(CNN)More than a day after the child sexual assault allegations against California Congressman Tony Cardenas became public, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said she was withholding judgment on Cardenas until a House Ethics Committee investigation is complete.
Democrats take cautious approach on sexual assault allegations against California congressman
A broad array of other Democratic officials in California and in Washington have declined to comment publicly.
The cautious response to a sitting congressman accused of assaulting a then-16-year-old girl more than 10 years ago is striking after a year in which the #MeToo movement and the Roy Moore scandal dominated the headlines. Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota resigned in December after being accused of lesser offenses and after several of his Senate colleagues called on him to do so.
But it underscored both the complexity of the case — Cardenas says the allegations are "categorically, 100% false" — and the political bind that Democrats are facing in California in the 2018 midterm elections.
With control of the House of Representatives at stake, Democrats are on offense as they try to capture the seven seats held by Republicans in districts won by Hillary Clinton. They can't afford to lose a single seat -- much less a rock-solid Democratic district like that of Cardenas, who was re-elected to his third term in the San Fernando Valley with 75% of the vote.
Surging Democratic enthusiasm has created a crowded field of candidates in several key races, meaning that California's top-two primary system -- where the top two vote getters from any party in the June 5 primary will advance to the November ballot — has complicated that effort.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the state party and Pelosi have focused most intently on making sure that the fierce competition among Democrats in those districts doesn't result in a scenario where the party gets boxed out — with no Democrat advancing to the ballot in November.
For now, Democrats appear to be hedging their bets on whether Cardenas can fight the allegations and survive. A few days before absentee ballots drop in California, neither the DCCC nor the California Democratic Party had a comment on the accusations or whether the party could bear the risk as Cardenas pursues re-election while fighting serious allegations.
Only a handful of local Democrats from Los Angeles County weighed in on the matter Friday. Among them was Cardenas' only Democratic opponent, retired military officer Joe Shammas, who called on his opponent to resign for the good of the party.
Cardenas has vehemently denied the claims outlined in the civil suit filed April 27 by attorney Lisa Bloom on behalf of an unnamed accuser, a 26-year-old woman who is alleging that he drugged and sexually assaulted her when she was 16, and who said she came forward because she was inspired by the #MeToo movement.
The suit did not reveal the identity of the accuser or alleged assailant, but Cardenas went public to strenuously deny the allegation through his attorney Patricia Glaser, who said the "claims against the Congressman are absolutely false and are utterly inconsistent with who he is—in the workplace, in the community, and at home."
The woman alleges that Cardenas gave her water with an unusual taste while they were playing golf in 2007, and that he then sexually assaulted her while driving her to the emergency room. The woman said she was stunned and pretended to be asleep because she feared what would happen if he knew she was awake.
In a brief conversation Friday, Glaser said she had no further comment about the allegatio