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Sen. Joni Ernst has become one of the most prominent Republicans to say she’s been sexually assaulted

Her disclosure says a lot about the politics of #MeToo.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) at the White House on April 12, 2018
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) at the White House on April 12, 2018.
Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, one of the highest-ranking Republicans in the Senate, said in an interview on Wednesday that she is a survivor of rape and domestic violence.

Ernst told Bloomberg News that when she was in college, she was raped by a man she was dating. She called a campus sexual assault hotline, she said, but never reported the attack to police.

“I was embarrassed,” she said. “I didn’t know how to explain it. I was so humiliated.”

Years later, she said, her then-husband Gail Ernst, from whom she is recently divorced, physically attacked her. “He grabbed me by the throat with his hands and threw me on the landing floor,” Ernst told Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs.

The senator’s wrenching interview, during which she broke down in tears, has inspired messages of support from people across the political spectrum. “I will be with Joni Ernst wherever she is trying to stick up for sexual assault survivors,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) on Thursday.

But some are struggling to reconcile Ernst’s disclosure with her full-throated defense of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford when the two were in high school.

“There was absolutely nothing that corroborated any misdoings by Judge Kavanaugh,” Ernst said in an October Fox News interview after an FBI investigation into Ford’s allegations. “I think he is well-qualified to serve on the United States Supreme Court.”

Ernst told Bloomberg she does not believe Kavanaugh assaulted Ford. The senator has not responded to a request for comment from Vox. Lawyers for Gail Ernst declined to comment to Vox or to Bloomberg.

Ernst is one of a growing number of women in politics who are opening up about their experiences of sexual violence. Most of those women, however, have been Democrats. The disclosure by one of the GOP’s most highly placed women — who’s also set for a contentious reelection campaign in 2020 — raises questions about how Republican voters will respond to candidates’ accounts of sexual misconduct.

It also serves as a reminder that the issues behind the #MeToo movement cut across political boundaries. “Sexual harassment does not discriminate by political party,” Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University, told Vox. But as Ernst’s ongoing support for Kavanaugh makes clear, not all who identify as survivors have the same political response to their experiences — and not all are necessarily sympathetic to the goals of #MeToo.

Ernst’s story first became public as part of her divorce filing

A 48-year-old Iowa National Guard veteran who served in Kuwait and Iraq, Ernst has represented Iowa in the Senate since 2015. She is the first woman elected to Congress from Iowa, the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate from any state, and, as vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference, the fourth-highest-ranking Republican senator.

In August, Ernst announced that she and her husband were divorcing. Under Iowa law, records in divorce cases are automatically made public when the divorce is finalized, unless the parties request to keep them sealed, according to the Des Moines Register. So when the Ernsts’ divorce became final earlier this month, affidavits by both parties became public for a time (at the request of the Ernsts, most have now been sealed).

Joni Ernst’s affidavit contained the allegation of physical abuse, which media outlets soon picked up. Ernst decided to speak to Bloomberg News about the rape only after the details about her divorce began appearing in the press, she said.

In high school, she told Bloomberg’s Jacobs, she entered into a relationship with someone who was physically and sexually abusive. When she was in college at Iowa State University, she said, he raped her, then threatened to kill himself if she broke up with him. She did not identify the man by name.

Ernst said she had called her campus sexual assault hotline and ended the relationship but never reported the assault to the police. And she did not mention the experience when she later volunteered at the campus counseling center, or when she was asked about that volunteer work on the campaign trail.

“I’m a private person, when it comes to those things,” she told Bloomberg.

Ernst also said in 2007 or 2008, she and her then-husband had an argument during which she followed him down a staircase, yelling.

“He turned around at the landing, and he grabbed me by the throat with his hands and threw me on the landing floor,” Ernst told Bloomberg. “And then he pounded my head [...] on the landing. It was very sudden and very violent. It scared me.”

Billings & Mensen, the law firm representing Gail Ernst, is declining to comment on the case out of respect for the Ernst family, a representative of the firm told Vox. Ivan Miller, an attorney for Gail Ernst, made a similar statement to Bloomberg.

In his affidavit in the divorce case, Gail Ernst does not respond to the allegation of physical abuse.

Both parties’ affidavits also contain other allegations, according to the Des Moines Register. Ernst says that when she entered the Senate, it was the first time she made more money than her husband, who is 17 years older and worked at an Iowa bank after his 2001 retirement from the Army. In her affidavit, she says he didn’t respond well to this disparity, threatening to divorce her if she ran for reelection in 2020. In his affidavit, Gail Ernst denies this allegation.

Ernst also says in the affidavit that Donald Trump approached her as a possible running mate in 2016 but she turned him down, “knowing it wasn’t the right thing for me or my family.”

“I continued to make sacrifices and not soar higher out of concern for Gail and our family,” she said in the affidavit. Meanwhile, she added of her then-husband, “he hated any successes I had and would belittle me and get angry any time I achieved a goal.”

In his affidavit, Gail Ernst says he was supportive of his wife’s career: “I gave up all my aspirations and goals to be a good dad and husband so Joni could pursue her dreams.”

He says his wife was unfaithful, conducting an affair with one of the soldiers under her command when she was deployed. Sen. Ernst told Bloomberg that she and the soldier became close but the relationship wasn’t sexual.

“The entire affidavit made me sick,” she said. “It was just one lie after another.”

The senator also told Bloomberg that she had not wanted to come forward about the rape she experienced in college.

“I didn’t want to share it with anybody, and in the era of hashtag-MeToo survivors, I always believed that every person is different and they will confront their demons when they’re ready,” she said. “And I was not ready.”

Ernst’s story is focusing attention on her support for Brett Kavanaugh

Ernst’s story has inspired messages of support from Republicans and Democrats alike. “We all stand by you,” tweeted Meghan McCain, a co-host of The View and daughter of the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

“I will be with Joni Ernst wherever she is trying to stick up for sexual assault survivors and domestic violence survivors,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who says she has experienced sexual misconduct, told CNN. “Because you do survive. You can go on. It doesn’t define you but it never stops hurting.”

Ernst has supported legislation aimed at fighting sexual assault in the past, co-sponsoring a 2017 bill with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to mandate sexual assault prevention training in the military. She was also a member of a bipartisan group of senators who called for a congressional investigation into USA Gymnastics after revelations of sexual abuse by former team doctor Larry Nassar.

Some, however, have pointed out that the senator also voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh last year, despite allegations of sexual misconduct against Christine Blasey Ford and others.

Ernst expressed support and even sympathy for Kavanaugh after he and Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I would say to him, ‘Stay strong,’” she said in a Fox News interview after the testimony. “I would say, ‘Continue on with the push forward’; and I would also say, ‘God keep you and bless you’ — because I do know how painful this can be.”

When asked about her vote, the senator told Bloomberg she does not believe Kavanaugh assaulted Ford.

“I do believe she experienced trauma, but the evidence and witnesses presented by her contradicted her story,” Ernst said of Ford. “I don’t believe Justice Kavanaugh was the source of her trauma.”

Of course, Ernst was one of 49 Republican senators who voted to confirm Kavanaugh, widely seen as a reliably conservative judge and a potential vote to overturn the landmark abortion decision Roe v. Wade.

In general, the Republican Party has been slow to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct against conservatives. Despite criticisms from Sen. Mitch McConnell and others, the party ultimately backed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore in the face of multiple allegations that he sexually or romantically pursued teenage girls. President Trump, meanwhile, has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women.

Of Moore, Ernst said in 2017, “If the allegations are true, he needs to step aside.” She remains a supporter of Trump.

Few Republican women have spoken out about sexual misconduct

The climate in the party may help explain why relatively few high-profile Republican women have spoken publicly about experiences with sexual assault or harassment.

Many Democratic women, like recently elected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, have identified themselves as survivors of sexual assault or harassment and expressed solidarity with the #MeToo movement. It’s part of a larger trend that Dittmar and others have identified: More than ever, female candidates are making their personal experiences, including traumatic ones, part of their campaign.

But Ernst is one of few Republican women to come forward as survivors — and she, Dittmar points out, did so not by choice but because the details of her divorce had already become public. Before Ernst, Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ), who told the Wall Street Journal last year that her high school track coach had sexually abused her, was one of the only prominent female Republicans to speak about such an experience. During her 2018 Senate campaign, McSally said that she would vote to confirm Kavanaugh.

The party’s support of accused men may have made some Republican women feel they can’t speak up about sexual misconduct.

“The party is very cliquish right now, and I think word travels quickly,” Meghan Milloy, co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, told Vox last year. Women are “nervous that if they come forward, they’re going to be labeled as this tattle-teller.”

It’s also the case that Republican voters may be less receptive to candidates’ accounts of sexual misconduct than Democratic voters are. In public opinion polls, Republicans and Democrats differ on how much they see sexual misconduct as a problem, Dittmar said. Republican candidates “are going to see the political calculation of talking about it differently because their voter base will respond to it differently.”

That’s particularly true given the allegations of sexual misconduct by prominent Republican men, especially Trump, Dittmar said. “There’s a sensitivity to, if you bring it up, you must therefore be being critical of the president.”

Given all this, Ernst may well choose not to speak more about her experiences as she moves into what promises to be a difficult 2020 reelection campaign. She may also simply prefer not to revisit a painful time in her life, Dittmar pointed out. After all, unlike Whitmer and others, Ernst did not choose to make her experience public, but did so after details of her divorce were released. “It’s clearly not something she wanted to be having a public conversation about,” Dittmar said.

Ernst’s disclosure reveals the complexities of an issue that, while it cuts across party lines, has been treated very differently by the two parties. It’s unlikely that her decision to speak out will break down those differences, Dittmar said.

“She didn’t want to do this,” Dittmar explained. “I don’t think it creates any conditions under which you see Republican women saying, ‘Good for her, I’m going to share my story.’”

And while liberal women may express sympathy with Ernst, some also wonder why her personal experience didn’t lead her to vote against Kavanaugh. When it comes to this question, it may be useful to remember that, as Dittmar notes, Republican and Democratic women may have similar personal experiences but perceive them differently. So while a personal experience with sexual assault might lead some women on the left to identify with #MeToo and oppose Kavanaugh’s confirmation, it might not have the same effect for women on the right.

In her Bloomberg interview, Ernst made clear that her experiences haven’t dimmed her support for her party. “It’s outrageous to suggest that anyone who has been the victim of sexual assault should therefore be a Hillary Clinton supporter,” she said.

Ultimately, Ernst’s disclosure is unlikely to break down the partisan divide that has emerged in the public conversation around #MeToo. But it does serve as a reminder that sexual assault and harassment affect people of all political persuasions.

“There’s been partisanship imbued in some of the conversations around how we respond to #MeToo,” Dittmar said, “but the problem itself is not partisan.”