When Denise Conway cast her ballot in the 2016 election, the Pennsylvania retiree and life-long Republican chose Donald Trump, figuring a vote for the New York billionaire was a vote for the party she had been affiliated to for a half-century, and a vote for a better economy.
She has since revised her views. In the weeks after Mr Trump was elected, Ms Conway started to have a gut feeling that she had made “a mistake” — a feeling that has intensified during the president’s time in office. Now, she says she cannot stand the president’s off-colour comments and tweets, something she says has affected how she thinks about the rest of her party.
“All the Republicans are yes men to Trump . . . I was embarrassed to say I was a Republican.” Now she no longer does. In August, the 74-year-old widow switched her party registration to Democrat and is working to get more women elected to Congress. “It’s time for the good ol’ boys to step back,” she says.
Among those that Ms Conway would like to see gone: Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee who has been accused of sexually assaulting Palo Alto professor Christine Blasey Ford when they were both teenagers — an allegation he denies.
“She’s taken a polygraph [lie detector]. I don’t think there are too many people who can fake a polygraph,” Ms Conway says, referring to Ms Ford. “For her to come forward, I think it takes a lot of nerve . . . I don’t know if I could be that brave.”
Next week, Mr Kavanaugh, and perhaps Ms Ford, are due to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee in what could be a defining event in American public life. The hearing, should it go ahead, will have pounding echoes of the 1991 congressional appearance of Anita Hill and is a pivotal moment for the #MeToo movement, which kicked off last October with two bombshell reports about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.
It could also have a decisive impact on November’s midterm elections, when Democrats are hoping to use the sense of outrage among many women voters to help them win back the House of Representatives and maybe even the Senate.
For many women, the hearing will be a test of how far society has really changed since Ms Hill was publicly harangued by an all-male Senate committee about her sexual harassment allegations against then-nominee Clarence Thomas.
Should she choose to appear, Ms Ford will face a Senate Judiciary Committee with four female members among the 21 senators, including ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein, although there are no women in the Republican majority. If confirmed, Mr Kavanaugh would likely become the swing voter on the court the next time it examines abortion rights.
For voters like Ms Conway, who are at the centre of the political spectrum, the consequences could be huge. #MeToo has already had a tangible effect on US politics, motivating more women to become politically active.
A total of 524 women ran for Congress this year — a new record. Even more notably, nearly half of those women won their primaries, with 255 women advancing to their general election.
Perhaps nowhere in the country are the reverberations being felt more than in Pennsylvania, which has one of the lowest levels of women in public office.
A swing state which Mr Trump carried in 2016, Pennsylvania currently has no female representatives in Congress and no women in statewide executive office. A congressman for a district in the Philadelphia suburbs was forced to resign earlier this year, after it emerged that he had made a sexual harassment settlement to a campaign staffer.
In interviews this week, women from both parties expressed disgust at the current state of American politics, and the unending wave of #MeToo allegations. While some women say the lack of civility had left them unmotivated to back either party, others say the #MeToo movement was prompting them to consider voting for different candidates than they might normally.
At a shopping centre in Exton, Pennsylvania, an hour outside Philadelphia, Joanne Moore, a retired office manager and registered independent, says that while she normally voted for more conservative candidates, this cycle she would be more inclined to vote for the women on the ballot, regardless of their party. “Women get the job done. Women are more attuned to the needs of the people overall,” she explains.
Likewise, she is also inclined to believe that Mr Kavanaugh’s accuser was telling the truth about being sexually assaulted. “I don’t think she would put herself out there if she didn’t.”
Liz Kaminetz, a 46-year-old substitute teacher, changed voter registration from Republican to Democrat after Mr Trump became the presidential nominee, saying she had always identified as socially liberal but fiscally conservative, but now found that the party had abandoned its economic principles. “One of the things that has become very clear is Republicans have given up any vestige of fiscal conservatism.”
She adds: “I know a lot of women who are angry.” Among them: her 77-year-old Republican mother. “We’re done being told that when we’re telling the truth, we’re being hysterical,” Ms Kaminetz says. That feeling extends to Mr Kavanaugh’s hearing, she adds.
“I think the right thing to do would be for him to step aside. I don’t want to live through another Anita Hill . . . I believe what I’ve read. I believe her. To watch her get pilloried, it will only tell me we’ve made no progress. We did it with Monica Lewinsky — a victim. We did it with Anita Hill — a victim.”
Mr Trump suggested in a Friday tweet that Ms Ford could not be telling the truth about the alleged attack if there was no police record to back her claim.
Ms Ford is currently negotiating with the committee about a possible appearance next week, even as some Republicans continued to cast doubts on her account, suggesting she might have been confusing Mr Kavanaugh with another classmate who looked like him — a theory Ms Ford has rejected.
The #MeToo movement cuts across both parties. In one Pennsylvania district, Katie Muth, a Democratic candidate for state senate and a rape survivor, says she had been painted by her party as a “troublemaker” after she called for the resignation of Daylin Leach, a fellow Democrat and state senator, who has been accused of inappropriate touching.
“If you want to be the party that’s doing the right thing, right now we’re not. We are far from it,” she says. “That’s why women can’t go up the chain because we demean and degrade them so far down they leave the business.”
In emailed comments, Mr Leach denied that he had ever knowingly done something to make any woman uncomfortable. The state senator ended a bid for Congress after the allegations broke.
Yet overall Democrats are hoping to harness that anger in the November vote, particularly after the state’s supreme court ordered the district map to be redrawn, after finding that Republicans had illegally gerrymandered it, providing Democrats with a more favourable landscape.
Anne Wakabayashi, executive director of Emerge Pennsylvania, the local chapter of Emerge America, a non-profit group aimed at getting more Democratic women to run for public office, says the party had attracted a higher-than-usual calibre of candidates. Many might not have decided to run if Mr Trump had not been elected.
“Women that we’ve been trying to get to run for office for forever . . . are now stepping forward at unprecedented number. They’re better candidates and they’re better at telling their stories,” Ms Wakabayashi says.
The Democratic party is aiming to gain six US House seats in Pennsylvania in November — a move that would boost the party’s quest to win the 23 House seats they need across the country to take back control of the House. It is fielding female candidates in four of the state’s six competitive races.
One of those candidates, Mary Gay Scanlon, a civil rights lawyer who is running in a district that straddles the Philadelphia suburbs, says she had not been thinking about running for Congress until the district’s most recent congressman, the Republican Patrick Meehan, resigned this April in the wake of a #MeToo scandal. “We are trying to attract Democrats who didn’t vote,” Ms Scanlon says. “We’re trying to attract independents. We are trying to attract Republicans who are not happy with the way things are going.”
In November, Ms Scanlon will face off against Republican Korean-American Pearl Kim, a special victims and domestic violence prosecutor, who during the course of the campaign has shared her own story of being the victim of sexual assault in college. Ms Kim says she has been partially motivated to run because of the #MeToo movement and her own experience reporting her sexual assault case to authorities.
“It was a terrible experience and it changed the course of my life. I ended up going through the system as a victim and I did not get the justice I was seeking,” Ms Kim says. “I was very displeased with my prosecutor and I was very displeased with the system.”
Ms Kim, who has criticised the Trump’s administration’s policies on family separation and curbs on legal immigration, says it is too soon to make a pronouncement on Ms Ford’s allegations against Mr Kavanaugh.
“I think she should absolutely testify if she wants to testify. At that point I’ll have a better ability to assess but at the same time I recognise that I don’t have a vote in that.”
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