South Carolina Republican congressman Ralph Norman made light Thursday of the ongoing drama surrounding Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, opening an election debate by joking that another judge has emerged with her own accusations of sexual assault.
"Did y'all hear this latest late-breaking news from the Kavanaugh hearings?" said Norman, R-Rock Hill, at a Kiwanis Club debate. "Ruth Bader Ginsburg came out that she was groped by Abraham Lincoln."
The off-color remark comes as Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump's nominee for a lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court, remains embroiled in scandal after a woman accused him of sexually assaulting her when he was 17.
Kavanaugh has vigorously denied the allegation from California professor Christine Blasey Ford.
Norman's line appeared to elicit some scattered laughter and applause from the Kiwanis Club of Rock Hill crowd but sparked immediate condemnation from South Carolina Democrats and many others on social media.
"Ralph Norman just proved he may be rich but he doesn’t have any class," tweeted S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson. "Inappropriate doesn't describe his remarks."
Jaime Harrison, an associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee and Robertson's predecessor in South Carolina, offered similar criticism.
"So now sexual assault is a punchline for a stupid joke!" Harrison tweeted. "Disgusting but coming from Norman... expected!"
Norman responded later Thursday on Twitter, saying the comments were "meant to add a bit of levity to a very serious debate" and "point to the circus-like atmosphere that Washington DC has become."
"People really need to learn to lighten up," Norman said. "Clearly my opponent understood it that way since for the next hour we engaged in a substantive discussion about our many differences without mention of my comments."
The Kiwanis Club debate presented one of the first opportunities for Norman to face off again against his 2017 special election opponent, Sumter Democrat Archie Parnell, who is making a second attempt for the seat versus Norman this November.
Parnell has been haunted by his own past relationships with women during this campaign after The Post and Courier revealed divorce records from 1973 stating that he violently beat his then-wife.
Unlike Kavanaugh, Parnell did not deny the allegation but he insisted that he has become a changed man in the decades since. Despite calls from top Democrats to drop out of the race, Parnell stayed in and went on to easily win the 5th Congressional District Democratic primary in June.
Norman has long held a proud reputation as a brash conservative and has been known to stir controversy before. In April, he took out his loaded pistol during a meeting with constituents in attempt to make a point that guns are only dangerous in the hands of criminals.
Though Parnell did not immediately address Norman's remark on stage, he slammed his opponent in a statement afterwards.
"My opponent apparently thinks sexual assault is a joke. It is not," Parnell said. "But I guess that's the best we can expect from someone who pulled a loaded gun on his own constituents."
S.C. GOP chairman Drew McKissick defended Norman, claiming the joke was not actually about sexual assault.
"The joke is Democrats running the same old playbook of last minute attacks against conservatives, while at the same time supporting a candidate for Congress that actually did commit assault against a woman," McKissick said.
Norman alluded to Parnell's history in another tweet Thursday in response to criticism from the Democratic challenger.
"Perhaps we should have a debate about your own abuse and harassment of women, Parnell," Norman said.
Election analysts initially viewed South Carolina's 5th District, which stretches from Rock Hill to Sumter, as a potential Democratic pick-up opportunity. But most no longer expect it to be competitive due to the emergence of Parnell's domestic violence history and his subsequent loss of support from the Democratic establishment.
A researcher from Media Matters for America, a progressive nonprofit, pointed out that right-wing social media users have been circulating memes in recent days with the same concept as Norman's joke.
The national Kiwanis organization also distanced themselves from Norman's comments in a statement after the debate.
"Kiwanis clubs exist to help children," the group said on Twitter. "One way to help is to understand candidates’ positions on relevant issues; many Kiwanis clubs hold open forums like this for political candidates. Statements such as the one from Rep. Ralph Norman do not reflect The Objects of Kiwanis."
Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.