Politics

Kavanaugh controversy spills into congressional midterms

Rhonda Stutzman of Herndon, Va., accused Republicans of having “blinders” on during the confirmation process.
John Boal/for The Boston Globe
Rhonda Stutzman of Herndon, Va., accused Republicans of having “blinders” on during the confirmation process.

STERLING, Va. — Rhonda Stutzman, a piano teacher shopping for groceries amid the sprawl of this Washington suburb, believes Christine Blasey Ford’s harrowing account of an attempted sexual assault three decades ago by a drunk teenage Brett Kavanaugh.

She accused Senate Republicans of having “blinders” on in their quest to push through Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation and expressed disappointment that her own congresswoman, Republican Barbara Comstock, had not stood up to them.

“She could, as a woman, be more sympathetic,’’ said Stutzman, a Democrat.

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But Comstock, a relative moderate whose reelection is threatened by a wave of anti-Trump fervor, is not breaking with her party. She released a terse statement last week calling on both Ford and Kavanaugh to testify under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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The lurid episode Ford has described, and the response by Republicans defending Kavanaugh’s nomination, is reverberating well beyond the Senate into battleground congressional districts such as this one, where President Trump’s personal behavior had already pushed issues of gender and sexual assault to the forefront.

New allegation of sexual misconduct surfaces against Brett Kavanaugh

The allegations are at once personal and deeply polarizing, further stoking the Democratic anger that has led record-breaking numbers of women to run for office this year and frustrating Republicans who already believed Democrats will stop at nothing to halt Kavanaugh’s nomination.

Voters in Comstock’s district may be among the least forgiving on Nov. 6 if Republicans, in the #MeToo era, are perceived to be casting aside credible allegations against a nominee for the high court. The wealthy district, which supported Hillary Clinton even as it reelected Comstock in 2016, has large numbers of well-educated, professional women who, polls say, are swinging against the GOP in 2018. It is among the key seats Democrats hope to flip in their quest for House control.

The allegation of a teenage assault, 36 years ago in a Maryland suburb just a few Beltway exits away, is consuming debate. Republicans acknowledge it could pose a problem for Comstock.

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“It’s all anybody talks about,” said Tom Davis, a GOP strategist and former Republican congressman who supports Comstock. “If it’s handled wrong, it could be a branding problem for her.”

Even before Ford’s allegations emerged, Comstock was among the GOP’s most vulnerable House Republicans. She has taken steps before to distance herself from the president. She called for him to be replaced with another Republican in the presidential race after his crude comments about grabbing women’s privates came to light; she broke with House Republicans early last year and opposed their attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. She has also taken steps to align herself with female voters, as when she cosponsored legislation aimed at stopping sexual harassment in Congress and when she called for Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama accused of making inappropriate advances toward teenage girls, to drop out of his race last year.

As the midterms approach, Trump remains unpopular in the district and is weighing her down. The Cook Political Report, which tracks races around the country, says the race now “leans Democratic.”

The challenges for Comstock increased Friday. Even as negotiations continued for a hearing that is now planned for Thursday for Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republicans took a more aggressive tack against the accuser. Trump posted tweets raising doubts about her account. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell vowed Republicans would “plow right through’’ the sexual assault controversy and put Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court.

“This is the last thing she needed,” Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said of Comstock. “Many women voters — and many men, too — who are disdainful of the president and how Republicans have handled this latest event — they need a vehicle to express themselves. They can’t vote against Trump for the next two years but they can sure vote against the person with the ‘R’ next to their name.”

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Comstock’s campaign did not respond to a phone message and multiple e-mails seeking comment.

On Friday, at a Chamber of Commerce debate where the matter did not come up, she cast herself as a pragmatic moderate who shows up in the district.

“This election is about results versus the resistance,” Comstock said. Speaking to reporters after the debate, she briefly addressed the issue of sexual assault allegations: “I think we need to have a process that needs to be fair here,’’ she said, “and I trust the Senate will do that.’’

Her Democratic opponent, state senator Jennifer Wexton, raised the issue on Twitter, and in an interview with the Globe she criticized Comstock’s response to Ford’s accusations.

“My opponent purports to be a champion of the ‘Me Too’ movement and would have a real opportunity here to stand up for the victim and to stand up to members of her party and take a leadership role, but she’s not doing that,” said Wexton, a former prosecutor who has joined other Democrats in calling for a full investigation of Ford’s claims.

The allegations — and the way Republicans have treated them — have certainly left Democrats here more fired up to vote for Wexton.

“This is an important moment for women,” said Sheila Singleton, a Democrat and retired federal employee as she shopped in an outlet mall in Leesburg the other day. “We need to be heard.”

And it is something undecided voters are keeping at the forefront of their minds.

John Boal for the Boston Globe
Marina Molnar of Ashburn, Va., said, “it’s important how people react, with the allegation.”

“Of course it’s going to influence my decision,” said Marina Molnar, 39, a registered nurse who leans Democratic but has yet to make up her mind on the race. “I think it’s important how people react, with the allegation.”

But analysts said there could be pitfalls on both sides. Davis, the Republican strategist, said Democrats run a risk of uniting Republicans behind Comstock and other GOP candidates if they appear to be gleefully politicizing serious allegations of sexual assault.

That was the case for Leslie Mangano, a dental hygienist from Waterford, Va., who was meeting friends for lunch in Sterling.

“It’s shameful, taking advantage of the ‘Me Too’ movement big time,” said Mangano, who described herself as an independent voter who found herself leaning toward supporting Comstock. “I’m fed up with the divisiveness of the Democratic strategy of going after people for this kind of stuff.”

Democrats, both among outside groups and candidates, are raising the controversy in a number of races across the country. In Nevada, Representative Jacky Rosen, a Democrat who is trying to unseat Senator Dean Heller, the only Republican incumbent running in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016, has raised it repeatedly, seizing on Heller’s comment that there had been a “hiccup” on the road to a Kavanaugh confirmation. In Virginia’s coastal Second District, Elaine Luria, the challenger to the Republican Representative Scott Taylor, raised the issue on Twitter and called it a matter of protecting and supporting victims of sexual assault.

But Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said it would be difficult to measure how much of a difference the allegations make in Republicans’ most vulnerable House districts, including the suburbs in Denver, the Twin Cities, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.

“The Republican Party’s already been harmed in terms of its support among women because of Donald Trump,” Skelley said. “I don’t know how much more this does.”

Courtney Riddle of Leesburg, Va., said she could see both sides of the controversy involving Brett Kavanaugh.
John Boal for the Boston Globe
Courtney Riddle of Leesburg, Va., said she could see both sides of the controversy involving Brett Kavanaugh.

That was the case for Courtney Riddle, 46, a Libertarian-leaning voter who said she could see both sides of the allegations against Kavanaugh. Still, she said, she was planning to vote for Wexton, even though Comstock supports charitable causes she believes in.

“Trump — he’s not really fit, he’s not really presidential,” Riddle said. “I’m going to vote Democrat. I just feel that we need to send a message.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated who Democrat Elaine Luria is challenging in a US House race in Virginia. Luria is challenging US Representative Scott Taylor.

Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.