US Rep. John Conyers of Michigan retired amid allegations of sexual harassment and an alleged payoff to cover up his actions
Washington (AFP) - US Democrats pushed two of their own out of Congress this week for sexual harassment allegations, intent on claiming the moral high ground over Republicans ahead of 2018's mid-term elections.
One year into the presidency of Republican Donald Trump, whose boasts about grabbing women's genitals rocked the 2016 campaign, who would have thought it would be the Democrats on the defensive over sex abuse scandals?
It has been an embarrassing and extraordinary week for the opposition party, with House Democrat John Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, and then Senator Al Franken, a self-described "champion of women," announcing they were stepping down in the face of mounting allegations of misconduct.
But today's crisis could flip to an opportunity, particularly if Democrats can show they have taken steps to root out the cancer while Republicans are circling the wagons around Trump and US Senate candidate Roy Moore.
The former Alabama judge is in a dead heat with Democrat Doug Jones despite accusations Moore molested teenaged girls, including a 14-year-old, when he was in his thirties.
Several Republicans have called for Moore to go, but Trump is all in, encouraging supporters Friday to "VOTE ROY MOORE!" in the December 12 election.
Democrats see the endorsement, and Trump's own victory, as evidence that while Democrats are rooting out their problem lawmakers, the Republican strategy -- aside from one case -- has been to deny accusations and dig in.
Franken acknowledged the pain he caused some women, but "Roy Moore has refused to acknowledge it. And in some ways that's worse," said Democratic Senator Tim Kaine.
He added, "I think this is a cultural Rubicon that we've crossed" in terms of calling out abuse and empowering victims, many of whom felt marginalized by a system that often swept accusations under the rug.
The reckoning has extended far beyond Congress. Hundreds of women have come forward this year to describe abuse they endured from influential men in the fields of entertainment, media and politics.
One Republican lawmaker has fallen in the wave of accusations so far. Arizona congressman Trent Franks abruptly resigned on Friday as he faced an ethics probe over sexual misconduct.
US media reported that female subordinates worried he wanted to have sex with them after he approached them about acting as a potential surrogate to help him and his wife have a child.
- 'Year of the woman' -
Time magazine on Wednesday honored the women exposing the pervasiveness of sexual harassment, naming such "silence breakers" as their Person of the Year.
"It's like another year of the woman," Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chamber's most senior woman, told AFP as she explained the "huge cultural shift."
But she stopped short of saying whether jettisoning Franken and Conyers will boost her party politically.
For years, Democrats have portrayed themselves as the defenders of women's rights and gender equality.
Now they aim to solidify that position ahead of next November, when inspiring female voters will be crucial for Democrats' efforts to gain seats in Congress, governors' mansions and state legislatures.
Earlier this week, provocative Republican Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and onetime presidential hopeful, seemed to suggest that by failing to oust the party's alleged sexual predators from office, Democrats were hypocrites to reject Moore's candidacy.
"As long as Al Franken is in the Senate, as long as you've got Conyers and others who are staying in office, then why not have Roy Moore?" he told Fox News.
With Franken and Conyers gone, that Republican argument melts away, something Democratic former White House tactician David Axelrod noted poignantly on Twitter.
"Strange principle is emerging: If you admit misconduct, you resign," he wrote Thursday.
"But if you deny it, however compelling or voluminous the testimony against you, you continue in office -- or on to office -- with impunity?"
Conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro said emboldened Democrats could use Moore as a cudgel against Republicans, especially if the Alabamian wins.
"Democrats are going to dump Franken now in order to seize the moral high ground on Moore," Shapiro tweeted.
Senate Democrats face a formidable electoral map next year, and there may be bitterness within the party about how their own scandals might hurt prospects.
But one of the most endangered Senate Democrats, John Tester of Montana, said he is confident the Franken fiasco will not lead to blowback in the 2018 races.
"I have not heard one Democrat say that this is appropriate behavior. Not one," Tester said of Franken's misconduct.
Republicans including House Speaker Paul Ryan stress that there is no room for sexual harassment in Congress.
But while Democratic leaders pushed Conyers out, there has been no public call from Republican leadership to oust congressman Blake Farenthold, who like Conyers reportedly settled sexual harassment claims against him using taxpayer funds.