What could possibly be more ulcer-inducing than being a member of the endlessly repudiated and humiliated Republican establishment this election cycle? Easy: being a female member of said establishment.
It’s unsettling enough that Donald Trump has emerged as the GOP standard bearer despite his lack of qualifications, his congenital dishonesty, and his vaguely fascist disposition. On top of all that, the guy is a misogynist. And while a chunk of American men may delight in The Donald’s chest-thumping, stubby-fingered machismo, women remain less charmed. The most recent CBS/New York Times poll shows Trump with a 60 percent unfavorability rating among the ladies. The latest Fox News poll puts it at 63 percent.
This is, needless to say, a worrisome development for many of the women activists, strategists, and fundraisers who have spent the past few years laboring to improve the GOP’s outreach to and standing with female voters. How best to manage the Donald—Ignore him? Attack him? Work quietly to keep him from tanking down-ballot candidates?—has become a source of much discussion, and growing tension, among the party’s women power players.
Perhaps no one has gone after Trump harder than Katie Packer, Mitt Romney’s 2012 deputy campaign manager and the co-founder of Burning Glass Consulting, a firm aimed at shedding the GOP’s rep as the party of angry old white men. A proud #NeverTrump-er, Packer launched the anti-Trump Our Principles PAC back in January. Even now, her Twitter feed is awash in Trump-smacking commentary. When the Donald says something sexist or stupid, Packer is near the front of the line to kick him for it.
“My best hope is that the entire Republican Party is not tainted by his sexist, racist, irresponsible rhetoric,” Packer emailed me. “I hope that independent women and soft R and D women will see that there are Republicans who share their concerns about the dangers of Donald Trump.”
But Packer’s full-frontal assault is rubbing some other female GOP players the wrong way. Publicly attacking Trump, they contend, only feeds the narrative of a party in turmoil. “I think the more productive way to go about things is to be more behind the scenes and help with Senate and House races and help develop the strategies to win really tricky races that we knew were going to be tricky in the first place. Be a leader that way,” said a key party strategist. “We have a great opportunity as Republican women strategists to really have a voice in our party and this campaign.”
But Packer isn’t buying the whole unity argument. “The party is divided. They aren't fooling anyone,” she said of her critics. “I don't support Donald Trump. And I don't feel I'm obligated to do so.” As for the fate of other Republican candidates, she said: “I will do everything I can to help down ballot candidates avoid being tainted by Trump. But I don't feel any obligation to support a candidate for president who I think is so dangerous for the country and the party.”
The Republican strategist Sarah Flores agrees—sort of. “I’m not in favor of the idea that, if you think this guy isn’t good for the party you should then go try to help him be better,” said Flores, who served as deputy campaign manager for Carly Fiorina’s presidential run. “Either he’s bad, he’s dangerous, or he’s not. There are more important things than winning and worse things than losing.”
That said, Flores doesn’t advocate publicly going to war with Trump. Indeed, she sees a benefit in strategists working to help down-ballot Republicans “navigate” this oh-so-tricky cycle, figuring out “how not to alienate Trump voters” even as they avoid getting too close to a man who Flores predicts will be “a devastatingly bad” general election candidate. Not that she expects Hillary to be any better. “When you have two candidates with such high negatives,” she posits, “there’s a chance that, come November, it’s going to be a wash.”
Maybe. But some women in the GOP establishment are concerned about the long-term damage Trump could do to the party if he manages to win. “Oh my God, we’re set back decades!” lamented one veteran operative, who requested anonymity to avoid upsetting clients and colleagues. “This has really, really pushed us back, so much so that I hear major women donors saying, ‘I’d rather lose with Trump, because if he does get elected as a Republican, it will do so much damage that all these things we’ve been doing over the past year will go back to nothing. We’re going to start from the beginning.’ ”
“A lot of them just don’t want him to win, especially with the way be talks about women,” said the fundraiser Lisa Spies, a veteran of Romney 2012 and Jeb! 2016. “He objectifies them: He talks about their body parts, he says ‘This woman’s ugly,’ or ‘She’s a pig,’ Or ‘I hate her.’”
Spies sees a lot of top donors now thinking in terms of damage control. “I don’t think people are over it,” she says of Trump’s nomination. “They’re more like, ‘What can we do? What are our options?’ ”
One option Republican women seem to agree on is the need to focus on down-ballot races. “A lot of people who normally are very involved in presidential politics are really focused on helping Republicans keep control of Congress,” said Sue Zoldak, the vice chair of communications for RightNOW Women PAC. For Zoldak and RightNOW Women, this means helping more Republican gals win and hold office. Pointing to lawmakers like Senator Kelly Ayotte and Representatives Elise Stefanik and Barbara Comstock, Zoldak asserts, “It’s more important than ever for these women to win these races, just to give that voice to other Republican women and to the conservative movement in general.”
As Zoldak observes, “It’s important for people to look at the big picture. Republican leadership does not just boil down to the White House.” By helping women get elected to other federal and state offices, it helps voters “see that this party is not just Mitt Romney or Donald Trump.”
Of course, as Trump slashes and burns his way through this cycle, there are more than a few gals in the GOP establishment feeling nostalgic for Mitt and his “binders full of women.” He may have been awkward and occasionally out of touch. But at least he never bragged about the size of his … hands on national television.