US midterm elections have traditionally been an all-out referendum on the sitting president. If the president is popular, his party does well. If the president is unpopular, the midterm elections can be tough sledding.
Under President Trump, that dynamic is sure to play out in 2018. But there’s another dynamic that is sure to have its own impact: the #MeToo movement.
Think it’s still too far out to know for sure how the current moment could affect next year’s race? Consider this: the current conversation about sexual harassment and worse has already changed the face of Congress.
In recent weeks, four US House members have resigned following allegations against them. First came Michigan Democrat John Conyers, who walked away from Congress amid allegations that he harassed numerous female former staffers. Next was Arizona Representative Trent Franks, who admitted offering an aide $5 million to serve as a pregnancy surrogate for his wife. Last week, Texas Republican Blake Farenthold announced he would not run for reelection after an ex-girlfriend released a series of inappropriate photos and text messages that Farenthold sent to her. On Saturday, freshman Nevada Representative Ruben Kihuen, a Democrat, announced he wouldn’t seek another term after a former campaign staffer said he sexually harassed her. And on Monday, yet another congressman, Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, was accused of sexual harassment by a former aide.
If that wasn’t enough, on the Senate side, Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, announced he will resign at the end of the year after several allegations by women of unwanted touching. And then there was Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican Senate candidate who was all but assured victory in his December special election until multiple women said he had inappropriate contact with them when they were teenagers. With Moore losing, it’s now possible that Democrats can win a Senate majority in midterm elections next year. To get there, they’ll just have to win two swing states.
The reckoning has extended beyond the halls of Capitol Hill. In Kansas, a female US House candidate dropped out of the race this weekend amid allegations that she fired a former male staffer at a private company after he rejected her advances.
The topic isn’t likely to die down as the debates and town halls that mark the heart of campaign season ramp up. Along with questions about health care and North Korea, candidates will undoubtedly be asked what policies they would back to change workplace culture and foster gender equality.
And candidates for any political office will be judged on their answers in ways they never have been before. Already, Ohio Supreme Court Judge Bill O’Neill, a Democratic candidate for governor, felt the issue was important enough that he outlined his own sexual history on Facebook and suggested that Franken should not resign due to a “feeding frenzy.” He has so far resisted calls for him to drop out of the race.
Meanwhile female candidates are using the moment to their advantage on the campaign trail. Dana Nessel, a Democratic candidate for Michigan attorney general, taped an advertisement in which she sat in front of a fireplace, looked directly into the camera and asked: “When you’re choosing Michigan’s next attorney general, ask yourself this: Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting? Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis? I’d say so.”
Other candidates don’t have to go that far. There are many who hope their presence alone will serve as a subtle reminder of the need for more gender equality in Washington. This may be the reason why there are already a record number of women running for major contests around the country.
These women will take positions for and against Trump on a whole host of issues, but will likely stand in solidarity on the topic that could take center stage on the campaign trail.
The result could be a House and Senate that has more new faces than we have seen after previous elections. And depending just how big of an issue the #MeToo movement goes on to be in the coming months, it could help determine which party controls Congress come January 2019.