With 'slut' comments, Lewis' radio career flares up again

Jason Lewis town hall
U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis speaks to the audience at a town hall forum at Rosehenge Hall in Rosemount, Minn., on Saturday, May 19, 2018.
Euan Kerr | MPR News File

The nation's Republican congressional campaign is sticking with Minnesota Rep. Jason Lewis after comments surfaced from a 2012 radio program where he wondered aloud, "Can we call anybody a slut?"

Lewis tried on Thursday to dismiss concerns about the newly surfaced audio of the former talk radio host, saying his past career had been fully litigated in his 2016 election.

Lewis spent two decades as a conservative radio host before running for Congress, leveraging his popularity as "Mr. Right" to a narrow win in Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District even as Democrats tried to use a history of controversial remarks against him. But Lewis's comments about women while filling in for Rush Limbaugh in 2012 hadn't previously been publicized until they were first reported by CNN Wednesday.

While discussing Limbaugh calling a women's rights activist a slut, Lewis bemoaned that society no longer "required modesty from women."

"Now, are we beyond those days where a woman can behave as a slut, but you can't call her a slut?" he said.

While Lewis says the comments were part of the public debate during his 2016 campaign, there has been a massive increase in awareness and activism against gender bias and sexually suggestive treatment of women since the onset of the #MeToo movement last year.

State and national Democratic groups pounced on the remark, the latest sign that Lewis's bid for re-election in the swing district will be one of the most competitive congressional races in the country.

Lewis and his campaign have repeatedly dismissed the comments as old news. In an interview with WCCO Radio Thursday, Lewis defended his right to free speech, said he was paid to be provocative and called publicizing the comments a "campaign smear."

Jesse Hunt, national communication director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the group which helps finance and run GOP House campaigns answered "yes" to an email inquiry from The Associated Press as to whether the group would continue to back Lewis.

Asked what his daughters would think about his remarks on women, he responded he would tell them: "I would prefer you don't behave in a way that people look down upon you."

Angie Craig, who narrowly lost to Lewis in 2016 and is running again this year, called it "deeply disappointing."

"Our leaders are role models for our kids and must hold themselves to that standard," she wrote on Twitter.

It's not Lewis's first brush with backlash to his career as a conservative commentator. His on-air comments were widely circulated during his first campaign, including a remark that young women were "non-thinking" for their passion for contraceptive access.

He also wrote a passage in his 2011 book, "Power Divided is Power Checked," suggesting it wasn't the federal government's role to ban slavery.

"If you don't want to own a slave, don't. But don't tell other people they can't," he wrote.

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