Democrats Have a Republican-Women Problem

Conservative women in America’s suburbs helped make Joe Biden president. Are they welcome in his party?

A woman with dark hair and a white hair clip watches a screen off-camera
Kendra Halterman watches the election returns at a backyard party in Gilbert, Arizona. (Jesse Rieser)

Updated at 1:13 p.m. ET on November 10, 2020

GILBERT, Ariz.—Just before the polls closed in Arizona on Election Night, a group of Donald Trump supporters staged a noisy rally along one of the Phoenix area’s main thoroughfares. The group was small but mighty: It blasted music and waved signs and urged passing cars to honk if they love the president—there was a lot of honking. But a mile away, Jane Andersen’s neighborhood was an oasis. All was calm on her narrow street at the edge of the desert. The heat had finally broken, and the starless black sky stretched overhead like velvet. Down the block, at the nearby high school, a marching band had begun an evening rehearsal of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” And behind Andersen’s sprawling beige house, a dozen women sat in a circle, engaging in what amounted to a therapy session.

Andersen, a 44-year-old online-university professor, had invited the women, all disillusioned Maricopa County Republicans, to watch the election returns together in her impossibly green backyard. She’d measured six feet between each patio chair and set up two TV screens in front of them, between the in-ground trampoline and the pool. The results were coming in slowly, and they were sort of confusing, so instead of watching, the women talked. They shared why they’d decided to vote for Trump or Evan McMullin or no one at all in 2016. They spoke about their faith—10 of them belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and how shocked they were to discover that so many Church members voted for Donald Trump the first time around. But mostly, they talked about how frustrated and lost they felt—and have felt for an entire presidential term.

“If you pointed to any of us and asked if we’re Republican …” Andersen told me, trailing off with her blond eyebrows furrowed. “It just doesn’t fit anymore.”

For Democratic women, Trump’s presidency has been a catalyst for political activism, triggering a renaissance of American civic engagement. But for some Republican women, the past four years have prompted a different kind of reckoning: They’ve watched as the conservative lawmakers they’ve long admired have betrayed principles once held dear. And they’ve been forced to rethink their hardwired partisan allegiances. “There is a political realignment occurring with [these] voters in the suburbs, where low taxes aren’t enough to keep them in the Republican Party,” Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who studies suburban women, told me. Even in a post-Trump era, it will be difficult—maybe even impossible—for the GOP to regain their trust. But Joe Biden’s presidency will offer another test too: Is there enough room for these women in the Democratic tent?

Jane Andersen (right) invited a dozen women—all disillusioned Maricopa County Republicans—to watch the election returns together in her backyard. (Jesse Rieser)

The brushstrokes of their stories were all the same. The women—all white, all from the greater Phoenix area—had been repelled by Trump in 2016. None of them voted for Hillary Clinton. But over the past four years, as they watched their party fall to Trumpism, their disgust sent them all in the same direction: the Democratic Party.

America’s suburbs have long been bastions of conservatism, and in 2016, suburbanites helped make Trump president of the United States: He defeated Clinton among those voters by about four points. This year, the dynamic has shifted entirely, and suburban women are responsible, favoring Biden in one reputable preelection poll by 23 points.

This suburban shift has been especially clear here in Maricopa County, the 9,000-square-mile of beige housing developments and lush golf courses around Phoenix, which accounts for more than 60 percent of Arizona’s votes. The candidate who wins Maricopa—one of the most populous counties in the nation—nearly always wins Arizona, and no Republican nominee has ever won the White House without Arizona since it became a state in 1912. But the state has become much more hospitable to Democrats since Trump’s election. In the 2018 midterms, which were seen as a repudiation of Trump, especially in the suburbs, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won Maricopa and became the first Democrat to win a Senate race in Arizona in 30 years. Sixteen percent of Republican women in Maricopa broke with their party to vote for Sinema that year, exit polls showed.

Though the state has yet to be called by several major news networks, Biden is currently leading Trump in both Maricopa County and Arizona overall. Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and Democratic Senate candidate, defeated Republican Martha McSally in the state.

Democrats’ progress in Maricopa is due, in part, to demographic changes. Liberal out-of-staters have settled in the county. The Latino community is growing—it now constitutes about one-quarter of the state’s eligible voters—and progressive groups such as Living United for Change in Arizona and Mi Familia Vota have spent years working to register Latino voters and turn them out. But the development that has accelerated Arizona’s move to the left the fastest is the defection of white college graduates from the GOP, local political experts told me.

The president’s vicious attacks on John McCain—before and after the senator’s death last year—may have played a role in that defection. Ahead of last Tuesday’s election, the endorsement of Biden from Cindy McCain, John McCain’s wife, was expected to help encourage hesitant Republicans to cross the aisle. “The Cindy McCains of Arizona” are the ones who will give the state to Biden, Garrett Archer, an Arizona-based data analyst, told me last week. “It’s obvious that that’s where [Trump’s] biggest weakness was.”

Overall, most white Republican women supported Trump. But nationally, “we’ve not seen this amount of defection from the Republican Party in 20 or 30 years,” Christopher Weber, a professor at the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy, told me.

The suburban shift went well beyond Maricopa. Through organizing by activists of color and the leftward tilt of white, college-educated women, Biden was able to capture many of America’s other big suburbs, including Cobb County, Georgia, outside of Atlanta, and the counties surrounding Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Detroit; and Houston.

None of the women at the watch party voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But their disgust with Trump sent them all in the same direction in 2020: the Democratic Party. (Jesse Rieser)

For many of the GOP defectors, it came down to the president’s personality—his flagrant racism and misogyny, his bullying, his insult comedy. “People talk about [voter] enthusiasm, but there should also be a revulsion metric,” said Longwell, who founded the political initiative Republican Voters Against Trump earlier this year. “The important thing with Republican women is just how revolted they are by Donald Trump.”

“My main problem in 2016 was his character,” said 36-year-old Amanda Harless, who was wearing a black mask that said “Be kind” in cursive. “Someone with character doesn’t put kids in cages. Someone with character doesn’t reduce our number of refugees to a historic low or take away health insurance from people in the middle of a pandemic.” While they watched the election returns, some of the women pinpointed the moments during Trump’s first campaign when they realized they couldn’t support him. “I was out with Access Hollywood!” Kendra Halterman, 44, said with a wry laugh. “Mine was when he made fun of the disabled reporter,” said Andersen, who has twin sons with disabilities. “Mine was ‘Mexicans are rapists and criminals,’” 42-year-old Allison Skousen said, shaking her head.

But the women were careful to note that it’s not just Trump’s personality that turns them off. It’s his antipathy toward the issues that feel most urgent to them. That attitude helps make them prime targets for the Democratic Party. These women are conservative, yes: They believe in low taxes, limited government, free trade, and “the responsibility of individuals,” as Andersen put it. But they also crave action on climate change. They want affordable health care for all Americans. They want a humane immigration system. They want policies to promote equality and address police brutality. For many Republican women in America, the starkest example of Trump’s failure has been his administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, his refusal to encourage mask wearing, and his blasé attitude toward the crisis, experts told me. “Women are particularly good at thinking communally,” Rosalyn Cooperman, a political-science professor at the University of Mary Washington who studies women’s political involvement, told me. “They’re thinking about what this means for when their kids are going to go back to school, if they have to work from home, how their jobs and family life have all been upended.”

Some suburban Republican women may well return to the GOP once Trump leaves office in January. After all, people’s political memories are often short. But for many, including most of the women I met in Phoenix, the realignment seems more permanent. They believe that Trump and his acolytes accelerated the transformation of their Grand Old Party into something cruel and extreme, but they don’t think he started that transformation. Their “shift away from the Republican Party was happening already due to the shift in the party” toward Tea Party politics, Kelly Dittmar, the director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told me. Trump’s election just pushed them over the edge.

“I’ve been culturally Republican,” Skousen explained, while we stood over a stone snack table full of Popchips and lime seltzer. She was raised by conservative parents in a very conservative town. (Her father-in-law is a cousin of the late W. Cleon Skousen, a right-wing political activist and conspiracy theorist.) Before 2016, she found the right-wing attacks on Barack Obama “petty and partisan.” She continued to vote Republican, but she grew wary of the creeping xenophobia and hard-line policies within the GOP. After Trump won, she researched for the first time where the Democratic Party stood on the issues, to see if she could find a new home in American politics. “I’ve found that I align a lot more with Democrats than Republicans on things like gun control, immigration, and climate change,” she said.

To win back voters like Skousen, the GOP will have to undergo a complete reimagining—becoming a party of moderation, and reassessing its position on the policies these women care about most. The GOP “is going to have to start thinking about what it means to take health care or the environment seriously,” Longwell said. “A Larry Hogan Republican Party—[a] pragmatic Republican Party that is about limited government—could win people in the suburbs back.” But few political observers, and none of the women I spoke with in Phoenix, expect that the Republican Party will devote itself to reform anytime soon. This election was hardly the rejection of Trumpism that Democrats were hoping for. And with the president outperforming polls in key swing states such as Florida, there’s little incentive for the GOP to initiate a total overhaul.

“At this point, I have a hard time imagining voting for a Republican again,” Skousen said, adding that she won’t support any Republicans who didn’t vote to impeach Trump or who haven’t taken action to curb his destructive tendencies. That doesn’t leave a lot of Republicans.

Some suburban Republican women may well return to the GOP once Trump leaves office in January. But for many, the realignment seems more permanent. (Jesse Rieser)

On its face, this would seem like great news for the Democratic Party: With the help of a broad coalition, Democrats have replaced a historically unpopular Republican president with one of their own; in elections to come, they can count on many Republican women to help keep Democrats in power. But having scores of former Republicans in the Democratic fold is almost certain to lead to bitter conflict on the left.

Since he won the Democratic primary, Biden has tried to forge a healthy partnership with Bernie Sanders–aligned members of his party. He’s accepted their counsel on issues such as climate change, and he’s adopted several progressive policy positions. But all along, leftists have questioned just how genuine his commitment is. That’s why women like Andersen and Skousen scare them: They worry that the addition of anti-Trump Republicans to the Democratic coalition will nudge the former vice president back toward the ideological center, a place where he’s traditionally been most comfortable. They fear that the moderates and former Republicans who helped him win in crucial swing states will be the voters he most wants to appease in office. They worry that he’ll stock his executive branch with Bill Clinton–era Democrats and corporate executives, and fill his Cabinet with Republicans such as former Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Their fears extend to the House and Senate too, where Democrats won or held on to competitive districts and states thanks to moderate voters. “I’m worried,” Waleed Shahid, the communications director for the progressive group Justice Democrats, told me. “Because while Democrats don’t necessarily have to indict Republicans as individuals, they do have to fully indict the ideology at the center of their party: tax cuts for the rich, gutting social programs, and suppressing our multiracial majority.” It’s a tough needle to thread, criticizing a party without condemning its former adherents.

Ex-Republicans won’t simply go along with all of progressives’ goals: The women I met in Phoenix are, by and large, iffy on Medicare for All, concerned about the national debt, and worried about the price tag of free public college. The moderate lawmakers they helped put in office aren’t likely to come around either. “Mark Kelly is gonna be where Susan Collins and Kyrsten Sinema are gonna be” on policy issues facing the Senate, Lanae Erickson, the senior vice president for politics and social policy at the centrist think tank Third Way, told me. “The moderate majority-makers have always been the brakes on what the Congressional Progressive Caucus wants to do. It’s why most of them won their seats again.”

Almost all of the women I met in Phoenix who voted for Biden also voted for Democrats down the ballot, including Kelly. They’ll do it again in two years if Kelly makes a point to work with Republicans. “I see him in the same vein as Senator McCain, just on the left side of the equation,” 37-year-old Christie Black told me. “If he stays independent and works for real change without letting partisanship cloud his judgment, I would absolutely consider voting for him again.”

The Democratic Party will need to weigh the risks of pursuing a progressive agenda if it means losing these voters. Then again, if the Senate is held by Republicans, passing much of that agenda might be impossible anyway. Andersen thinks that’s a good thing: “I hope this split in power will bring out the best in people” as they work toward compromise, she texted me on Wednesday—a genuine comment that would send many progressives spinning.

Fox News called Arizona for Biden around 9:30 p.m. local time last Tuesday—the first and only major TV network to make a call so far, along with the Associated Press—and the women, who had been chattering excitedly over slices of chocolate pie, grew quiet. A huge map popped up on the television, showing an outline of Maricopa County filled in with bright blue, and some of the women squealed. Then the map zoomed out to show Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, and New Mexico all colored the same way—a seamless blue curve of Democratic power.

“If Fox calls it, you know Biden won!” yelled Laura Clement, a 45-year-old ESL teacher from Mesa. She turned to the other women in the circle: “You could’ve never told me five years ago that I’d be sitting here outside rooting for Arizona to turn blue.” This was uncharted territory for most of them—cheering against the team they’d been part of all their life. The mood was light, jubilant, even though the presidential race wouldn’t be called for Biden for another three days. They texted their husbands and sent excited emoji to their teenage kids. But there was a sense of loss in the air too—the kind you feel when you realize you’re not the same person you used to be.

Earlier in the night, I’d asked Andersen how she felt these days—whether she felt stranded somewhere in the wilderness between the two political parties. She hadn’t answered then. But after Arizona was called, she turned to me and the rest of the group. “You asked about the wilderness,” she said. “Well, it’s almost like I’m walking toward a new nation. I’m walking through the wilderness, but I feel okay with that.”

Progressives worry that the addition of anti-Trump Republicans to the Democratic coalition will prevent the party from pursuing its most ambitious goals. (Jesse Rieser)