On the eve of Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, where he will testify against multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, Republicans put up one last line of defense to safeguard his nomination: Rachel Mitchell, a female prosecutor, who will question Kavanaugh and accuser Christine Blasey Ford in lieu of the 11 male GOP senators on the committee.
In a statement Tuesday night, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the committee’s chairman, said the decision to hire outside counsel was part of a concerted effort to “establish the most fair and respectful treatment of the witnesses possible.”
But some Republican women say the GOP’s plan to make Mitchell the face of its interrogation is nothing more than a transparent attempt to shield itself from criticism and do what the party’s members have often done—use women as strategic pawns to further their own ends.
In his opening remarks on Thursday, Grassley said he'd hoped the day's hearing could be "safe, comfortable, and dignified" for both Kavanaugh and Ford. Ford, though, delivered her own opening statement with a shaky voice, choking back tears as she told the committee she was "terrified" to be sitting before its members. Before beginning her questioning of Ford, Mitchell told her she was sorry she felt so scared: “I just wanted to let you know, I’m very sorry," Mitchell said. "That's not alright."
“It’s a feeble attempt to make themselves look like they’re being sensitive when really it’s about covering their own asses,” Tara Setmayer, a former GOP communications director on Capitol Hill and CNN commentator, told Broadly on Wednesday, ahead of the hearing.
Setmayer says, with Mitchell, the GOP seems to be trying to avoid the dubious optics of the 1991 Anita Hill hearings, when an all-white, all-male panel asked Hill intimate questions about her sexual harassment allegations against then-nominee Clarence Thomas. Three of those same male judiciary committee members, two of whom are Republicans, will sit in on Ford’s hearing Thursday.
“The lesson they learned was: don’t make it look like you have a bunch of men bullying a woman testifying,” Setmayer continued. “But it took them 27 years to come to that conclusion. And what about putting some GOP women on the Senate Judiciary Committee?”
Making women part of Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation process had always been crucial for Republicans, who needed to counter the left’s messaging that insisted the nominee promised certain doom for women. Members of the girls’ basketball team Kavanaugh coaches were invited to fill the front row of the hearing room on one day of the nominee’s initial confirmation hearings earlier this month, and, during his questioning, Kavanaugh spoke of supporting women law clerks, 34 of whom presented a letter to Grassley attesting to his qualifications.
When Ford’s sexual assault allegations came to light, women played more supporting roles in pushing through Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Within 48 hours of a New Yorker report detailing her allegations, Grassley’s office released a new letter, signed by 65 women who testified to the nominee’s upstanding character. And when Kavanaugh answered to the allegations in a Monday night Fox News interview, he did so with his wife, Ashley, by his side.
This public relations strategy wasn’t invented with Kavanaugh in mind, but instead forms part of what many say is the GOP’s clumsy response to its long-standing “woman problem.”
The Republican Party tried to course correct in 2012, after Mitt Romney—who infamously referred to "binders full of women" he'd sought to hire as Massachusetts governor—lost to Barack Obama. Party officials commissioned an “autopsy report,” a 100-page document that evaluated the possible reasons for Romney’s defeat and outlined a master plan its authors believed would lead future GOP candidates to victory. The report included an entire section on women, suggesting the party be more “conscious of developing a forward-leaning vision for voting Republican that appeals to women,” and bring into the fray more women who weren’t just the “same old talking heads."
Six years later, the autopsy report continues to come up in conversations with GOP strategists like Setmayer, or with women like Jennifer Pierotti Lim and Meghan Milloy, the co-founders of Republican Women for Progress, who want to see the party rehabilitate itself, simply because they remain astounded at the extent to which Republican leadership has ignored the document.
Lim and Milloy say the Republican Party’s problem with women’s representation only grew worse with President Donald Trump. When more than a dozen women accused Trump of sexual assault during his campaign, he responded by denying the allegations and then bringing Bill Clinton’s accusers to a press conference before one of the final presidential debates. Once elected to the White House, Trump installed the most white, most male cabinet since Ronald Reagan, a fact made obvious by photos that appeared in the press showing rooms full of men, often deciding on legislation that would disproportionately affect women’s lives. Trump then went on to defend men like Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary who resigned following domestic abuse allegations; Roy Moore, the former Alabama Senate candidate accused of having inappropriate relationships with teenage girls as an adult; and now, Kavanaugh.
Lim sees Trump leading a Republican Party uninterested in and, in some cases, actively harming women, unless they can be used to patch up the GOP’s image problem.
“This is what the party seems to do these days—trot out women or minorities to show the public, ‘We do know some women’ or 'We do know some minorities,’ when it serves them,” Lim, says. Referring to Mitchell, she adds: “What I’d like to see is Republicans actually investing in women, recruiting women candidates, and promoting them within the party structure instead of just putting them in positions like this when it’s in their best interest."
Though a woman, Ronna Romney McDaniel, currently chairs the Republican National Committee, Republican women still lag behind their Democratic counterparts when it comes to representation in Congress: In the House, Republican women hold 23 out of 84 total seats held by women; in the Senate, there are six Republican women senators to Democratic women's 17.
The RNC did not immediately respond to Broadly's request for comment.
In an election cycle some say could produce another “Year of the Woman," a year when a historic number of women are expected to get elected to office, that’s not without its political consequences.
Polls have shown college-educated white women abandoning the Republican Party under Trump, giving Democrats a double-digit advantage with the bloc. Democratic women are also poised to lead their party in regaining control of the House of Representatives, having won 155 of Democrats’ House nominations to Republican women’s 45.
Lim and Milloy have said this disparity is largely due to the infrastructure of the Democratic Party and big name groups like EMILY's List, which have been around for decades, recruiting and running progressive women. Republicans, Milloy says, haven't caught up partly because its leaders are sending women the message: "We don't care about you."
"Women feel like the party doesn’t want them or need them," she said Wednesday. "Republicans are going to lose all of those women as voters not just in this coming election, but in 2020 and beyond."
As the leaders of Republican Women for Progress, it's Milloy's and Lim's job to be, as they both said Wednesday, "cautiously optimistic" about the future of the party. They're trying to empower conservative women to speak out against being sidelined and get the GOP on board with more progressive gender politics. Setmayer, though, has a much darker forecast for Republicans.
“If you look at the way Republicans have handled [sexual misconduct allegations], who’s at the head of the party, and whom the GOP has been elevating, you can’t blame women for saying, ‘I don’t identify with a party like this,’” Setmayer said.
“If Republicans get their asses handed to them in the midterms, it’ll force them to wake up,” she continued. “If they don’t, the party deserves to destroy itself.”