Democrats called Al Franken’s behavior unacceptable, returned his campaign donations, and hinted that — absent a satisfying explanation in response to a sexual harassment allegation — they’d eventually demand he resign.
Anything less would risk catastrophe for a party that stakes its political reputation on fighting for women. Especially one that is just now, 20 years after the fact, grappling with its unyielding support of Bill Clinton.
“Sexual harassment is never acceptable and must not be tolerated,” said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. “I hope and expect that the Ethics Committee will fully investigate this troubling incident, as they should with any credible allegation of sexual harassment.”
Talk show host Leeann Tweeden on Thursday accused Franken of sexually assaulting her during an overseas USO tour in 2006, three years before he became a Democratic senator from Minnesota. She said Franken forcibly kissed her, and later posed for a photo in which he groped her chest while she slept.
The Minnesota Democrat issued a statement apologizing to Tweeden and said he’d welcome a congressional ethics investigation into the incident. But the allegations had by that time already sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party. Democrats, who rely heavily on women for votes, regularly criticize Republicans for being insufficiently supportive of women on issues like abortion rights and gender pay equity.
Their attacks have been especially sharp recently, dwelling on the litany of sexual assault allegations against President Donald Trump and, more recently, the accusations that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore once sexually assaulted children.
Now, the party has been forced to scrutinize its own ranks.
Valerie Jarret, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted the picture of Franken groping Tweeden and asked if people would find it funny if he were doing that to a loved one. Guy Cecil, a veteran Democratic operative, tweeted that “Franken must be held accountable if our party wants to live up to our commitment to women & girls.”
And Franken’s colleague, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, said “an apology does not excuse his behavior.”
“As a general matter, we have been far too tolerant and dismissive of past allegations” Heitkamp said. “We are now seeing a sea change and that is very important. All of us must move forward together to prevent these actions, and when they do happen, empower women to speak out and impose appropriate consequences.”
Many Democrats also returned money that Franken or his political action committee had contributed to the campaign: Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, for instance, donated $30,000 of Franken’s contributions to charity.
The deluge of criticism for Franken comes amid a broader cultural moment in the country, in which multitudes of women has stepped forward to accuse famous men of sexual assault and harassment, most prominently in the cases of major Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein and comedian Louis C.K.
That movement has also caused some Democrats to rethink past support of their onetime leader, Bill Clinton. Accusations of sexual assault against the former president are not new but, to some, are now seen in a new light.
“But now that Hillary is out of electoral politics and has emerged as a bigger draw and more potent political force than her husband, there’s no excuse for Democrats not to look back on these events with more objectivity,” wrote the liberal writer Matthew Yglesias, in a column titled Bill Clinton should have resigned. “Fifty-something leaders of organizations shouldn’t be carrying on affairs with interns who work for them regardless of whether the affair is in some sense consensual.”
As the allegations against Franken spilled out, the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a series of press releases calling on Democrats to return the campaign donations they had received from the Minnesota Democrat.
But some Republicans warn that the allegations against Franken don't change the subject away from the GOP's own problems with sexual harassment. Instead, as more allegations come out against politicians on both sides of the aisle, accusations that plagued Trump as a candidate are taking on renewed significance.
"With all of the Republicans pounding on Al Franken to resign because of this story, it really does open up the question of, well, then, what about Donald Trump?" said Charlie Sykes, a veteran conservative commentator and former Wisconsin talk radio show host. "If we believe all of the other women in all of the other cases, why do we not believe the women that accused him?"
During the presidential campaign, Trump faced multiple accusations of sexual harassment, and he was caught on what is remembered as the "Access Hollywood" tape, in which he could be heard bragging about grabbing women by their genitals.
Trump faced serious political blowback at the time, but managed to survive as other campaign events ultimately overshadowed those remarks before Election Day. But in the #metoo moment, those past accusations may be due for a new reckoning, Sykes said.
"Republicans thought they had immunized themselves on Moore by saying, 'if true, he needs to go,' then that changed to, 'well, we do believe the women,'" Sykes said.
And, certainly, Republican senators have strongly condemned Moore.
"Now the question becomes, if we believe the women who are accusing Moore, Franken, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., why do we not believe the women who accused Donald Trump? And this now becomes a problem for all of the Republicans who decided to back him after 'Access Hollywood,’" Sykes said