A claim of sexual misconduct as a teen-ager has put the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in question for the first time, but abortion rights activists say their protests helped lay the groundwork for this moment.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund held more than 100 events with partners over the August recess in Senators’ home states. On Aug. 26 alone, NARAL and its partners were behind more than 200 protests against Kavanaugh in what organizers said was the largest single-day protest against a Supreme Court nomination in history.
Other activists disrupted his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, dressed up as Handmaids around the country, sent 3,000 coat hangers to potential swing vote Sen. Susan Collins’ office and raised $1 million worth of pledges for her next opponent if she votes to confirm Kavanaugh.
Still, Kavanaugh seemed set to be confirmed mostly along party lines until California professor Christine Blasey Ford went public, saying that Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed at a Maryland house party when he was 17, holding his hand over her mouth as he tried to remove her clothes.
“This very credible story is coming on top of a very, very damaged nominee,” says NARAL president Ilyse Hogue, who says this level of activism around a Supreme Court nominee is unprecedented. “He was already, because of the work of so many people, the least-popular nominee in modern history.”
Polling by Gallup conducted just as the allegation surfaced shows that opposition to Kavanaugh had been rising, with 42% of Americans opposed to his confirmation and 39% supporting it — a margin that is closer to historical polls for failed nominees like Harriet Miers and Robert Bork.
“Six weeks ago, people were like ‘pooh pooh,’ and here we are now,” says Jess Morales Rocketto, political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance who helped organize the Rise Up for Roe national tour to mobilize opposition to Kavanaugh. “The allegation is when people started to feel like ‘OK, this could actually be the nail in his coffin.’”
For weeks, activists have focused their energy on Collins and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, two potential swing votes who occasionally break with the GOP party line. They’ve now doubled down their efforts to pressure all senators, especially retiring Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who have publicly said they will not vote for Kavanaugh until the Judiciary Committee can hear from Ford.
Indivisible Anchorage got 3,000 Alaskans to pledge to make calls to Murkowski over the past few weeks, and even though she didn’t come to Anchorage for the recess, it got another Indivisible group to deliver a letter to her in while she was visiting Lake Tahoe.
Activists noted that Murkowski called for Democratic Sen. Al Franken to step down in 2017 amid accusations that he groped women, noting in a tweet that Americans are “seeing a culture of harassment and assault being exposed on a daily basis.”
“She had a super-definitive statement about Franken, saying that he should step down,” says Shoshana Stone, 55, a retired nurse practitioner who runs Indivisible Anchorage, of Murkowski. “It seems very hypocritical of her to be able to make a statement like that in regards to Franken and not make a statement like that in regards to Kavanaugh.”
“I think if she votes yes, her career would be done,” says Stone. “Maybe she thinks people forget. I don’t think people will forget. No way will people forget.”
Activists in Maine are even more energized. According to Planned Parenthood Action Fund, four times as many people have called Collins about Kavanaugh as called to lobby her not to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Health-care activist Ady Barkan and local activists started a pledge drive to raise money for whoever runs against Collins if she votes to confirm Kavanaugh. As of Tuesday, they had raised nearly $1.4 million in pledges.
When Mainers for Accountable Leadership — a Maine-based group that uses the Indivisible model — announced a protest against Kavanaugh in Portland, 150 people showed up on a day’s notice. They went to her office in Portland every single day of the Senate recess, and held rallies attracting as many as 500 people, according to Marie Follayttar Smith, who runs the group.
“The grassroots responsiveness has been increasing during the last month,” says Smith, 42, who runs Mainers for Accountable Leadership full-time. “It increased during the hearings, it increased during the release of the emails.”
“Maine was absolutely the most electric place,” says Morales Rocketto. “I think activists are the only ones who really thought that if we made enough noise and exposed who this guy really was, we could actually stop the nomination.”
In Arizona, activists have been dressing up as Handmaids from the dystopian Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale” to illustrate what Kavanaugh’s confirmation could do to reproductive rights.
“In my years of activism, I have never seen anything like what we’re seeing now,” says Serena Knierim, 35, a regional organizing lead with the Human Rights Campaign who has been volunteering with Planned Parenthood and wearing the trademark red cloak and white bonnet. “A 17-year-old immigrant was denied an abortion by Kavanaugh. He’s saying what happened at 17 doesn’t matter. Why did it matter for her and not you?”
While she’s hopeful that Senator Flake will vote against Kavanaugh, she’s not holding her breath. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” says Knierim. “Flake is notoriously flaky.”
Smith says that the Kavanaugh vote is Collins’s last chance to live up to the example of Maine hero Margaret Chase Smith, who famously urged her fellow Republicans to denounce McCarthyism in a speech on the Senate floor. Chase Smith is Collins’s role model, and Smith says that she is running out of time to live up to her legacy.
“This vote is Senator Collin’s legacy, her final chance for what we in Maine call a Margaret Chase Smith moment,” says Smith. “She made a stand against her party and made a stand for Maine values. And many of us are calling on Senator Collins to do the same thing.”