At least 9 midterm candidates face misconduct or abuse allegations. Will voters care?

WASHINGTON – When former President Donald Trump trekked to Nebraska this month he didn't avoid the controversy orbiting Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles W. Herbster, who has been accused of groping by eight women.

Herbster is a “very good man” who was "the most innocent human" the former president told Cornhusker State voters during the May 1 rally.

"He's been badly maligned and it's a shame," Trump said. "That's why I came out here. I defend people when I know they're good… I defend my friends."

The agribusiness executive has denied the allegations, but a bipartisan group of Nebraska state senators put have slammed Herbster's behavior as "disqualifying."

Trump himself is no stranger to allegations of sexual misconduct, having been accused by multiple women over the course of his career. The former president also has denied the allegations against him.

Yet Herbster is not the only candidate in the 2022 midterm elections who is being accused of sexual misconduct or domestic abuse. 

USA TODAY identified at least nine candidates, mostly Republican men, running for Congress or governor who have been stung with a range of accusations that could plague their campaign, from sexual harassment to stalking and domestic abuse.

Mirya Homan, an associate professor at Tulane University, said signals from leadership help shape how partisan voters view the significance of such allegations. Trump campaigning and endorsing candidates facing allegations, like Herbster, "sends a signal to Republican voters that it's something that doesn't matter to the party."

And part of the reason those issues haven't been brought to the forefront in the primary season, according to Kelly Dittmar, a professor at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, is because of how different electorates respond to those claims.

"Unfortunately, it has become partisan in some ways, because the perceptions of even what sexual harassment is and also perceptions of sexism, and what that entails, vary by ideology and party," she said.

Polling suggests large swaths of American voters do care about such accusations when hurled against political candidates.

A survey conducted by Morning Consult/Politico last month, for instance, found 75% of registered voters saying it would be a "major problem" for them to support a candidate accused of sexual misconduct or abuse. That compares to 14% who said it would be a minor problem and 4% who said it wouldn't be one at all.

Another 74% said the same thing about a candidate who is accused of domestic violence versus 17% who called it a minor problem and 3% who said it wasn't one.

Eighty-three percent of Democrats, for instance, expressed how a sexual misconduct or abuse allegation would be a serious problem compared to 66% of GOP respondents.

MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who is now an independent, said the poll's findings could play a role later in the 2022 election cycle.

"It seems to me the Democrats have so many opportunities to show just how out of the mainstream Republicans are," Scarborough said during his TV program, "Morning Joe" on Wednesday.

Holman tied the partisan divide on sexual misconduct to the Trump administration.

"Until the #Metoo movement and Trump, I wouldn't say allegations mattered to voters of either party," said Holman.

Then, she said, following allegations against Trump and his appointment of Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh – who faced allegations of sexual misconduct – Democrats began to care more about such accusations.

"All of a sudden Democrats care about whether or not their candidates are accused," Horman said.

In Georgia, Trump has endorsed former NFL running back Herschel Walker, a top GOP recruit. Walker's ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, said Walker threatened to kill her during their marriage. Grossman said Walker held a razor to her throat, and in another instance held a gun to her head and said "he was going to blow my brains out," per CNN.

Another woman said Walker threatened and stalked her, according to a police report obtained by CNN. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, another woman, Myka Dean, said Walker threatened to "blow her head off" and then kill himself when she attempted to end their relationship.

Walker has blamed his threats to his wife on dissociative identity disorder. The Walker campaign did not respond to an interview request.

Trump has yet to endorse in Missouri, where former Gov. Eric Greitens is running for the GOP nomination for Senate. Greitens resigned in 2018 amid allegations he sexually assaulted and blackmailed his mistress and stole donor data from a charity he founded.

A special investigative report from the Missouri legislature found that a women felt coerced into performing oral sex on Greitens, who the woman said claimed to have taken a compromising photo of her which he threatened to release if she told anyone.

Last month, court records revealed that Greitens' ex-wife said the former governor was physically abusive and exhibited "unstable and coercive behavior" that led to steps being taken to limit his access to guns. Greitens did not respond to an interview request.

Endorsements: Jayapal issues midterm endorsements in effort to boost progressives

Candidates facing allegations

At leave five Republicans running for the House of Representatives have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, ranging from showing coworkers photos of a male genitals without their consent to sex trafficking and physical abuse.

Federal authorities are investigating whether GOP Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is running for reelection, obstructed justice in a sex crimes inquiry. Gaetz is also under investigation to determine if he had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl and paid for her to travel with him across state lines.

Gaetz case: DOJ examining whether Rep. Matt Gaetz obstructed justice in sex crimes inquiry

In Ohio, former Trump aide Max Miller is seeking election in the 7th Congressional District. Politico reported that after former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham accused Miller of cheating on her, he pushed her against the wall and slapped her.

The Times Leader reports that Pennsylvania GOP candidate Mike Marsicano's ex-wife said that he threatened to kill her and physically abused her, including choking her, throwing her across the room and busting her lip with a shoe. She said Marsicano said she could do nothing about the abuse because he, as mayor of Hazleton, had "control of the law." Marsicano is running in Pennsylvania's 8th Congressional District.

Derrick Van Orden, who is running in Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District, wrote in his 2015 book “Book of Man: A Navy Seal’s Guide to the Lost Art of Manhood" that he exposed a man's genitals to two female officers.

According to the Huffington Post, Van Orden described the unsuspecting officers as "cute girls." Van Orden has been named a "Young Gun" candidate by the National Republican Campaign Committee, a program that requires candidates to meet a series of NRCC benchmarks to establish a clear path to victory that has helped elect more than 150 members of Congress.

In North Carolina, Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn is seeking reelection. BuzzFeed News reported that four women said Cawthorn was "aggressive, misogynistic, or predatory toward them." The allegations ranged from Cawthorn using derogatory language toward them to nonconsensual kissing and touching.

While most candidates have either denied or declined to address allegations of domestic abuse, sexual misconduct or other inappropriate behavior, Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Lopez took a different approach.

In a 2018 YouTube video, Lopez, admitted to a domestic violence incident with his wife almost three decades ago. He was accused of pushing his wife, who was six months pregnant, to the floor and kicking her after she struck him. Lopez and his wife pleaded guilty to a single charge of harassment, according to reports.

"It happened one time, and this is a very traumatic event for anyone to go through," said Lopez, who was joined by his wife in the YouTube video. "But really, the test of love, the test of character, is how you come out of it. And we are united. We are a team."

Democrats face accusations, too

Republicans might make up the bulk of 2022 contenders who’ve seen their campaigns stained by domestic or sexual misconduct allegations, but Democrats aren’t without blemish.

When former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was first accused of sexual harassment by multiple women in his office, other Democrats spoke out before he ultimately resigned in late 2021.

Among those critics was New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who sided with the women staffers against Cuomo.

“We have to take seriously all these allegations, and I’m frankly in that group of elected leaders that you believe the individual,” Grisham said during a March 2021 interview with The Washington Post.

But Grisham has been stung by her own controversy: a former campaign staffer came forward with claims of mistreatment.

Read:Kamala Harris to officiate New Mexico Gov. Lujan Grisham's May wedding

In 2019, when she first ran for governor, Democrat James Hallinan alleged Grisham spilled water on his crotch, slapped him and then grabbed his genitals during a staff meeting.

Grisham’s office said at the time how the governor “has never and would never conduct herself in the manner described.”

But the controversy has come up again as she gears up for reelection after campaign finance records showed the governor paid a total of $150,000 in settlement costs last year to Hallinan and his attorney.

The Grisham campaign did not respond to USA TODAY's questions about its latest campaign expenditures; however, it did deny Hallinan's claims.

“The governor has unequivocally denied the false, dubious, and meritless claims made by Mr. Hallinan," Grisham campaign spokeswoman Kendall Witmer said in a statement.

In previous comments, Grisham said there was no substantiation of Hallinan’s claims by witnesses. The allegation was not criminally investigated by New Mexico law enforcement.

When reached by telephone, Hallinan, who owns and operates political consulting firm, referred USA TODAY to his attorney, who said the case was settled out of court in 2020 but that his client stands by his allegations that he was groped by the governor.

Republicans are bullish on seizing the seat as GOP activists in the state say Grisham's behavior reflects a troubling double standard given to Democratic candidates in the 2022 cycle.

The race for New Mexico governor is rated as "leaning Democratic" by Crystal Ball, a political analysis newsletter at the University of Virginia, giving the incumbent a slight edge.

Grisham's approval ratings had hovered above 50% up until last year when her job numbers were 46% approval versus 45% disapproval rating was 45%, according to a survey released last August by the New Mexico Political Report.

Do voters care?

Wittmar, the Rutgers professor, said Republican or conservative women are often just as skeptical of accusations of harassment and assault as their right-leaning male counterparts.

She pointed to research during the 2018 midterms – the height of the "Me Too" movement– that had shown how party label, even more so than gender, determines how a voter reacts to such scandals.

"Republicans were more likely to say that these were cases of misunderstandings," Wittmar said. "That it was more of a personal relational issue that should be dealt with there instead of, for example, in a legal setting, or you could argue not on a campaign, where that's not the place to adjudicate or address this issue."

The Morning Consult/Politico survey bears some of this out, as well. It shows a lag among right-leaning voters when asked about sexual abuse or domestic violence claims compared to moderates or left-leaning constituents. Among conservatives, for instance, the poll found roughly 23% of respondents said accusations of either would be a "minor problem" in supporting a candidate, which is 7 to 10 percentage points higher than moderates and liberals who said the same.

Nineteen percent of Republican women said in the survey how sexual misconduct or abuse would be a "minor problem" compared to 4% of Democratic women and 11% of independent women.

As a result, Wittmar said, if a Republican opponent were to draw those contrasts in a GOP primary it is more likely to backfire or be scoffed at by a share of that electorate.

"When you put forth an attack like that, there's often the kind of quick response of, 'Oh, you're just desperate women trying to take men down,'" she said.

But when those candidates face a larger voting population, the winds often shift in how allegations are treated politically.

In Michigan, for example, a Democratic official telegraphed how they plan to bring up two lawsuits from the early 1990s against Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Rinke that claimed sexual harassment.

Rinke, whose family has owned car dealerships for decades, is considered a serious challenge to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2022.

He was accused of fostering a hostile work environment and asking women if they were wearing matching underwear; making lewd sexual gestures; and calling a female employee at home and asked if she was receiving oral sex.

Court records indicated the cases were dismissed after out of court settlements were reached, according to the Detroit News.

Rinke said last year how he has "had tens of thousands of people work for me, but that like any "businessman is going to know that you’re going to have a couple (of) people who are disgruntled."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: These 2022 midterm candidates are swirling in sexual misconduct claims

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