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Republicans' troubles with women get worse after Trump defends Kavanaugh on sexual assault accusation

Republicans' troubles with women get worse after Trump defends Kavanaugh on sexual assault accusation
President Trump greets his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Brett M Kavanaugh, at the White House in July. (Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

The video Katie Hill posted Friday on social media opens with a striking declaration for a congressional candidate: “I have experienced sexual assault multiple times, different ways.”

The 31-year-old Democrat, who is trying to unseat Republican Steve Knight of Palmdale, tells viewers she knows how hard it is for women to report an attack. If Americans look the other way, she says, “we are showing to boys and men across the country that it’s OK.”

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Hill’s video highlights the threat Republicans face as they defend President Trump and his troubled Supreme Court nominee, Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Trump, who once boasted on tape about groping women, and other Republicans have been openly dismissive of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school.

In a year when scores of powerful men have been called to account for sexual misconduct, gender politics are a central force in the Nov. 6 election.

Now, Republicans’ rush to put Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court before the midterm, regardless of Ford’s testimony Thursday in a high-stakes Senate hearing, risks further alienating women already put off by Trump and his party.

Late Sunday, The New Yorker reported that Kavanaugh allegedly exposed himself to a Yale University classmate, Deborah Ramirez, at a drunken party when they were students there in the 1980s.

Kavanaugh has denied both allegations.

An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found that women want Democrats to control Congress by a lopsided 58% to 33%. Democrats hope suburban women with college degrees — a group that has strongly favored the party in special elections since Trump took power — will drive the party’s takeover of the House, if not the Senate.

At the same time, record numbers of women are running for seats in Congress. Of the 262 on the ballot, 202 are Democrats, according to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.

Hill, for one, is counting on a surge of support among women to overcome Knight’s standing in the state’s 25th Congressional District as a two-term incumbent, Army veteran and former Los Angeles police officer known for promoting the local aerospace industry.

Congressional candidate Katie Hill answers questions from the moderators at the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Lancaster West Rotary Congressional Forum at the Hellenic Center in Lancaster, Calif.
Congressional candidate Katie Hill answers questions from the moderators at the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Lancaster West Rotary Congressional Forum at the Hellenic Center in Lancaster, Calif. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

At a Palmdale debate last week, Hill castigated Republicans for questioning Ford’s credibility and her motives in going public.

“That’s such an incredibly difficult thing for a woman, which is why so many women never come forward, or why it takes decades in many cases,” said Hill, a former director of a homeless-services agency.

Hill posted a longer version of her video nine months ago after Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota gave up his Senate seat amid accusations of groping women and making unwanted advances.

The contest between Hill and Knight is one of the most competitive in the nation. The district — covering Simi Valley, Santa Clarita, Palmdale and part of Lancaster — was dominated by Republicans until 2014, when the number of registered Democrats surpassed them.

The race is one of at least a half dozen in California in which suburban women will play a key role in deciding whether Democrats capture seats long held by the GOP.

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For Brenda Mumford, a seventh-grade English teacher in Santa Clarita, the election offers a chance to put a check on Trump. When he first emerged as a leading contender for president, she thought he seemed like “a refreshing change.” But Mumford, an independent with four grown children, no longer trusts him.

“He’s dividing our country and inflaming people,” she said on a visit to a Santa Clarita Apple Store. “It seems like he’s not mentally balanced right now. He doesn’t think before he speaks, and he’s derogatory toward women.”

Trump’s erratic personal behavior, including frequent bursts of insults on Twitter, is just part of what’s fueling a historically wide gender gap, said Susan J. Carroll, a senior scholar at the Rutgers center.

Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) speaks with Sascha Cohen, left, at a candidate forum Sept. 10 in Lancaster.
Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) speaks with Sascha Cohen, left, at a candidate forum Sept. 10 in Lancaster. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Many college-educated women view him as a bad role model for their children, she said, and they recoil at much of his agenda: the rejection of climate science, the attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and an immigration crackdown that has separated children from their parents at the border.

“I think all of that is in the mix,” she said.

With his unrelenting focus on his base of rural and blue-collar voters, predominantly white men, Trump has “backed himself into an electoral cul-de-sac,” imperiling many of his party’s candidates, said Republican media consultant Mike Murphy.

“It’s like he was designed in a lab to offend female voters,” Murphy said.

Trump’s Republican allies in the Kavanaugh drama have only heightened the challenge, in some cases denigrating Ford’s allegation of sexual assault.

Calling Trump’s nominee a perfect Supreme Court pick, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa suggested the accusation didn’t matter because Kavanaugh was only 17 when Ford says he jumped on top of her, tried to remove her clothes and put his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream.

“High school? Give me a break,” Rohrabacher said.

Republican Senate candidate Kevin Cramer of North Dakota called the allegation “absurd” because Kavanaugh and Ford, who was 15 at the time, “evidently were drunk” at a party and it was “supposedly an attempt or something that never went anywhere.” Ford told the Washington Post that she’d had one beer, but Kavanaugh was heavily intoxicated.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, told an audience of conservative Christians on Friday that Kavanaugh would be confirmed regardless of Ford’s testimony. “Don’t get rattled by all of this,” he said. “We’re going to plow right through it and do our job.”

To Mary Hughes, a veteran Democratic strategist in the Bay Area, the uprising of women against Trump and the Republican Party — seen most dramatically in the women’s march the day after his inauguration — has a foundation as broad as the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s.

For many women, she said, Trump’s boorishness is on a continuum with chronic sexual harassment, gender inequality in wages, the dominance of men in corporate management — “an accumulation of insults.”

“It’s a disregard, disrespect, minimization of women, and there’s a rebelliousness against that,” she said.

Still, in closely divided House districts, Republicans like Knight are maintaining support among conservative women.

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Karina McAhren, a 27-year-old Santa Clarita clothing store manager who describes herself as a Republican against abortions, won’t vote for Hill simply because she’s a Democrat, even though she admits she doesn’t like Trump.

“He’s really crass,” McAhren said as she hoisted her two fidgety 3-year-old boys into car seats in her minivan. “But if he can make changes for our country, I’m all for it.”

"We, as a country, haven’t learned anything about respecting women," Eva Rejhons, an Army veteran from Valencia, said of the Kavanaugh issue. “Nothing.”
"We, as a country, haven’t learned anything about respecting women," Eva Rejhons, an Army veteran from Valencia, said of the Kavanaugh issue. “Nothing.” (Michael Finnegan / Los Angeles Times)

But other women, many of them Democrats like Eva Rejhons of Valencia who were already highly motivated to turn out and vote, are appalled by the Kavanaugh spectacle.

“We, as a country, haven’t learned anything about respecting women,” said Rejhons, an Army veteran who works in retirement planning. “Nothing.”

In their struggle to keep control of Congress, Republicans want to avoid angering core supporters by backing away from a conservative nominee.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, one of 11 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, all of them men, suggested last week that Ford’s accusation was false. Kavanaugh, he said, is a “good man,” too honest and straightforward to be doubted.

“I know how he stands up for what he believes and what’s right,” Hatch said. “And frankly, if you were going to believe anybody, you’d believe him.”

Another Republican on the panel, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, told Fox News on Sunday that Ford would be treated respectfully, but he still expects to vote for Kavanaugh’s appointment once she testifies.

“I’m just being honest,” he said. “Unless there’s something more, no, I’m not going to ruin Judge Kavanaugh’s life over this.”

5:35 p.m.: This article was updated with the new allegations by Deborah Ramirez.

This article was originally published at 4:30 p.m.

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