Supreme Court Kavanaugh

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks as Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018.  AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool

In a near 5-minute outburst that captured the attention of the nation, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham exploded in anger in the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearing Thursday, ripping into Democrats on live TV and calling the day one of the worst displays of partisanship in his career.

"You're looking for a fair process? You came to the wrong town at the wrong time, my friend,” a furious Graham told Kavanaugh.

"Would you say you’ve been through hell?" Graham, R-S.C., added.

"I’ve been through hell and then some," Kavanaugh responded.

That was just the start of Graham's outburst that threw out the GOP playbook. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee had planned to have a single female prosecutor — Arizona sex crime prosecutor of Rachel Mitchell — carry the line of questioning.

Instead, Graham, as the first Republican senator to speak, openly attacked Democrats for pushing the appearance of Christine Blasey Ford and her allegations of being sexually attacked by Kavanaugh in high school, at what his backers considered the 11th hour.

At one time, Graham rejected allegations that Kavanaugh went through life as a rapist or even, as he put it, "a Bill Cosby."

He went on to blast the opposition's attack of Kavanaugh's character, saying it would stain the country for years to come and discourage good people from serving in public office.

"I hope the American people will see through this charade," Graham said, calling the afternoon the "most despicable thing" he’s ever seen in politics.

Graham's rebuttal came as Ford's morning testimony equally gripped the nation's attention, saying she was "100 percent" certain Kavanaugh attacked her at age 15 during a Washington, D.C., house party in 1982.

"I tried to yell for help. When I did, Brett put his hand over my mouth to stop me from screaming. That was what terrified me the most, and has had the most lasting impact on my life," Ford said, her voice cracking as she read from her opening statement. 

Kavanaugh strenuously denied the charge.

Graham used the Democrats' call for a delay in the proceedings to again lay into the opposition. 

“If you wanted an FBI investigation, you could have come to us,” he said speaking to Democrats on the committee.

"What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open, and hope you win in 2020. You’ve said that, not me," Graham said, shouting to Democrats.

Turning back to Kavanaugh, Graham continued, "You’ve got nothing to apologize for. When you see (current Supreme Court justices) Sotomayor and Kagan, tell them Lindsey says hello because I would never do to them what they've done to you."

Graham's comments drew praise from the right and condemnation from the left, who criticized his display as theatrics heading toward the 2020 election.

At one point, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., read a line from Graham's 2016 self-published memoir in which Graham wrote about the importance of believing victims of sexual assault. 

"I learned how much unexpected courage from a deep and hidden place it takes for a rape victim or sexually abused child to testify against their assailants," Blumenthal said, delivering a direct phrase from the book.

The administration, meanwhile, praised Graham's Kavanaugh defense of President Donald Trump's nominee.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted that Graham "has more decency and courage than every Democrat member of the committee combined. God bless him."

The display of anger came 11 days after Graham began defending Kavanaugh on a wide front after news broke that Ford was accusing Kavanaugh of forcing himself on top of her, groping her and attempting to rape her. 

Ford's testimony related painful details of her attack and the noises she heard from Kavanaugh and another male she said was in the room, Mark Judge.

"Laughter — the uproarious laughter between the two," Ford said. "They were laughing with each other. ... I was underneath one of them while the two laughed."

Back in South Carolina, political and social watchers who have followed Graham's career and his pro-Kavanaugh stances during the #MeToo era said the senator could pay for his staunch belief in the court candidate over a woman testifying under oath about her experiences.

Claire Wofford, a political science professor at the College of Charleston whose research centers on the Supreme Court and gender, said Graham's behavior in the hearings would make an impact on women in South Carolina.

"He needs to be careful about women who are going to listen to this story and recognize themselves in it,” she said.

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After watching Graham unleash a partisan tempest, Wofford said it was unlike anything she had ever seen.

“He was clearly talking to an audience of one,” Wofford said. “What they — Graham and Kavanaugh — want to make sure is that Trump hears them fight back.”

But in South Carolina, where women account for 52 percent of registered voters as of Sep. 21, how is Graham’s fight going to be received among Republican women?

S.C. Republican National Committeewoman Cindy Costa said the best thing Graham could do was to keep sticking to his talking points, and keep pointing a finger at Democrats, like U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein of California, who first learned of the sexual assault allegations in a July letter Ford wrote to her.

"I think the majority of women will come down on Brett Kavanaugh's side," Costa said. "This has hurt women who have a real sexual assault case. I hope this comes back to smack the Democrats like it ought to."

Asked if she personally believed Ford, Costa said she thinks "something happened, but I don't think it was Judge Kavanaugh. I think she's mistaken."

The Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network (WREN), a health, education and economic advocacy group based in Columbia, worries the hearing could be a step backward for women. 

"We're still having these conversations that are victim-blaming," the group's spokeswoman Eme Crawford said. "It is hard for me to imagine this, that people don't understand why survivors don't come forward, why it might take them a little while to come forward. Because the fact is, women often aren't believed."

Drucilla Barker, professor of anthropology and women's and gender studies at the University of South Carolina, said Thursday's hearings could energize a new wave of professional women to speak out against injustice, just as they did following the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings in 1991. 

"This shows that the battle really isn't over," she said of the day's events. 

The S.C. Carolina Democratic Party also chimed in late Thursday.

"Lindsey Graham has twisted himself into a pretzel trying to defend Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — a man who has been accused of sexual assault and harassment," their statement said.

"Lindsey declared that Kavanaugh was a victim, threw a tantrum during a Senate hearing, and continues to stand in the way of a real investigation into what happened," it added.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Political Reporter

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.