WASHINGTON – Women who have been driving the midterm elections as energized voters and first-time candidates already had fueled a record-breaking gender gap that was boosting Democrats.
Now the battle over Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court has provoked a backlash among those who argue the #MeToo movement has gone too far, a reaction that is increasing the odds Republicans can hold control of the Senate.
Call it the gender wars, a midterm battle that could be a dry run for the presidential election in 2020 and fundamentally reshape the nation's political parties.
The irony is this: It was the defeat of the first woman nominated for the presidency by a major party that helped spur a new era of political engagement by millions of women. Since Hillary Clinton's loss in 2016 to Donald Trump, his disruptive leadership and hard-line policies on immigration and other issues have forged bonds with core supporters but also opened a breach with many women, including some GOP-leaning and independent women who in the past have voted for Republicans.
The result has been a midterm election defined by women. "Women candidates, women voters and women issues are all together at the forefront, and that's been true the whole cycle," Democratic pollster Margie Omero said.
A disparity between the way women and men view issues and how they vote isn't new, but the divide has never been so yawning. Like so many things in American politics these days, it's being propelled in large part by President Trump.
The aftermath of Kavanaugh's dramatic nomination hearings and narrow confirmation has spotlighted the gender divide that has inflamed some voters since Trump claimed the Republican presidential nomination two years ago. One side saw a credible woman whose account of sexual assault against a powerful man was not believed and not taken seriously. The other side saw an accomplished man whose reputation was being smeared by an accuser who couldn't provide proof of her allegations or remember the details.
Trump decried "the Democrats' shameless campaign of political and personal destruction" at a campaign rally in Topeka, Kansas, hours after Kavanaugh was confirmed. He mocked Christine Blasey Ford's account of an attempted rape and complained that he himself had been the victim of unfair accusations of sexual misconduct. "This is a very scary time for young men in America," he told reporters.
At a rally in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, Trump ridiculed the #MeToo movement, saying "under the rules of MeToo, I'm not allowed" to use a certain expression. "See, in the old days, it was a little different," he said to laughter.
That message seems to be resonating, energizing Republican voters who had been less enthused about the midterms than Democrats. GOP candidates in several too-close-to-call Senate races have seen their standing rise over the past week or so.
"The Kavanaugh effect ... is changing their U.S. Senate picture," GOP pollster Bill McInturff said. In Arizona, Republican Martha McSally led Democrat Kyrsten Sinema by 6 percentage points in a new statewide poll this week. In Tennessee, Republican Marsha Blackburn led Democrat Phil Bredesen by 8 points. In Nevada, Republican Dean Heller edged up to a 2-point lead over Democrat Jacky Rosen.
And in North Dakota, analysts in both parties say Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp hurt her chances of winning a second term when she voted against confirming Kavanaugh. Trump carried the state in 2016 by one of his widest margins anywhere, 36 percentage points. Republican challenger Kevin Cramer, who already had opened a 10- or 12-point lead in the race, has embraced Trump and declared his support for Kavanaugh.
"The political rhetoric is 'You can't vote that way if you expect to come back,' " Heitkamp said a few days later as she campaigned in Wyndmere, North Dakota, acknowledging the likely effect of her decision. "And I tell people, Ray and Doreen Heitkamp didn't raise me to vote a certain way so that I could win. They raised me to vote the right way."
While key Senate races are mostly in conservative red states that Trump swept in 2016, many of the swing House races are in suburban districts where voters tend to be more moderate.
A Washington Post poll of 69 battleground House districts Sept. 19 to Oct. 5 – as Kavanaugh's nomination was being debated – found women's support crucial in giving Democrats a narrow 50 percent-46 percent edge over Republicans in the contests that are likely to determine which party elects the next speaker of the House. Women supported Democratic candidates by 14 points, 54 percent to 40 percent. Men supported Republican candidates by 5 points, 51 percent to 46 percent.
In these districts, the "Kavanaugh effect" may be galvanizing voters who felt it was his accuser who wasn't given a fair hearing.
"It was just another, additional piece of evidence for Democratic voters and particularly Democratic women that ... women are not valued as much as men, and they aren't to be believed, and they don't matter," said Shana Kushner Gadarian, a political scientist at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. "Since 2016, there's been a big push against that. That's one reason women say they're running: We need more women's voices. The Kavanaugh hearings were an additional piece of evidence that there needs to be more women's voices in politics."
As Election Day approaches:
The day after Trump's inauguration, the massive Women's March signaled the strength of the resistance to his presidency. Now the coalition of groups that helped organize the Women's Marches is holding a series of them leading up to the midterms, beginning in Chicago and Massachusetts on Saturday. Later this month, "Marches on the Polls" are scheduled in Seattle; Atlanta; Houston; Little Rock, Arkansas; North Carolina; South Carolina; and Washington, D.C.
The series concludes with marches planned for New York City and on college campuses on Election Day.
There's still time before Nov. 6 for a new controversy to erupt that persuades Americans to change their vote or determines whether they go to the polls – the single-most crucial task in midterm elections. Trump, who has been doing more campaign rallies for the midterms than any modern president, looms as a wild card.
That said, this fall's midterms are poised to provide the latest evidence of a fundamental shift in American politics: the movement of white college-educated women (many of them once Republican or Republican-leaning) to the Democrats, and the movement of white men without a college education (part of the old FDR Democratic coalition) to the GOP.
Trump didn't start this shift, but he has accelerated it.
In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll, taken before Kavanaugh's confirmation, the gap between these two crucial voting groups was breathtaking. White college-educated women said they planned to vote for the Democratic congressional candidate by 23 points. White working-class men said they planned to vote for the Republican by 29 points.
If that trend holds, it might well mean that the gender wars are just getting started.
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