Sexual Misconduct Spurs New Elections: The #MeToo Races

The Women’s March in Las Vegas in January. Cases of sexual misconduct have led to resignations by nearly a dozen state and federal lawmakers in recent months as part of the #MeToo reckoning.

In Oklahoma, a state senator was charged with sexual battery after a female Uber driver said he tried to kiss her. In California, a state assemblyman was accused of following a lobbyist into a restroom and masturbating in front of her. And in Minnesota, a lobbyist said a state representative repeatedly propositioned her, including by sending a text that read: “Would it frighten you if I said that I was just interested in good times good wine good food and good sex?”

These and other allegations of sexual misconduct led to resignations by nearly a dozen state and federal lawmakers in recent months, setting off a flurry of special elections around the country to fill seats suddenly left open by the #MeToo reckoning.

Yet the candidates running to replace these disgraced men — many of whom are women — are hesitating to put sexual harassment front and center as an issue in their campaigns. In at least eight state legislative and two congressional races, including special elections in Minnesota and Oklahoma that were held last week, the subject has rarely been mentioned in advertisements, rallies or when knocking on doors.

“You get an eye roll and that’s it,” said Tami Donnally, a Republican running to fill a Florida State Senate seat on April 10 after the resignation last year of Jeff Clements, a powerful Democrat who admitted to an affair with a lobbyist. Ms. Donnally, vice-chairwoman of the Republican Party of Palm Beach County, said voters shrug off the issue: “‘Oh well, another one bites the dust, let’s move on, tell me what you’re interested in.’”

In Minnesota, Karla Bigham, a Democrat who won a special election on Feb. 12 to replace a disgraced member of her own party, found slightly more interest in the issue, though it did not dominate conversations.

“People were well aware of why we were having a special election,” Ms. Bigham, who has been a union organizer, said. “They expected a change and I talked about that on the doors in Minnesota — we need a cultural change in the Capitol.”

Some candidates said they have hesitated to press the issue because sexual harassment does not weigh as heavily on voters’ minds as do other concerns, such as the economy, local issues or their approval or disapproval of President Trump.

In most years, there are scores of special elections around the country to fill vacancies in statehouses and Congress. Most occur after a lawmaker dies or resigns after winning higher office, getting a political appointment or taking a private-sector job.

This year, sudden openings after revelations of sexual misconduct have added to the count, creating a new brand of #MeToo elections.

Two coming special elections are for Congress: a race on March 13 to fill the seat of former Representative Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, a Republican who reportedly texted a mistress to seek an abortion; and one on April 24 to replace former Representative Trent Franks of Arizona, who asked female staff members to serve as surrogate mothers for him.

In addition, there are special elections to fill statehouse vacancies left by lawmakers accused of sexual harassment or misconduct in six states, including Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and two each in California and Minnesota.

Both parties are closely watching for districts that flip from Republican to Democrat, seeking signs of a rising blue wave leading up to the November midterms (there have been 36 Republican-to-Democratic flips in statehouses since Mr. Trump’s election win), but the seats left open over sexual misconduct allegations are not part of that trend so far.

That is because most were in districts that are safely Republican or Democratic, and voters have shown no inclination to punish the party of a lawmaker who quit after accusations of sexual misbehavior.

In Minnesota last week, Jeremy Munson, a Republican, retained a State House seat for his party in a rural district after the resignation of former Representative Tony Cornish. Leading up to the special election, Mr. Cornish campaigned for Mr. Munson. In an interview, Mr. Cornish said, “I didn’t run into any negativity in personal appearances or anything else.’’

Mr. Cornish, a former deputy sheriff of Blue Earth County, stepped down after a lobbyist in the capital, Sarah Walker, said he had propositioned her for years.

Ms. Walker said she viewed it as outrageous that a candidate would want Mr. Cornish’s endorsement on the campaign trail. “To me it seems to speak to the Republicans’ total disregard or concern about sexual harassment allegations,” she said.

Another candidate not shying from the support of a fallen legislator is Steve Montenegro of Arizona, who hopes to fill the seat of Mr. Franks, the Republican who was accused of offering an aide $5 million to be a surrogate mother for his baby. Mr. Montenegro, a conservative state senator who resigned to run for the seat, quickly touted an endorsement from the departing congressman. “Trent has asked me to run,” Mr. Montenegro said in a Facebook video posted the day Mr. Franks resigned, “and that’s an honor.”

The Arizona district covers reliably Republican suburbs outside Phoenix, and it is widely expected to remain in Republican hands. State Senator Debbie Lesko, another Republican seeking the seat, said she has largely avoided the subject of Mr. Franks’s disgrace, although occasionally it comes up on the trail.

“I usually respond by saying, ‘Well, in the Republican primary, it’s myself and 11 men running, and I’m not going to sexually harass anyone,’” Ms. Lesko said.

Some of the candidates hoping to replace Raul Bocanegra, a California state assemblyman accused by women of groping or unwanted advances, are closely linked with the movement that ousted him. One accused Mr. Bocanegra, a Democrat, of harassing a co-worker last fall; another declared her candidacy after calling for his resignation last year, but has since decided to run in the general election rather than the special election.

“I think there’s definitely a feeling for the people running that it’s incumbent for them to bring respectability back to the seat,” said Adama Iwu, a lobbyist who helped to organize a campaign against sexual harassment in California politics.

But Dan Schnur, a lecturer in political communications at the University of Southern California, said the issue has not dominated races to replace Mr. Bocanegra or to replace Matt Dababneh, another Democratic lawmaker, who is accused of masturbating in front of a female lobbyist.

“Running against a candidate facing these kind of accusations is a different type of challenge than running to replace one,” Mr. Schnur said.

In Oklahoma, a Republican easily held onto a State Senate seat that had been occupied for nearly a decade by Bryce Marlatt, who was arrested last year after his Uber driver accused him of grabbing and kissing her. (He has pleaded not guilty.)

Casey Murdock, a rancher and state representative who won Mr. Marlatt’s seat in the heavily Republican district, said voters occasionally told him they were disappointed in Mr. Marlatt. Mr. Murdock said he was skeptical about the Uber driver’s accusations. “I still, I don’t believe it,” he said.

Mr. Murdock’s Democratic opponent, Amber Jensen, said that with 32 percent of the vote, she had outperformed expectations for a Democrat running in this rural stretch of northwest Oklahoma. She spoke with voters who grimaced over the allegations against Mr. Marlatt, but said she did not make them a central part of her campaign.

“At the end of the race, we all still have to live in the same town,” said Ms. Jensen, who owns a construction company. “But behind the scenes, that is something that drove me forward because — well, because, me, too. I’ve been victimized before. I’m really tired of men making the decisions for women.”

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