Chelsea turned on her television recently and heard a story that sounded familiar.
It was an attack ad from Republican U.S. House Rep. Erik Paulsen, accusing his Democratic challenger Dean Phillips of ignoring sexual assault and harassment allegations when he served on the board of Allina Health.
Then it hit her: the ad was about her.
Chelsea, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her from harassment, was one of the nurses who settled out of court with Allina in 2007. She never imagined more than a decade later her experience would be used in a political attack ad.
She and others have called the ad inaccurate and asked Paulsen to take it down, but she said the campaign hasn’t responded.
“It brought up old wounds that were never forgotten, but I just pushed deep down inside and tried to move on with my life and move on to the future,” she said.
Questions of sexual harassment and accountability have been a constant presence in 2018 politics. They resurfaced in the latest MPR News/Star Tribune Minnesota Poll when the question turned to new U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who testified that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a party when they were teens.
Of 800 likely voters polled last week, 47 percent of women said Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation makes them more likely to vote for Democrats on Nov. 6, while 33 percent of women said it makes them want to vote Republican. Women were also more likely than men to believe the allegation, according to the poll.
“The nomination and the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh just made an already significant issue even bigger and really rallied partisans on both sides of the issue,” University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson said. “People were captivated by the hearings no matter how they felt about them.”
The Kavanaugh hearings came after the #MeToo movement had already had an impact on Minnesota politics. For example:
- DFL Sen. Al Franken resigned in January after several women accused him of improperly touching them. That led to Tina Smith being appointed to the seat and a special election this year to decide who fills out the remaining two years of Franken’s term.
- DFL U.S. House Rep. Keith Ellison’s attorney general campaign has been dogged by ex-girlfriend Karen Monahan’s allegation of domestic abuse.
- The movement has also emerged in the competitive 2nd District race, where Democrats have been critical of Republican U.S. House Rep. Jason Lewis for resurfaced radio comments, reported by CNN, that mocked a woman who was sexually harassed.
- In the race for a competitive state House seat, Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, ended his campaign after his daughter accused him of years of inappropriate touching.
Partisans on both sides are fired up, but some polls suggest Democratic women could come out in larger numbers.
“We are seeing a record gender gap in polls around the country in the sense that more women are favoring Democratic candidates by large margins, and women are more likely to disapprove of the president’s performance by large margins,” Pearson said.
Kelly Morrison, a Democrat running for a state House seat that covers Chanhassen, Deephaven and other western suburbs, said she doesn’t bring up the Kavanaugh allegations or #MeToo at the door — but voters do.
Women especially have been eager to talk, some breaking down into tears, she said. One woman told Morrison her daughter was raped, and that watching Ford’s testimony triggered painful emotions for them both.
Others, particularly young women, are angry, she said. They said they plan to cast their ballot only for women candidates, or based solely on women’s issues.
“I’ve had so many women either open with tears or well up over the course of our conversation with all kinds of stories. Some are concerned with the implications of the court long term,” she said. “Women in general are not a unanimous bloc, but there are a lot of women who are very energized.”
‘Deal-breaker’ in the ‘burbs?
But the accusations have also fired up Republican voters, including some women who believe the process was unfair to Kavanaugh and are concerned that their sons or men they know could be accused in a public forum.
“The allegations against Kavanaugh were quite different from those brought against Ellison, and the Minnesota Poll survey responses were different too,” said Craig Helmstetter, managing partner of the APM Research Lab, a sister organization of MPR News that specializes in analysis of demographics and surveys.
“More women than men believe the accusations against Kavanaugh. But more men than women believe the allegations against Ellison,” he added. “Overall, only 7 percent of likely voters believe both allegations, and only 8 percent said they do not believe both.”
While many of those polled indicated that they weren’t sure whether to believe the allegations, Helmstetter, added, “the responses of those who indicated certainty tended to follow their political leanings.”
The poll of likely voters was conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy between Oct. 15 and Oct. 17. It has a sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, meaning that there is a 95 percent probability that the “true” figure would fall within that range if all voters were surveyed.
According to the poll, 82 percent of self-described Republicans said they do not believe Ford’s allegation is true and only 5 percent believed her. And 93 percent of Republican respondents said they approved of Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
Jennifer DeJournett, head of the political group VOICES of Conservative Women and a member of the Three Rivers Park District board, said she was out door-knocking for her own re-election when someone brought up Kavanaugh.
“That individual had a political perspective on it. If you’re a gentleman and the accusation is made, you’re done. How do you prove a negative?” DeJournett said. “Especially if the allegation happened so long ago.”
DeJournett is supportive of how the movement sparked a long-needed conversation about appropriate behavior in the workplace, but she thinks #MeToo’s strongest impact could be in the general election.
She said a lot of women are delaying their early votes because they’re worried they’ll vote for someone only to have an allegation surface before Election Day. That’s what happened with the allegation against Ellison three days before the August primary election.
“The metro, suburban woman, this is the deal-breaker for her, either for or against,” she said.
‘Coming out and talking about it’
Pam Neary was a Democratic state legislator in the 1990s but mostly stayed out of politics until 2016 after Donald Trump was elected.
She was among two busloads of women from the Washington County suburban area to head to the 2017 Women’s March and have since formed a group to blanket their suburban community with tens of thousands of pieces of campaign literature and postcards.
They’re working for only women candidates, and she’s been floored all campaign season by the hundreds of women who have joined with her group. But she did notice a shift after the Kavanaugh hearings.
“Since Kavanaugh, people are not speaking as loud about supporting women,” she said. “They are just holding back a little more since they saw how nasty all of that became that the U.S. Senate level.”
The problem for Chelsea is that she said she never planned on sharing her story, but it was used in Paulsen’s campaign ad anyway. She lives in Paulsen’s 3rd District and plans to vote for his opponent, Dean Phillips, whom she said she’s never spoken to before.
“This brought up a lot of feelings, feelings that I never even knew I had,” she said.
“I’m angry,” she added. “A lot of the women that I know, whether they are friends or co-workers or family, if it hasn’t happened to us personally, we know someone who has had something like this happen to them in some sense of the term, and a lot of women are coming out and talking about it.”
By Briana Bierschbach