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‘They expect more from women’: Collins and Murkowski face extra pressure in Kavanaugh fight

Sen. Susan Collins and Sen. Lisa Murkowski are facing appeals, both overt and subtle, to their gender as they weigh the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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Fair or not, there are heightened expectations to side with Christine Blasey Ford.

It’s no surprise that Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are prime targets of the campaign to defeat Brett Kavanaugh, given their moderate bearings and general support for abortion rights.

But the pressure on the GOP duo is even heavier for the simple fact that they’re women.

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There are heightened expectations on both sides of the Supreme Court battle that Collins and Murkowski may be more prone to believe Christine Blasey Ford because of their shared experiences as women. And because of that, the two are facing appeals, both overt and subtle, to their gender.

Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh said last week that the duo have “a tough call to make in your world” on Kavanaugh, adding: “The pressures here are to be loyal to gender.” On the other side of the political spectrum, the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America wrote in September that Collins and Murkowski “owe it to women in America to examine all the evidence before them” and reject the high court nominee.

Interviews with more than a half-dozen of the pair’s female Democratic colleagues confirmed a sense that Collins and Murkowski are under a particularly harsh grind as arbiters of Ford and other accusers’ sexual misconduct claims against Kavanaugh. It’s an unfair, but inescapable, standard, several of them said.

“I’m sure they feel that pressure, and I’m sure that the world is putting that pressure on them,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said of Collins and Murkowski in an interview. “Because they expect more from women.”

But Gillibrand, a potential presidential candidate in 2020 who faced political blowback for calling on former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to resign after he was accused of sexual misconduct, offered a caveat when it comes to the role of Collins and Murkowski in the Supreme Court fight.

“I don’t think it is their responsibility to be the only beacons of virtue,” Gillibrand said. “I expect that from all U.S. senators, and I expect it from our Republican male colleagues as well.”

“It happens around here, and I don’t understand why … certain issues are designated as women’s issues,” added Sen. Kamala Harris of California. “So, then, are there also men’s issues? Where are we going with this? We’re all leaders for the entire country.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire said that “I do” sense that Collins and Murkowski are under particular duress because of what she called a “gender disparity.”

“One of the reasons it’s important to have women at the table, regardless of what their political party is, is because women’s experiences are different than men’s,” Shaheen said in an interview. “I think we’re seeing differences in the way senators are being treated and the way they’re being viewed in terms of this issue.”

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Collins herself acknowledged this week that she senses Democratic lobbying efforts leaning heavily on her and Murkowski, though she didn’t tie them specifically to their gender. “I mean, every senator has an equal vote,” Collins said, describing the campaign to sway her against Kavanaugh as “horrendous” as she recalled one caller threatening to rape a female aide if the senator voted yes.

Murkowski, who won her 2010 reelection bid as a write-in candidate after losing to a tea party challenger in the GOP primary, told Alaska Public Radio last week that the Kavanaugh debate has become “a national conversation about women who’ve become victims and their ability to tell their story.”

Murkowski also answered affirmatively when the radio station asked whether she herself has had “#MeToo moments,” though she declined to elaborate. She told reporters on Wednesday that she’s “taking everything into account” as she weighs how she’ll vote on the 53-year-old appeals court judge.

Privately, Republicans believe that she and Collins are paying more attention to the FBI report that was expected to reach the Senate as soon as Wednesday night than any activist efforts. The third publicly undecided Republican, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, had a tense encounter in an elevator with female protesters against Kavanaugh before leading the call for a new FBI inquiry and later told grass-roots demonstrators they could “join me in an elevator anytime.”

In the meantime, some of the biggest critics of President Donald Trump’s high court pick are urging more of Collins and Murkowski’s male colleagues to join them in scrutinizing the claims against Kavanaugh as well as his defiant testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Kavanaugh apologized during that hearing after challenging Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) for asking him about whether he had blacked out from drinking, an exchange that Gillibrand said was “deeply troubling” and showed the judge getting rattled by female questioners.

Collins: Trump mocking Kavanaugh accuser was 'just plain wrong'

“The questions raised about Judge Kavanaugh’s fitness to sit on the United States Supreme Court should give every senator pause, regardless of whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, males or females,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said in an interview.

Collins has faced arguably more pressure than Murkowski due to her looming reelection in 2020; the Alaska senator isn’t set to face voters again until 2022. Flake is also receiving a torrent of activist attention from the left given his plans to retire from Congress after this year.

Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who’s more conservative than Collins or Murkowski but has previously indicated openness to preserving Roe v. Wade, joined Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) on the target list of a $ 1 million-plus ad buy from the ACLU in its push against Kavanaugh. But otherwise, Capito has not been targeted nearly as much.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, said this week that “sure, I do” have sympathy for the the unusual amount of attention being paid to Collins and Murkowski.

“There’s a lot of pressure on every woman,” Feinstein said. “The fact is that these are big problems, and they are also very smart women. I think they’re well able to handle it. And we’ll see what the [FBI] reports produce.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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