Kavanaugh accusation reignites #MeToo ahead of midterm elections – and a new 'Year of the Woman' could be really bad news for Republicans

  • When an all-male panel of senators grilled Anita Hill in 1991 about her accusations of sexual misconduct against Clarence Thomas, the Senate so disproportionately favored men, it lacked even a women's restroom.
  • The spectacle helped send women to the polls in record numbers the following year, dubbed "the Year of the Woman," with 6 million more turning out than in 1988.
  • Experts are saying another Year of the Woman may be in full swing — and it could be dangerous for Republicans.
Ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee.
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Ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee.

When an all-male panel of senators grilled Anita Hill in October 1991 about her accusations of sexual misconduct against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, the Senate so disproportionately favored men, it lacked even a women's restroom.

The spectacle sent women to the polls in record numbers the following year, dubbed "The Year of the Woman," with 6 million more turning out than in 1988. Voters tripled the number of women in the Senate and sent a record 24 non-incumbent women to the House of Representatives.

Nearly three decades later, the women in the Senate have a place to go to the bathroom, but not everything has changed. With lawmakers gearing up to question President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and possibly his accuser Christine Blasey Ford about a decades-old allegation of attempted rape on Monday, it'll still be all men on the Republican side of the Judiciary Committee. Kavanaugh has categorically denied the accusation.

But unlike in 1991, voters won't have to wait a year to go to the polls this time around. With the November midterms just weeks away and a nationwide #MeToo movement fueling record numbers of women candidates in both the House and the Senate, experts are saying another Year of the Woman may be in full swing.

And it could be dangerous for Republicans.

"It is the Year of the Woman, and they nominated none," said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and the president of Lake Research Partners. "The single biggest mistake that the Republican Party made was not nominating more women."

More women than ever are running for Congress this cycle, and the dramatic increase comes mainly from one party. More than 200 of the 262 women running for House and Senate seats this cycle are Democrats, according to data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics.

Republican concerns and criticism

Republicans have sought to mitigate the damage that could be caused by an Anita Hill redux, and are reportedly exploring the idea of having female staffers conduct the questioning of Kavanaugh's accuser.

But pollsters say that Republicans could still face backlash if they are seen as downplaying the issue of sexual harassment.

While lawmakers have been somewhat careful to avoid the appearance of writing off Ford's allegation, Republicans have expressed concerns about "gaps" in her story. The president has said that it's "very hard for me to imagine" that the allegation is truthful.

In a post on Instagram, Donald Trump Jr., the president's eldest son, mocked Ford's accusation that Kavanaugh drunkenly pinned her down, attempted to remove her clothing and covered her mouth to muffle her screams.

According to Amanda Hunter, a spokesperson at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, the perception that lawmakers are not taking the issue of sexual harassment seriously could cause serious doubts among voters of both genders and particularly among millennial women.

Hunter said that her organization commissioned Republican and Democratic pollsters to examine voter responses to the #MeToo movement in order to gain nonpartisan insight into the issue.

"We found that the majority of voters take sexual harassment seriously, and it will influence their voting decisions," Hunter said. "It's not a niche issue."

Fired up over the Supreme Court

To be sure, the fight over the Supreme Court won't just energize Democrats. Republicans cared more about the court during the 2016 election, with a fifth of Trump's voters telling pollsters that the high court was their reason for turning out.

"The Supreme Court is one of the main reasons I got elected President," the president wrote in a post on Twitter Tuesday.

Sara Fagen, a political strategist and former White House political director for President George W. Bush, said the issue is likely to energize members of both parties.

"Democrats immediately believe the accuser, and Republicans believe the nominee," Fagen said. "I think Republicans feel like there's an 11th hour hit job on a really honorable person," she said.

Regardless of the partisan outcome, Deborah Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics, said that the focus on #MeToo this close to the November voting is likely to energize women voters.

"Having lived through the Anita Hill movement, it came and it receded," Walsh said. "In terms of electoral politics, it didn't have a lasting impact. Our numbers plateaued at the state legislative level. We went back to slow, incremental change at the federal level."

"It feels different this time," she said.

— Graphics by CNBC's John Schoen