This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.com
Facing the increasingly real prospect of a Donald Trump nomination, the Republican Party is searching for ways to salvage whatever support it has among women voters, particularly as it prepares to compete against a Democratic opponent vying to become the nation’s first female president.
As Trump moves closer to becoming the GOP standard-bearer — a win in Indiana Tuesday night would accelerate that progression — he has also drawn more red flags when it comes to women’s vote in the general election. Trump repeatedly attacked Hillary Clinton for playing the “woman card,” arguing she would not receive more than 5 percent support if she were a man. In Indianapolis last week, he touted the endorsement of former boxing champ Mike Tyson, who, opponents were quick to point out, served a three-year prison sentence for rape.
This week, Republicans saw a preview of how Trump’s well-documented controversies regarding women could haunt their candidates down the ballot. The U.S. Senate campaign of Arkansas Democrat Conner Eldridge released a two-minute Web video called “Harassment,” which tied GOP incumbent John Boozman to Trump’s most incendiary statements about women, including the phrases “fat, ugly face of hers” and “a person who is flat-chested is very hard to be a 10.”
Trump’s controversies haven’t hurt him in the Republican primary — indeed, he has expanded his support overall. But as the contest starts to shift to the general election, in which women voters make up over half the electorate, GOP strategists fear Trump’s 70 percent disapproval rating among women can’t be reversed and could compromise congressional and local candidates.
Instead, Republicans are already thinking about ways to work around him when it comes to courting women voters. This includes getting prominent female Republicans to act as alternative faces for the party, and encouraging candidates, particularly women, to actively and publicly draw contrasts between themselves and Trump, and to focus on local accomplishments. Such groups as the Republican State Leadership Committee are working to recruit female candidates for down-ballot races.
Congressional Republicans, who control both the House and the Senate, might also be wise to develop and promote legislation aimed at economic issues that would directly affect women and draw them to the polls. Facing tough re-election battles in 2014, Senate Democrats put forth bills aimed to drive turnout, addressing issues such as pay equity and increasing the minimum wage. The pro-Republican climate, however, was too strong and Democrats lost seats and, in turn, their hold on the upper chamber.
Now, Republicans could be at risk of losing the Senate if Trump’s negative numbers hold. Republican officials have identified the need to broaden the party’s appeal among women voters to win the White House and have aimed to shrink the gap to single digits. A recent NBC poll found 52 percent of women voters would choose a Democratic candidate while 36 percent would choose a Republican.
In general, women tend to vote Democratic while men tend to vote Republican. Mitt Romney and the GOP had trouble with the gender gap in the 2012 race, but even then, Romney received 44 percent of the female vote to President Obama’s 55 percent — and still lost the general election.
“The most significant thing the party can do is not nominate Trump and send a very strong message that as a party, we reject somebody who uses very sexist and misogynistic rhetoric,” says Katie Packer, a former deputy campaign manager for Romney’s presidential bid and currently the chairwoman of the anti-Trump group Our Principles PAC. “Should he become the nominee, it’s going to be important for our party’s leaders to hold him at arm’s length,” Packer says. “I don't believe there is anything Donald Trump can do to fix that problem [among women]. It’s so baked into the cake.”
GOP strategists acknowledge the troubles Republican candidates will face with various constituencies if Trump is at the top of the ticket, and the difficulty they’ll have distancing themselves from the standard-bearer in a general election in which the presidential candidate typically drives turnout. But they also believe down-ballot GOP candidates this cycle can be successful in drawing contrasts because Trump is unconventional. “Trump, in a lot of ways, is a bigger brand than the Republican Party, so I think there’s an ability to say, ‘I'm not a Trump Republican,’” says Packer.
Our Principles PAC aired an ad in March featuring women reciting controversial statements Trump has made about women. The spot rallied the anti-Trump forces and created a new sense of urgency to stop him. But the billionaire businessman has continued to win states and leads the field in delegates. Democrats could run similar ads in the general election.
Trump shows no signs of wanting to change, as he promotes the notion that he leads his Republican rivals among women. Exit polls from primaries last week in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Maryland showed Trump winning more women than Ted Cruz or John Kasich in his decisive victories in those states. But he does better among men than he does among women.
Democrats have already seized on the Our Principles PAC ad and all of the recent polling. Clinton began fundraising off Trump’s “woman card” comment, collecting $2.5 million in the past week, the campaign announced. The likely Democratic nominee has worn the comments as a badge of honor, promoting the tagline “Deal me in!”
“At this rate, he’s headed for a record-shattering gender gap in November if he is the Republican nominee,” wrote EMILY’s List Communications Director Marcy Stech.
The Trump campaign has doubled down on the candidate’s comments about Clinton’s gender, and believes they underscore what the campaign sees as her only calling card in a presidential race. “The person playing the woman card is Hillary, not Donald Trump,” adviser Sarah Huckabee Sanders told ABC’s “This Week.” “Hillary doesn’t have a strong record to run on.”
Some Republicans believe Trump might be able to use that strategy to make inroads with women. “It was more of a set-up for disqualifying her on everything else,” said Susan Del Percio, a New York-based GOP strategist, adding that Trump would be wise to challenge Clinton on national security issues to appeal to women voters.
Del Percio says it will be up to Trump to dig himself out of the hole he’s created when it comes to various groups of women. But Republican candidates down the ballot can help themselves by openly disavowing his past comments. “If you're Kelly Ayotte or Rob Portman, you can buy into the populist argument to an extent, but you can also really say that Donald Trump is far from holding Republican values,” she said, referring to the senators from New Hampshire and Ohio, respectively, who are up for re-election in battleground states.
In another climate, Ayotte would be among prominent Republican women serving as alternatives to Trump in order to help vulnerable party members. House members including Barbara Comstock and Elise Stefanik would play similar roles. But Trump’s candidacy will have them campaigning for their own political lives, strategists say.
Republicans point to leaders such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, and House GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers as powerful faces of the party this election cycle who could help appeal to constituencies Trump’s candidacy might alienate.
Strategists also point to Trump’s daughter Ivanka as an effective surrogate for him, particularly among women. During a recently televised town-hall gathering, she spoke about ways in which her father encouraged women in business.
Carly Fiorina, a former presidential candidate, might also be an effective surrogate, particularly in making the case to women against Clinton. Cruz named Fiorina as his running mate but faces long odds for the nomination. Trump’s sinking poll numbers among women could push the current front-runner to choose a female vice presidential nominee.
Republicans acknowledge that a female running mate won’t solve the problem. And candidates running on the ticket in 2016 could be left to fend for themselves.
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