WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the Democratic Party insisted Wednesday that allegations of domestic abuse against his second-in-command would not hurt his party ahead of this fall’s midterm elections.
Yet four days after the first public accusation of physical and emotional abuse emerged against Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, other would-be allies across the nation were far less certain. And President Donald Trump’s supporters, including a nascent group led by former White House counselor Steve Bannon, are ready to pounce.
Many of the Democratic Party’s most influential figures and outside groups avoided the issue as the political world privately pondered whether Ellison — the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee who just won his party’s nomination for Minnesota’s attorney general — could survive a prospective scandal in the #MeToo era.
DNC Chairman Tom Perez addressed the situation directly only when pressed by reporters as he campaigned Wednesday in Georgia.
The DNC boss said he takes “very seriously” any accusation of domestic abuse, but downplayed the political fallout.
“Democrats have been winning everywhere,” Perez said. “That, I think, continues.”
The allegations from Ellison’s ex-girlfriend, Karen Monahan, are testing Democrats’ resolve at a delicate moment. The party is relying on strong support from women, particularly in America’s suburbs, to fuel their bid to seize the House majority this November. But after being quick to seize on allegations of Republican misconduct in the #MeToo era, Democrats have, so far at least, adopted a wait-and-see approach in a case that involves a senior DNC leader competing to become Minnesota’s chief law enforcement officer.
Monahan’s son alleged in a recent Facebook post that he had seen hundreds of angry text messages from Ellison, some threatening his mother. He also wrote that he’d viewed a video in which Ellison dragged Monahan off the bed by her feet. Monahan said via Twitter that what her son posted was “true.”
Ellison has denied the accusations and said no video exists “because I never behaved in this way.”
Monahan has so far declined to provide any video or copies of text messages to The Associated Press. She has told Minnesota Public Radio News she will not share the video because she said it’s humiliating.
The political stakes are high, particularly in Minnesota, a battleground state Trump narrowly lost in 2016 and is aiming to flip in 2020. The state is still reeling from the abrupt resignation of Democratic Sen. Al Franken late last year and Democrats are running in competitive races for governor, the U.S. Senate and the House.
Franken announced he would resign 21 days after the first allegations of inappropriate sexual touching emerged last November. In that case, leading Democratic women, particularly New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, led calls for the Minnesota senator to resign.
Gillibrand’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Neither did spokesmen for Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris.
The National Organization for Women and the women’s rights group Ultraviolet have called on Ellison to resign. Other Democratic allies, however, have proceeded more cautiously.
MoveOn released a statement promising to “closely monitor the situation.” The Sierra Club, which employs Monahan, wrote that it was “deeply troubled and disturbed by our colleague Karen Monahan’s descriptions of abuse by Keith Ellison.”
Meanwhile, Bannon associates promised to make Ellison an issue in Minnesota and beyond, particularly in the broader push to win over women, a key constituency in the Democrats’ bid to seize the House majority this November.
Sam Nunberg, who is working with Bannon, made clear Trump’s allies will do everything they can to keep the abuse allegations front and center.
“He’s a radical, he’s a hypocrite,” Nunberg said of Ellison. Nunberg called the accusations “a major threshold issue” in efforts to target voters in Minnesota and beyond.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who leads the Republican Attorneys General Association, said the accusations would make it “very difficult for him to serve as the chief law enforcement officer” in Minnesota.
“If he has in fact been abusive to Ms. Monahan, or anyone else for that matter, then he has no business serving in the public,” Rutledge told The Associated Press.
Ellison himself has been reluctant to weigh in.
Normally a constant presence on the campaign trail, he largely disappeared in the final days of his bid for state attorney general after the allegations surfaced. After winning Tuesday’s primary, Ellison reiterated that the accusation was false and promised to continue to the November ballot.
He also described the situation as markedly different from Franken’s. At that time, Ellison said the embattled senator made the right decision to resign amid a string of sexual harassment allegations.
“In this case, it’s not true of me. It’s just not true,” Ellison said. “We’ll talk more about it in the coming days.”
Minnesota Democrats were equally eager to avoid the situation.
Rep. Tim Walz, who won a three-way primary for Minnesota governor, said Monday he takes the allegations seriously but hadn’t seen enough documentation or evidence to weigh in further.
The offices of the state’s two female senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, declined to respond to questions about whether they continued to support Ellison’s bid for attorney general.
Republicans have also struggled to recover from accusations of sexual misconduct against failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and former Republican National Committee finance chairman Steve Wynn.
Republican strategist Ari Fleischer said Ellison has been lucky, at least so far, by the timing of the accusations and the unwillingness of the DNC and other allied groups “to hold his feet to the fire.”
“What Franken was accused of, amounted to less,” Fleischer said. “If it was the Republican National Committee I think it would be a major front-page scandal.”