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The depressing reality of Republican campaigns and domestic violence

Allegations of domestic abuse and sexual assault used to end campaigns — even Republican ones.

In at least four primary races around the country, women have accused Republican candidates of domestic abuse and sexual violence. The details of the allegations are depressing, but even more depressing is the seeming reaction from GOP voters, which includes an apparent shrug and a growing belief that only liberals care about men hurting women.

The accused are running for a U.S. House seat in Ohio, the governorship in Nebraska and U.S. Senate seats in Georgia and Missouri. Eric Greitens, the former governor of Missouri, is trying to make a political comeback. He resigned in 2018 after a woman with whom he'd been having an affair claimed under oath that he had assaulted her and threatened to blackmail with her nude photos he'd taken without her permission.

A certain level of attempted victim blaming and gaslighting has become the routine response from Republicans accused of harassment, abuse and violence.

That past scandal would be a political minefield to navigate on its own. But last month, Greitens’ ex-wife alleged in an affidavit related to their custody dispute that the former governor physically abused her and their youngest son before their divorce. Sheena Greitens claimed that in April 2018 “Eric knocked me down and confiscated my cell phone, wallet and keys so that I was unable to call for help or extricate myself and our children from our home.”

Moreover, she alleges that his “behavior included physical violence toward our children, such as cuffing our then three-year-old son across the face at the dinner table in front of me and yanking him around by his hair.”

Greitens has denied the allegations and says he loves his sons. By claiming in a statement that he hopes Sheena Greiten “gets the help that she needs,” he has hinted that his ex-wife is mentally unstable. In that same statement, he accuses his ex of plotting with “political operatives.”

In previous elections, Greitens’ resignation and his ex-wife’s allegations that he’d abused her and one of their sons would be fodder for campaign ads and stump speeches from Greitens’ rivals. Instead, as The New York Times recently catalogued, the response from his opponents has mostly been crickets.

The same phenomenon can be seen regarding Charles Herbster, the candidate running to follow Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who’s serving his second and final term. Last week, eight women accused Herbster of sexually assaulting them. One of them, Julie Slama, is a Republican state senator who said Herbster reached up her skirt and groped her in 2019 during a local Republican Party event.

And yet, despite these serious allegations, Herbster, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump in October, isn’t just continuing to run his race; he’s running as the victim. “They did it with Brett Kavanaugh. They certainly did it with Donald J. Trump, and now they’re trying to do it with Charles W. Herbster,” he told a local radio station, according to The Times, while claiming that the allegations are just an attack from his rivals, including, he says, Gov. Ricketts.

Herbster has even released a new ad saying the same: “Just like the establishment attacked President Trump, now they’re attacking me.”

That level of attempted victim blaming and gaslighting has become the routine response from Republicans accused of harassment, abuse and violence. The idea that we should “believe women” is something only Democratic voters say and believe.

The kinds of accusations made against Greitens and Herbster have “become deeply partisan in terms of beliefs about what is acceptable and what is appropriate,” Kelly Dittmar, a professor at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told The Times. “And now it’s fallen into the talk of ‘cancel culture’ in the broader society.”

More troubling, there’s been no corresponding backlash from GOP voters, not even from Republican women, Erin C. Cassese, a professor of political science at the University of Delaware, told The Times:

The #MeToo movement and the current debate over transgender rights and education are only widening the gap between Republican women and women who identify as Democrats and independents, Prof. Cassese said. For female candidates, appeals to gender solidarity or attacks on misogyny do not seem to work in Republican primaries.

“It’s very hard to make those appeals, even for women candidates appealing to women,” she said. “We don’t have any sense of what messages might work.”

It’s a horrifying state of affairs, one that has been in no small part been inspired by Trump’s “no apology, no resignation” strategy in response to the many women who’ve accused him of assault or harassment.

You can see in Max Miller, the Trump White House aide running for Congress in Ohio, an example of the former president’s lesson taken to heart. Former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham wrote in her 2021 book, “I’ll Take Your Questions Now: What I Saw at the Trump White House,” that her relationship with Miller turned abusive. Not only is Miller denying that he hit Grisham when they broke up in 2020; he sued her for defamation. Miller was received with open arms by Trump at Mar-a-Lago in February.

We are watching a well-practiced playbook in use, one designed to help allegedly dangerous men obtain political power.

The refusal of their fellow Republicans to address such serious allegations facing candidates is by no means a phenomenon that Trump deserves all the blame for. Few people embody the so-called establishment as much as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and he has been more than happy to endorse Herschel Walker’s candidacy in Georgia, despite allegations that Walker “repeatedly threatened his ex-wife's life.” (Walker, per The Times, doesn’t deny the allegations “and has said he was suffering from mental illness.”)

The result of this willingness among Republican leaders to stand by their own is that the GOP electorate writ large is left unwilling to judge their preferred candidates on the merits of the accusations. Instead, they’re fully prepared to believe that someone (but not an accused candidate) is spreading lies: Democrats and RINOs who want to take down the Trump-supported “Real Conservatives,” the liberal media or the women themselves, whom they paint as the real villains.

We are watching a well-practiced playbook in use, one designed to help allegedly dangerous men obtain political power. Their opponents can see no political upside in highlighting their potential unfitness for office. I can only hope, though, that they see and feel the moral gravity of their silence.

Because in their silence, they are asking us to accept a world where violence against women is only something worth bringing up in general elections, if then. To accept that premise would justify every woman’s fears that her coming forward would do nothing but bring further pain. Calling out GOP opponents who’ve been accused of abusing women may not be a winning message, but if there’s any spark of decency left in the GOP, the voices of these women won’t be ignored and suppressed in the name of party unity.