Conservative Women Thread a Needle on Brett Kavanaugh

Polls show a majority of women turning on Kavanaugh, but conservative women continue to support the Supreme Court nominee, even as they express sympathy for victims of sexual assault.

The U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill on September 4, 2018. (Jim Bourg / Reuters)

By championing Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump and the Senate GOP have successfully accelerated a female exodus to the Democratic Party on the cusp of the first national elections of the #MeToo era. The latest Fox News poll, released on Sunday, says that burgeoning opposition to Kavanaugh is being driven by suburban women, who believe Christine Blasey Ford over Kavanaugh by a margin of 17 percentage points. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll says that opposition to Kavanaugh is notably driven by women over the age of 50. In August, their net support for Kavanaugh was +3; now it’s -7.

All of the polls essentially underscore the GOP’s woes with women voters; indeed, the latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times survey, released today, says that the Democrats, since midsummer, have gained eight points among white married women (a typically reliable GOP constituency), nine points among suburban women, and 10 points among white noncollege women (a strong 2016 Trump constituency).

That poll was conducted before any of the sexual-assault allegations against Kavanaugh came to light. And today there is a third accuser, Julie Swetnick, who states in a declaration that as a party attendee in the early ’80s, she witnessed “abusive and physically aggressive behavior toward girls,” including efforts by Kavanaugh, his friend Mark Judge, and others to inebriate girls and coerce them sexually. Swetnick, who is represented by Michael Avenatti, states: “I have a firm recollection of seeing boys lined up outside rooms at many of these parties waiting for their ‘turn’ with a girl inside the room. These boys included Mark Judge and Brett Kavanaugh.” She also alleges she was raped at a party at which Kavanaugh was present.

Most women voters were already trending blue, but there’s a flip side to the gender-gap story. Women on the Republican right—70 percent of GOP women, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll—remain bullish about Kavanaugh and the party that’s pushing for a speedy confirmation. For now, at least, they’re staying loyal. As the former Florida GOP congressional candidate Gina Sosa remarked a week ago on CNN, referring to Ford: “I mean, we’re talking about a 15-year-old girl, which I respect … But we’re talking about a 17-year-old boy in high school with testosterone running high. Tell me, what boy hasn’t done this in high school? Please, I would like to know.”

Sosa was duly informed, by many men on social media, that they never did such things in high school, but in the CNN segment she was seconded by Lourdes Castillo de la Peña, a Florida GOP fund-raiser: “How can we believe the word of a woman of something that happened 36 years ago? [Kavanaugh] is an altar boy, a scout.”

Kavanaugh is also a victim, at least according to the Fox News contributor Tammy Bruce. Appearing Monday night on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show, she segued from general sympathy for sexual-assault victims to her contention that Kavanaugh’s critics are fascists: “You’ve got Brett Kavanaugh effectively being used as a stand-in for all perpetrators … So many women have not been believed or been heard, and that is unfair and we’ve got to fix it, but we’re not going to fix it by becoming fascists and by blaming every man and presuming every man is guilty.”

Conservative women are typically trying to thread that needle—voicing support for beleaguered members of their gender, with a frisson of feminist sisterhood, before pivoting back to their support for Kavanaugh. Their titular leader, of course, is the Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, who told CBS News earlier this week, “I am personally very aggrieved for all [sexual-assault victims]. But are we going to put decades of pent-up demand for women to feel whole on one man’s shoulders?”

But much of the conservative female support for Kavanaugh is predictably tribal. Liberals and Democrats oppose Kavanaugh, the conservatives say, and therefore their arguments are illegitimate. Alice Stewart, a former aide to Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, does the delicate dance in a CNN guest column. On the one hand, she says, “I cannot begin to understand the pain and anguish associated with being a victim of a sexual assault,” but on the other hand, she says, “the GOP must maintain a united front on Kavanaugh due to the fact that many Senate Democrats have already made up their minds.”

Meanwhile, Concerned Women for America, a long-standing conservative group based in Washington, has sustained its support for Kavanaugh by dismissing the sexual-assault allegations as partisan hits. Its state-chapter directors have done the same. Bev Ehlen, the group’s Missouri leader, said in August that “everything we know about this nominee speaks of his excellence.” But have the sexual-assault allegations signaled that perhaps there is more to know? Not according to Ehlen, who wrote on Monday that it’s important “to consider the political position of the accuser, who is publicly identified as an opposition supporter and who also failed to make any report of the single event.” (Ford is a registered Democrat who participated in a 2017 March for Science.)

In essence, most conservative and Republican women are loathe to champion Ford and the second Kavanaugh accuser, Deborah Ramirez, because they have long-standing ideological and cultural grievances that this Supreme Court battle merely underscores. They resent what they view as feminist intolerance. Karin Agness Lips, a senior fellow at the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, wrote last winter: “It is time for modern-day self-proclaimed feminists to recognize … that women are empowered to think for themselves and that means they won’t all think or vote the same.” And, as the commentator Tomi Lahren puts it more pungently, “This is a problem with modern-day feminism. It used to be about equality. Now it’s about bashing men, asking for free stuff, and tearing down other women for refusing to play victim.”

Nevertheless, as the Kavanaugh fight grinds on, there appear to be cracks in his female conservative wall of support. Last week, after a 70-year-old male argued in a National Review piece that the sexual-assault allegations “should be ignored,” he was quickly challenged by Alexandra DeSanctis, who graduated college just two years ago. She wrote: “Conservatives can never advocate ignoring allegations of sexual assault or diminish the importance of protecting women from abuse. No moral society can overlook, downplay, or otherwise dismiss behavior as grave as what Ford alleges Kavanaugh did … To suggest otherwise is deeply perverse … It is uniquely wounding to conservative women.” And Nancy French, a best-selling author and the wife of the conservative attorney David French, wrote last week: “As a survivor of sexual assault, I can say that if [Ford’s] story is true, none of Kavanaugh’s subsequent good deeds wipe the slate clean.”

Meanwhile, the Republican strategist Liz Mair tells The Guardian, “a lot of women on the right feel that, from a professional standpoint, [Kavanaugh is] qualified. They are not convinced that he did this. That said, I think there are a lot of conservative women who can envision how some of what’s being alleged could have happened, given what was deemed to be more culturally acceptable in the late ’70s and early ’80s.”