Women Exit the Party of Trump

After laboring for years to close the gender gap, GOP strategists are suddenly facing a gender chasm.

Women wearing pink pussy protest hats look over the Women's March on Washington, following the inauguration of President Donald Trump, in Washington, D.C. on January 21, 2017.  (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

It turns out those pink kitty-cat hats weren’t just for show after all.

Among its many electrifying aspects, the early Trump era has had a politically galvanizing effect on women. They are organizing in the streets and on social media, running for office in record numbers, training to enter future races, and volunteering on campaigns. And on November 7, they flocked to the polls to officially have their voices heard.

What they had to say more or less boiled down to: Things around here have got to change. Now. Which has many folks in the Republican Party reaching for the Xanax.

By now, you’ve likely heard some of the Election Day stats and stories. In Virginia, women went from holding 17 seats in the House of Delegates to holding 27. Winners include Danica Roem, who became the state’s first transgender delegate-elect by beating an incumbent who bragged of being the state’s “chief homophobe.” In the gubernatorial contest, women favored Democrat Ralph Northam by 22 points—5 points more than Hillary Clinton’s margin among them last fall. Particularly concerning for Republicans: Fifty-eight percent of white college-educated women went for Northam vs. only 50 percent for Hillary.

Among other spotlighted wins, Seattle chose its first woman mayor since 1926. Manchester, New Hampshire, and Provo, Utah, elected their first female mayors ever, as did tiny Milledgeville, Georgia. In New Jersey, Ashley Bennett, a first-time candidate, won a spot on the Atlantic County legislative board by unseating a guy who had irked her with his sexist Facebook posting about the January Women’s March. (Mock the pink hats at your peril, gentlemen.) The hot storyline out of this first election of the Trump administration: “Revenge of the Fired-Up Woman.”

Although, to be more precise, it was “Revenge of the Fired-Up Democratic Woman.”

Whether you’re talking candidates, activists, or voters, the action among the ladies is on the blue side of the electoral divide, observed Kelly Dittmar, a scholar with the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It’s pretty clear the energy is partisan,” she told me.

As one data point, Dittmar points to the estimated number of gals running for House seats next year. (The official count won’t be available until after all filing deadlines have passed.) There are currently 354 women in the mix: 291 Democrats and 63 Republicans. Now compare those numbers to this point in last year’s cycle, said Dittmar, when there were 121 Democratic women and 60 Republicans running.

It doesn’t take a math whiz to chart the enthusiasm gap.

The situation, unsurprisingly, has many Republicans stressed out—even depressed. This is especially true among the women strategists, activists, and other leaders who’ve been laboring to address their party’s gender gap. In recent years, the GOP has struggled to combat its image as a pack of grumpy old white guys. Trump, to put it gently, has not been helpful in that regard. Worse still, the overheated, culture-warring nature of Trumpism has disrupted some of the most common avenues Republicans had been using to reach women. And worst of all: Not even the party players who focus on this issue seem to have any sense of where to go from here.

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No one is suggesting that Trump is wholly to blame for his party’s lady problems.

The GOP’s relationship with women is “always challenging,” admitted former Representative Mary Bono. While the Democratic Party “takes women for granted,” said Bono, her party “doesn’t understand them.”

Julie Conway, executive director of the women-focused VIEW PAC, noted of her party’s efforts to engage women: “It wasn’t good before, and it’s not good now.”

Talking with Republicans in recent years about their outreach to women, I’ve often heard two separate but related messages about how the party approaches gender differently than the opposition.

“This is one of the main differences between the left and the right: We don’t see every issue as being a ‘man’s issue,’ or a ‘woman’s issue.’ It’s not a men-against-women, us-against- them mentality,” said Sue Zoldak, the head of communications for RightNOW Women PAC. “I don’t understand the idea that something is a ‘women’s issue.’ I don’t comprehend that as a statement.”

Similarly, Zoldak stressed that Republican women won’t support a candidate because of her gender but rather because she is the most qualified person in the race. “It’s not actually smart to tell women that you had to have voted for Hillary Clinton to be a good woman,” said Zoldak.

Dittmar has heard these arguments countless times. “They always go back to ‘women’s issues,’ ” she said. “But that’s a straw-man argument” that doesn’t get at the basic structural challenge with which the GOP has saddled itself. “If the party rejects identity politics writ large,” said Dittmar, “it’s hard to see how they can make a concerted effort to recruit and support women, since that would be antithetical to the philosophy they’re putting forward.” GOP groups aimed at reaching women “organize around identity, but then they say they don’t want to be pigeon-holed by identity,” said Dittmar. “They’re trying to navigate a difficult space.”

Not that any of that matters much at this point, say frustrated Republican women. Policy debates? Opposition to identity politics? Trump has rendered the usual rules of engagement all but useless.

“People aren’t voting about any of the issues really that historically you fight over,” said Conway. “There’s something else going on where there’s definitely a shift in how politics in this country, how things are going to look moving forward. As soon as Trump became president, it changed everything. He threw the traditional playbooks out the window.”

“All issues are women’s issues? That’s a message that, while I agree with it technically, we do find ourselves in a more cultural moment,” said Jean Card, a communications consultant who has been involved with RightNow Women PAC since its birth following the 2012 election. “Things are getting a little bit more cloudy. It’s hard to stick to just policy when people are feeling, generally speaking, like they don’t relate to each other.”

Virginia’s blue wave “was about Trump,” asserted a long-time party strategist, who wished to remain nameless to avoid upsetting clients. “It was not specific issues. It was a visceral reaction to what people perceive of his representing. And it’s not welcoming. It’s not inclusive. It makes people very uncomfortable.”

Likewise, Trump has altered the political climate regarding identity politics broadly and gender more specifically.

In part, the 2016 election represented a backlash to the disruption of traditional gender roles and men’s shifting status in society, said Dittmar. “Now, we’re having women, white women who it sort of woke up, pushing back on this and saying, ‘We won’t be silenced on this.’ It’s the backlash to that backlash.”

Unlike minority women, said Dittmar, pre-Trump, many white women “seemed to have been lulled into complacency and thought, ‘Things are OK for us.’ Now, they’ve had a reaction to see that, ‘Oh my gosh. The country is so much more discriminatory and voters are so much more misogynistic than we ever realized.’ That plays into the energy and has a galvanizing effect.”

“I think more are willing to run even as sacrificial lambs,” said the pollster Anna Greenberg. “You have women running in places no one really thinks they can win.” And as Virginia showed, under certain conditions, those long-shots pay off.

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As if the situation weren’t ticklish enough, the spotlight on sexual harassment is boosting many women’s sense that something needs to change. As Card put it, “We’re having a little bit of a sisterhood moment here.”

“Imagine if we had a female leader, how this could be handled,” said Card (who supported Carly Fiorina for president last cycle). “Instead, we do have the polar opposite. We do have a man who said he could grab women by the pussy. We can’t have presidential leadership on the sexual harassment issue because of that.”

(No question, Trump is a problematic ambassador for the cause. Greenberg recently conducted a national poll asking voters, “Do you believe that Donald Trump sexually harassed women, or not?” Sixty-eight percent said yes.)

None of which guarantees that Republicans will get clobbered in the midterms.

“People have to realize there are just a limited number of open seats in 2018,” said Dittmar. No matter how fired up Democratic women are, the electoral map favors the GOP.

Even so, “the map” argument offers little comfort to the party’s frustrated women, including Katie Packer Beeson, a co-founder of Burning Glass Consulting, which focuses on getting more women into the fold.

What’s going on among women voters “does practically make a difference in that you have an awful lot of swing districts,” said Beeson. “The kind of turnout we saw in Virginia is going to be a problem in a lot of places that people don’t even have on their radar.”

“If you are a Republican, whether male or female, in a district some place in this country where you don’t always get 80 percent of the vote, I would be worried,” said Conway.

“It has to be a wake up call to everybody,” said the party strategist.

“I think what’s going to hurt Republicans with women, and what we saw happen with Virginia, has something to do with sexual harassment and has a lot to do with the white-supremacist issue and has a lot to do with basic tone and tenor of politics these days that people are recoiling at and laying at Trump’s feet,” said Beeson.

Beeson pointed to Steve Bannon’s championing of the alt-right and the allegations of sexual misconduct against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. “There does appear to be some group of Republicans who take the attitude of whatever it takes to elect Republicans and stop Democrats will do, even if that means supporting a pederast or a white supremacist,” fumed Beeson. “Things like that are causing the party to be redefined in way not only igniting the opposition but really depressing parts of our base that used to be reliably Republican—suburban, business-minded Republicans who are in it less for culture wars and more for the tax cuts.”

The damage could well outlast Trump, she asserted. “If there is this sense that Republicans are defined by people like Roy Moore and that the Fox News crowd is willing to tolerate anything in order to win and will not call out bad actors, then the kinds of suburban independent women we’ve needed in the past to win elections will start recoiling more and more at all of it and start galvanizing and coming out to vote.”

Mary Bono put it more simply. “Character used to matter. Now we’re not that party.”

* * *

If the zeitgeist is against them, and the old strategies don’t suit the moment, how then can the GOP avoid further erosion of support from women?

No one seems to have a clue.

“I don’t know what to do,” said the strategist. “I’ve been wracking my brains.”

So the recent elections were a “wake-up call,” said Conway. “Fine. Wake up. But what do you do about it is the bigger question for me. Even if you are keenly aware that your district is in trouble, even if you won by 12 points last time, even if you have done a great job—the writing is on the wall that something bigger is going on. How do you slow the momentum down?”

Not to suggest that anyone is giving up. Big-money donors recently launched a group focused on getting Republican women elected. Efforts (like RightNOW Women’s) to connect female political up-and-comers with mentors and funders will continue apace. And both Zoldak and Conway say they’re seeing a slight uptick in less-traditional women candidates expressing interest in running for office. “One of the few positives of Donald Trump is that people see that you can come from any sort of background,” said Conway. “You don’t have to come up the traditional political ladder.” But none of that directly addresses the core lack of enthusiasm.

“A lot people have said, ‘Well we need to go state by state and convince ‘our type’ of woman to run for office,’” said the strategist. (And by that she means more traditional Republicans rather than Trumpists.) “But, number one, that’s labor intensive. And, number two, I don’t know what it accomplishes.” With the base increasingly in thrall to Trumpism, conventional—much less moderate—Republican candidates have a tough time getting traction in primaries.

For her part, Conway is actually discouraging some women from running for Congress in what currently looks to be an unfriendly 2018. “I’ve said, ‘Keep your powder dry. I don’t want you to have a terrible experience where there’s no mathematical way I can see a path to victory.’” As much as she wants women’s voices in the debate, Conway said, “I don’t want to put her out there to be destroyed and never want to do it again.”

No one I spoke with expressed much hope of making a dent in the gender gap any time soon. “I only have 22 Republican women in the House,” said Conway. Soon she’ll be “down five, with three running for other offices and two retiring. And that doesn’t count if Martha McSally runs for the Senate. Without any other retirements, this puts us down to World War Two numbers—which is horrible.”

More than one woman, in fact, suggested it might be time to start from scratch. “It looks more clear all the time that eventually we’re going to have to have a third party come up in the center,” said Bono.

While this may cheer those looking to punish Trump and his team, in the long run, the imbalance is bad news for more than just Republicans, said Dittmar. “If you care about parities in gender representation, you’re never going to get it just by running more Democratic women,” she pointed out. “There needs to be a reckoning on the Republican side about how to recruit and support more Republican women.”

Which is precisely what’s keeping many Republican women up at night, their dreams haunted by an ocean of fuzzy pink hats.