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Supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 27, 2018.POOL New/Reuters

The last time a Supreme Court confirmation fight centred on issues of sexual comportment, the Republicans rammed through their nominee and then watched helplessly as five Democratic women won Senate seats while 24 women, including 20 newcomers, won House seats. Scholars and commentators, reacting to a historic change in the composition of the U.S. Congress after the 1992 midterm elections, called it the Year of the Woman.

The question this time – with Republicans again trying to jam a controversial nominee onto the highest U.S. court after hearing riveting testimony from a woman with a graduate degree and with detailed accounts of unsettling, unsavoury and socially unacceptable behaviour – is whether 2018 is the year of the woman voter.

For as Senate action on the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court pauses while the FBI conducts a brisk one-week investigation, the bitter, passionate debate over his character continues to dominate U.S. cable stations and dinnertime conversations from coast to coast. And the contours of the midterm congressional elections, now only six weeks away, are beginning to shift dramatically.

‘’This is fuel for the political fire,’’ Donna Brazile, who twice has been chair of the Democratic National Committee, said in an interview. ‘’People who were unaligned and unhitched are being affected – and the effect is being felt especially by women, who may now feel even more strongly that they need to be represented in the halls of Congress.’’

The Clarence Thomas hearings of 1991, which hinged on the testimony of Anita Hill, came 368 days before the next election but the repercussions were dramatic even at that distance. The high-drama twin testimonies of Justice Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, a California research psychologist, came only 41 days before the November election – far more immediate than the earlier example and, unlike the Thomas episode, amid a worldwide furor over sexual assault.

‘’This has engaged women with even more raw emotion and anger than they had before,’’ said Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics, ‘’and it is coming very close to the election.’’

The 11th-hour concession made by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee to postpone the confirmation vote on Justice Kavanaugh until the end of this week may have a substantial political cost to the Republicans, whatever the result of the inquiry. It pushes the final confrontation over the judge’s confirmation a week closer to election day.

‘’Some women will get even more angry than they were before and they will take it out on Republicans in the voting booth,’’ said Stephanie Cutter, who was communications director for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama eight years later. ‘’But there may be some women who feel that if this guy gets on the court, then what’s the point of any political action and what good is their voice?’’

Politics sometimes works in a Newtonian fashion, with every action prompting an equal and opposite reaction, and so it is possible that if the judge is rejected, conservatives will be galvanized.

But hardly anyone from either party disagrees that women, especially in the suburbs, may be the key to the midterm elections that will determine whether the Republicans retain control of the House and Senate.

History never repeats itself exactly and indeed the comparisons to the 1991 confirmation hearings and the 1992 election results may not be apt – but probably because they understate, rather than overstate, the peril to Republicans, particularly those in House races. An unusual, idiosyncratic feature of this year’s contests is that the Republicans are more in danger of losing their majority in the House, where the party holds a fairly comfortable 23-seat majority, than in the Senate, where the GOP has a slim 51-49 advantage.

‘’In 1992, women felt empowered to run at a time when it was more difficult to run for women than it is now,’’ said Kathleen Iannello, a Gettysburg College expert on women in politics. ‘’This time it may be harder to see the exact impact of the Kavanaugh hearings. Women already were mobilized for this election long before Thursday’s televised hearings.’’

One of those women motivated to run by the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1992 was Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. Prof. Ford first broached her accusations against Justice Kavanaugh in a letter to Ms. Feinstein. And as the final confirmation vote draws near, it is two women who may hold the balance. They are Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. It was the two of them, plus the late senator John McCain, who doomed President Donald Trump’s effort to repeal Obamacare in 2017. They are the fulcrum of power again, for women lawmakers, candidates and voters, on the cusp of making history even before this episode, now are even more empowered.

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