic district; Franken is younger and until a couple weeks ago was viewed as a rising star, and while a Democratic governor would choose his replacement if he resigned, the seat could be closely contested in the long run.

Two Democrats, two different approaches. What about on the Republican side of the aisle?

On Thursday, Representative Joe Barton of Texas announced he would not seek reelection. Barton is embroiled in a strange story. While separated from his wife, from whom he is now divorced, he engaged in consensual sexual relationships with women and also shared nude pictures. Last week, one such picture was circulated online. Embarrassing, sure—but there’s no evidence that Barton did anything legally or ethically wrong, and indeed he may have been the victim of a crime. A recording of him threatening to go to the Capitol Police was also leaked, but again, he was apparently being blackmailed. Even so, Republicans pressured Barton to announce he would not run again, and on Thursday he acceded. Unless he knows something that’s not public, it looks like he’s being punished for being a victim. But Barton is perhaps expendable for party leaders: His seat is comfortably Republican, and he’s had a long career already.

Even as Barton was pressured to bow out for no apparent reason, Roy Moore looks to be back on track to be elected to the Senate from Alabama. Polls since Thanksgiving have shown him retaking a lead from Democrat Doug Jones. The allegations against Moore are more serious than those against any of the other three men. One woman says he brought her to his house when she was 14 and guided her hand to touch his penis over his underwear; another says he offered her a ride home, then locked his car, groped her, and tried to force her head into his crotch. Multiple women have also said he pursued them when they were in their teens, and he is reported to have been banned from a local mall in Gadsden, Alabama, for making girls uncomfortable.

Many top Republicans have said Moore should withdraw from the race and not serve. The Republican National Committee and the GOP’s Senate campaign wing both yanked support for him. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has suggested expelling him if he wins. But Moore remains, for a couple reasons. One is that he is not beholden to the GOP establishment. Another is that President Trump has effectively backed him. (The president may have his own motives: He was infamously recorded bragging about committing sexual assault.)

The strange result is that one Republican is forced out for doing nothing apparently wrong; another seems to be headed for a Senate seat despite allegations of much more serious sins.

Among voters themselves, there is a partisan split on sexual abuse. According to a new NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll, 45 percent of Republicans said they’d support a candidate accused of sexual harassment “if that person had excellent leadership skills and shared their views on issues,” while just 18 percent of Democrats said the same. Two-thirds of Democratic men said the recent revelations had made them reflect on their own behavior and attitudes toward women; roughly the same proportion of Republican men said they had not.

Yet among elected officials in the two parties, it’s hard to draw conclusions. Franken looks safer than Conyers; Barton is out, while Moore’s prospects are rosier. There are many variables here, including the seriousness of the allegations against the men, the amount of leverage their respective parties have on them, and the stage of each one’s career. The electoral repercussions of a resignation for each of them seem to exert an important pull. It’s hard to draw clear conclusions about whether one party is especially better at holding lawmakers accountable than the other. So far, there’s no way to predict the fate of a congressman accused of sexual misbehavior.