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Democrats Missed A Chance To Draw A Line In The Sand On Sexual Misconduct

At about 11:15 this morning, an hour or so after Leeann Tweeden published an allegation that Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota had groped and kissed her without her consent in 2006, I assumed that Franken was headed toward resignation. I didn’t necessarily expect Franken to resign immediately or without putting up a fight. But barring some highly exculpatory evidence, I expected Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other prominent Democrats to be pushing Franken out the door.

Here’s why I thought that. First, the timing. The accusations against Franken came in the midst of a major scandal involving Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for Senate in Alabama, who has been accused of sexual misconduct toward multiple girls and young women. And it comes on the heels of scandals involving sexual assault or sexual harassment by some of the biggest names in Hollywood and the media business: Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K., to name some of many examples. It also comes about a year after Donald Trump was elected president even though he was accused of sexual misconduct by many women and was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by their genitals. The conduct Franken is accused of is just the sort of behavior that he has condemned, potentially making he and other Democrats look hypocritical.

Second, there was the photograph that Tweeden published with her article. It appeared to show Franken groping Tweeden’s breasts while she was sleeping — not providing a lot of room for “if true” statements about Franken’s conduct.

And third, there was political expediency. If Franken were to resign, it probably wouldn’t cost Democrats a Senate seat. Instead, an interim replacement would be named by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton — a Democrat who would almost certainly appoint another Democrat. Then, a special election would be held next year to elect someone to serve the final two years of Franken’s term, which expires after the 2020 election. Next year’s midterms are likely to be blue-leaning (perhaps even a Democratic wave election), and Democrats are likely to hold Senate seats in states as blue as Minnesota under those circumstances. And Democrats have a deep and relatively diverse bench in Minnesota, with plausible candidates including State Auditor Rebecca Otto, Attorney General Lori Swanson, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, U.S. Reps. Keith Ellison, Tim Walz and Collin Peterson, former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and others.1

In other words, I thought the Democrats had an opportunity to maintain the moral high ground without having to pay a political price for it. They could keep the pressure up on Moore, who has put Republicans in a no-win situation in Alabama. And they could help to establish a precedent wherein severe instances of sexual harassment warrant resignation. In the long run, that might create more of a problem for Republicans than for Democrats, because the overwhelming majority of sexual harassment is conducted by men, and there are 265 Republican men in Congress compared with 164 Democratic ones.2

Instead, Democrats basically punted on the question. Here’s what Schumer said, which echoes the statements made by many other Democrats:

Almost all of these comments said that sexual harassment must be taken very, very seriously. But the remedy they propose for Franken — referring the allegations to the Senate ethics committee, a step that Republican leader Mitch McConnell, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Franken himself have also called for — isn’t particularly serious. Unless, that is, the committee process led to Franken’s expulsion. But there have been many ethics investigations and very few expulsions — none since 1862 — and none of the statements made by Schumer or the other leaders raised the possibility of expulsion.

Moreover, it’s not quite clear what behavior the ethics committee would actually be investigating: Franken hasn’t really denied Tweeden’s claim that he kissed her without her consent, and there’s already photographic evidence that appears to show he groped her. It’s possible the investigation could turn up evidence of similar incidents involving Franken and other women. But if Franken is a repeat offender — as so many sexual harassers are — that’s all the more reason for Democrats to want him out of office now instead of dragging the party through the mud.

Of course, what might be politically expedient for Democrats isn’t necessarily expedient for Schumer — or for McConnell, or for the White House, all of whom may be acting out of a sense of institutional self-preservation. If there’s a precedent that sexual harassment is grounds for removal or resignation from office, then a lot of members of Congress — including some of Schumer’s colleagues and friends — could have to resign once more allegations come to light, as they almost certainly will. President Trump’s conduct could also come under renewed scrutiny, as could the conduct of former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Politics is a male-dominated institution, and a conservative3 institution, and conservative, male-dominated institutions have pretty much no interest in flipping over the sexual harassment rock and seeing what comes crawling out from underneath it.

When we were thinking through the Franken story in FiveThirtyEight’s internal Slack channel today, most of the men in our office thought that Franken was in deep trouble (“I think he’s toast,” I wrote at 11:07 this morning). Most of the women thought he’d hang in and survive. We’re less than a day into the story, but no surprise — it looks like the women will be right.


  1. Several of these candidates are running for governor in 2018, but some would probably be happy to switch to the Senate race because of the crowded gubernatorial field.

  2. That includes the two independent senators who caucus with the Democrats.

  3. Conservative meaning change-resistant, not politically right-of-center.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.