- After Democrats successfully pressured Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers to leave office amid allegations of sexual misconduct, the GOP is facing growing pressure to apply the same scrutiny to its own members.
- Political operatives and commentators argue that Democrats have seized the “moral high ground” on issues relating to sexual misconduct, and that spells trouble for the GOP.
After Democrats successfully pressured Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers, both powerful Democratic lawmakers, to leave office amid allegations of sexual misconduct, the GOP is facing growing pressure to apply the same scrutiny to its own members.
The calls for Franken to resign began shortly after a seventh female accuser came forward on Wednesday morning, alleging the former comedian attempted to forcibly kiss her in 2006. Female Democratic lawmakers led the charge calling on Franken to step down, releasing a barrage of statements and emphasizing the need for “zero tolerance” on sexual misconduct.
“Enough is enough,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a longtime advocate for survivors of sexual abuse.
Conyers, who alleged sexually harassed and assaulted former employees, bowed to pressure to retire on Tuesday.
As Democrats roll out their new zero-tolerance position on sexual misconduct, the party is positioning itself to attack the GOP’s record of protecting alleged sexual predators, chief among them embattled Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, in their ranks.
Democrats seize the moral high ground
Political strategists and commentators say the Democrats’ relatively swift dismissal of Franken is a politically strategic and well-timed move, given the Tuesday special election in Alabama.
As the former Republican governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, said on Fox News on Tuesday, “As long as Al Franken is in the Senate, as long as you’ve got Conyers and others who are staying in office, then why not have Roy Moore?”
Democrats have stripped the GOP of its ability to point fingers at the Democrats in defending politicians like Moore, President Donald Trump, and Rep. Blake Fahrenthold, a Texas Republican who paid $84,000 in taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment complaint brought by a female staffer. And the unified move took some Republicans by surprise.
“I really thought he was going to be able to survive,” Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and president of the Potomac Strategy Group, told Business Insider.
John Stoehr, a progressive journalist, wrote in a Newsweek column on Wednesday that “amid this climate of sexual misconduct and accountability, the party is signaling to every woman out there that the Democrats are for them.”
“We got rid of our sexual predators, they are saying, while the Republicans sent theirs to the Senate,” he wrote.
Conservatives argue the move was at least partially motivated by politics.
“I hate to be crass, but it seems to me that the Democrats probably did some polling in the last 10 days and found that their reluctance to call out bad behavior on their own side of the aisle was going to hurt them in the midterms,” Mackowiak said.
Mackowiak said that the blowback House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi received following her initial reluctance to hold Conyers accountable signaled to the party that it needed to crack down on alleged misconduct in order to retain the confidence of its base. Pressuring Franken to resign allowed the party to “salvage some credibility on the issue,” he said.
“I think that Democrats feel like the electoral circumstance is trending in the right direction for them and the difficulty they were having providing clear answers about members of their own party who have behaved badly, I think was confusing that or perhaps even threatening that,” Mackowiak said.
Ben Shapiro, a prominent conservative commentator who has called on Moore to withdraw his candidacy, tweeted on Wednesday, “Democrats are going to dump Franken now in order to seize the moral high ground on Moore,” and added that Democrats can both “be playing a cynical game with Franken resignation in order to use Moore as a club against GOP” and making the ethically correct decision at the same time.
But Democrats are adamant that the move wasn’t political, or easy. Female Democratic senators and aides told Politico on Wednesday that lawmakers had informally agreed in recent days to call on Franken to resign if another credible allegation against him emerged.
“It really wasn’t coordinated,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow said. “I think it was a reaction to the latest announcement in the paper and you know, it’s very difficult. It’s a real tragedy.”
Pelosi said on Thursday that she hopes “all people” will follow the Democrats’ lead in enforcing zero tolerance for sexual misconduct.
“We were pleased with the way we expeditiously dealt with our issue,” Pelosi told Business Insider. “I don’t see it as a political issue though. I see it as a community – I hope that all people will come together on.”
Steve Schale, a top Democratic strategist based in Florida, was also reluctant to politicize the decision.
“Doing the right thing shouldn’t always been good or bad politics,” Schale told Business Insider.
Mackowiak said he’d also like to see Republicans abide by that same standard.
‘There’s no winning with Roy Moore’
While the Republican National Committee reversed its stance on Moore in recent days, deciding to support him again, many top Republicans are escalating their opposition to Moore and to the party’s protection of alleged abusers.
Breaking with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has dodged questions about Farenthold, Rep. Steve Stivers, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, suggested on Thursday that Farenthold should reconsider running for office again.
“I think the filing deadline hasn’t happened in Texas and Blake Farenthold has some thinking to do about whether he wants to run for reelection or not,” Stivers told Business Insider, adding that the GOP needs to “push folks where there’s serious allegations or proven allegations aside.”
“We have zero tolerance for that kind of behavior and we’ve made that clear,” Stivers said.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers and leaders are deeply divided over the party’s endorsement of Moore.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told Business Insider that the party’s support for Moore is short-sighted.
“I don’t support his candidacy. I don’t like the RNC doing it, but that’s their decision to make,” he told Business Insider on Wednesday. “If you think Roy Moore wins and is a plus for Republicans, you’re naive because he’ll be on the ballot in every race in 2018, whether you want him to be or not. There’s no winning in my view with Roy Moore.”
Mackowiak predicted that if Moore is elected to the Senate in Alabama’s special election next Tuesday, he’ll be prevented from serving on committees until a Senate ethics investigation into his past conduct is complete.
“I don’t think Roy Moore’s problems are over by any stretch,” he said, adding that the controversy around Moore, who has been accused of pursuing sexual relationships with teenage girls when he was in his 30s, should concern Republicans.
But some doubt the heightened scrutiny of sexual misconduct will have any significant implications for Moore or the president, who has been accused by at least a dozen women of sexual harassment or assault.
“Republicans are better generally at getting to a place where the outcome, i.e. winning, is more important than other things … nobody circles the wagons like the GOP,” Schale said. “Whether or not Trump is reelected or not in 2020 is going to be based on whether we make the case that he’s failed as president.”