To understand why women overwhelmingly support a Democratic takeover of Congress—a landslide majority of 65 percent, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post survey—it’s worth parsing some of the initial Republican responses to the sexual-assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. The remarks explain why, on the cusp of the first national elections of the #MeToo era, Republicans on the ballot are confronted with a gender gap that threatens to become an unbridgeable canyon.
After Christine Blasey Ford, a clinical-psychology professor, put her name to the accusation, announcing publicly that she’d passed a polygraph and had shared her story in a 2012 therapy session, Senator Orrin Hatch, a longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s all-male Republican contingent, told the cameras: “This woman, whoever she is, is mixed up.” He also said that even if the assault accusation were true, the past wouldn’t matter so much: “It would be hard for senators not to consider who he is today.”
His Republican colleague Bob Corker voiced sympathy for Kavanaugh, but none for his accuser: “I mean, I can’t imagine the horror of being accused of something like this.” Donald Trump Jr. joked on Instagram that Kavanaugh had merely had a schoolyard crush. And an unnamed lawyer close to the White House said that the alpha gender is under assault: “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried.”
After their initial defensive flurry, Republicans quickly recognized that ramming Kavanaugh’s nomination through without affording Ford an opportunity to testify under oath would be politically suicidal. But even though they’ve hit the pause button and slated a public hearing for Monday, it’s likely that many women in the electorate have already gotten the message, one that mirrors the message they’ve received from Trump Republicans all along: that the ruling patriarchy does not respect, and indeed feels threatened by, the power of women.
Come November, these dynamics could have serious consequences for the Republicans on the ballot. The gender gap—essentially, the difference in the way men and women vote—has generally plagued the GOP at the national level since 1992, when, in the so-called Year of the Woman, Democrats won back the White House after 12 years in the wilderness. Bill Clinton was buoyed by strong female support, and the gap was even wider when he won reelection in 1996. That year, male voters split more or less evenly between Clinton and his challenger, Bob Dole, but women favored Clinton by 18 percentage points.
The gender split was mostly about policy—that’s why the female majority tended to vote Democratic back then. To name some examples: Women, unlike men, tended to support a more expansive role for the federal government. Women, unlike men, tended to believe more strongly in the importance of a government safety net, and they didn’t like when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich targeted it for budget cuts. They also didn’t like when Republicans called for the abolition of the federal Department of Education.
At the same time, women were becoming more economically and professionally powerful, and Republican leaders “just didn’t get it,” as Jack Pitney, a former party strategist, told me in 1996. The same year, Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant, told me (in a semi-joking manner): “Things were simpler back when the daddy bears brought home the income, and the mommy bears were the caregivers and interior decorators.”
Now, the exodus of women to the Democratic Party appears to be accelerating, and for a more profound cultural reason than policy differences: the belief that Trump and his male allies refuse to fully see them as equal human beings. Trump lost the female electorate by 12 percentage points (although he won among white women). Meanwhile, a solid majority of men clearly didn’t care much that Trump had allegedly abused, harassed, or groped almost 20 women, or that Trump responded by calling the women liars and threatening to sue them. The president was similarly hostile last winter to the multiple women who came forward to accuse the Republican senatorial candidate Roy Moore of molesting them as minors.
That attitude has apparently prompted college-educated white women, in particular, to abandon the GOP in droves. Last year in Virginia, for example, they supported the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam by 16 points, powering his victory, where in the governor’s race four years earlier, they’d split evenly between the parties. This female bailout has devastating implications for House Republican incumbents running this fall in suburban districts. House Democratic candidates are typically lucky to break even with college-educated white women—that’s what happened in 2016—but virtually all the 2018 polls report that Trump has turned them off en masse, primarily because of his style and behavior.
It’s the cultural chasm. The Washington Post, citing the polls, reported this summer: “Support for the Republicans among white women with a college degree drops off a cliff after 2016.” Steve Bannon, Trump’s exiled aide, has waved the flag of surrender: “The Republican college-educated woman is done … They’re gone. They were going anyway at some point in time. Trump triggers them.”
Even Trump may recognize the perils of further alienating those formerly reliable Republican women. The president was uncharacteristically subdued on Monday, declining to attack Ford’s credibility and signaling a willingness to extend the Kavanaugh confirmation timetable. "If it takes a little delay, it will take a little delay,” Trump said.
His caution reflects the Senate Republicans’ need to tread carefully, not just during the run-up to Ford’s sworn testimony, but during the Monday committee hearing, when the all-male Republican panel will be challenged to ask hard questions without reducing her to a “mixed up” female stereotype. Presumably, they will refrain from repeating the behavior of their colleagues in 1991, two of whom produced a fake affidavit claiming that Anita Hill—another college-educated woman—had surprised her law students by placing pubic hairs in their exam books. The 1992 Year of the Woman was partly a backlash against the smears Hill was forced to endure.
Mark Twain once wrote, “It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.” If the Republicans have any last-ditch hopes of narrowing the gender gap before the 2018 balloting begins, they’ll defy Twain’s treatise on human nature and give this latest professor her proverbial day in court.