WASHINGTON -- The #MeToo movement encouraging victims of sexual harassment to speak out has roiled Hollywood entertainment studios and D.C. newsrooms--and with bombshell sexual misconduct allegations surfacing against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, Washington is gripped with uncertainty about the next political shoe to drop.
"There are, across state capitals and in Washington, D.C., members of Congress who have reputations for untoward behavior," said Steve Schmidt, who guided Republican John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "I'm sure they're scared to death."
The Washington Post on Thursday published on-the-record accounts of instances in which Moore, an Alabama Senate candidate, allegedly engaged in sexual contact with young women, charges Moore denies.
But the detailed descriptions of incidents from several decades ago prompted a slew of Republican senators to call on the controversial conservative candidate to step aside if the allegations are true. According to financial disclosure papers, the National Republican Senatorial Committee severed a fundraising agreement with Moore, a significant sign of the party seeking to distance itself from the candidate.
The dramatic scenes unfolded just weeks before the Alabama special Senate election, past the deadline of putting a new candidate on the ballot--a reminder of the limitations of vetting politicians at a time when growing numbers of harassment victims are now feeling emboldened to speak out.
"People will start to think about how to catch this, I do think they're starting to have those conversations," said Colin Reed, senior vice president at the company Definers Public Affairs, and the former executive director of the opposition research-focused group America Rising PAC. "But I don't think there's an easy answer, unless (a candidate) is willing to sit down ... and get asked questions and get answers. It's all incumbent on the candidate, there's no real easy solution."
Opposition research tactics--whether conducted on an opponent or via an internal audit--typically rely on public records, Reed noted. Campaigns and party committees often don't have the resources or manpower to wade through scenarios in which individuals could come forward with serious personal allegations.
"Opposition research at its core, which is what these vets that outside groups and ... party committees do, is based on public documents, not Jason Bourne tactics, chasing people around," he said. "It's up to the candidates and potential candidates whether they want to sit down and get cross-examined about all the things that could come to light if someone speaks. But it's incumbent on candidates, whether or not he or she wants to reveal that stuff. No one can find certain stuff unless someone speaks ... there's no way to do that unless it's the candidate himself."
In interviews following the Moore revelations, opposition research experts credited reporters -- not partisan researchers -- with uncovering the biggest allegations to date, whether against Moore or Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. The current climate, they said, will only encourage more digging, in every industry.
"l definitely think there will be an increased focus on sexual assault and harassment in vetting and oppo but there are certain types of stories that really require the kind of sourcing that journalists have the credibility to unearth," said Tim Miller, who was a co-founder of America Rising and communications director for Jeb Bush's presidential campaign.
In other instances, especially in Hollywood, a handful of women speaking up have led to many more coming forward -- a scenario that could repeat in Washington.
"The good news is, there seems to be something happening, a real moment across industries where victims of sexual assault are feeling empowered to speak out against powerful men that have gotten away with this sh for way too long," said Jesse Lehrich, a Democratic operative. "So if there are other politicians who are guilty of this kind of misconduct -- Dem or Republican -- I hope they'll be served their justice too."
In a statement Friday, Moore denied the allegations of misconduct.
"I have never provided alcohol to minors, and I have never engaged in sexual misconduct," he said. "As a father of a daughter and a grandfather of five granddaughters, I condemn the actions of any man who engages in sexual misconduct not just against minors but against any woman."
But the allegations have the potential to upend the 2018 midterms--potentially endangering what should be a ruby-red Senate seat -- at a time when Republicans hold only a slim majority in the Senate, at 52 seats, and are defending competitive House seats in a climate that is traditionally rough for the president's party.
There are historical reasons for Republicans to worry about political implications: for example, during the 2006 midterm campaigns, Republicans faced serious blowback--and ultimately sustained major political damage--as Florida Rep. Mark Foley resigned over sending sexually explicit messages to young male pages.
"In 2006, Mark Foley pawing on the front door of the page residence created a dumpster fire for Republicans and was certainly a factor in the Democratic sweep that year," Schmidt recalled.
Eleven years later, as Washington Republicans grappled with how to address the allegations against Moore on Friday, Schmidt continued, "it seems, for many, that this is an hour of accountability."
(Lesley Clark contributed to this report.)
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