Earlier this month, Michigan GOP leaders told Wendy Day, the state party’s grassroots vice-chair, that she had to endorse Donald Trump or resign. Day, a former staffer for Ted Cruz, refused to do either. In a letter to the state Republican chairwoman, she wrote, “It is important for our party to represent all of the voices in our party, not just the loudest.” On Oct. 17—10 days after the release of the 2005 Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about groping women—the chairwoman announced Day’s removal from the post she’d been elected to at a state convention last year.
Watching her party, as well as many social conservative leaders, line up behind Trump has been a sobering experience for Day. A 44-year-old mother of four, she says she became a conservative in the first place partly because of a commitment to traditional morality. Day comes from what she calls a “broken home”; as a young person, she says, “I could not see the value of solutions coming from the family or the community.” In college, she was a liberal, pro-choice feminist Democrat. But becoming a Christian in her late 20s “changed my worldview,” she says. Day became particularly wary of what she saw as government efforts to supplant churches and communities as guarantors of social welfare. She cares about strong family and neighborhood bonds, and became convinced that big government erodes them.
Day first got involved in politics in 2004, working for the re-election of George W. Bush. She was a founding member of the Michigan Tea Party. She understands the argument that, for people on the right, Trump is the lesser of two evils, but she is sickened by conservative leaders such as Jerry Falwell Jr. and Tony Perkins, who insist on minimizing his moral failings. “I’m disappointed in some of what had been stalwart leaders in the Christian conservative movement,” she says. “That’s been exposed as having some serious rot in it.”
Day remains extremely conservative, and is definitely not voting for Hillary Clinton. Still, her sense of betrayal is leading her to cast off certain political habits of mind. Until very recently, she was a “Fox News junkie,” she says. “I used to go to Drudge Report twice a day, and I used to pay attention to Breitbart. I used to have a ton of Sean Hannity books in my house, and Laura Ingraham.” But now, “that’s all been torn down. I don’t have any books in my house by those people anymore. Not that I think they’re the enemy—I don’t. I just have realized that I created an echo chamber for myself, and it was time to not do that anymore.”
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If current polling is correct, women are poised to reject the Republican ticket en masse. A recent CBS News survey of battleground states found that Hillary Clinton was leading among women by 15 points. Seventy-three percent of female voters say Trump doesn’t respect women. As FiveThirtyEight reported, female Republican politicians have unendorsed Trump at twice the rate of men; as of Oct. 11, while women accusing Trump of sexual assault and misconduct continued to come forward, 42 percent of Republican women in Congress and serving as governors had unendorsed Trump, compared to just 17 percent of men. If Trump loses, it will be because women have deemed him intolerable.
“I am a mom and an American first, and I cannot and will not support a candidate who brags about degrading and assaulting women,” New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte said on Oct. 8. Ayotte’s move was partly a matter of political survival; her Democratic opponent, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, has run ads tying Ayotte to Trump, and there’s evidence that they’re working. A recent WMUR Granite State poll shows that men favor Ayotte by 7 points, but women back Hassan by 23 points. Besides giving Hillary Clinton the White House, women’s revulsion to Trump could tip the Senate to Democrats.
We don’t yet know what the massive gender gap across the 2016 electoral landscape means for the future of the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Some Trump-averse Republican women surely see the candidate as an anomaly, and will return to the GOP fold if Republicans nominate a normal candidate in the next election. But it’s easy to find Republican women who feel that the party they’ve been loyal to has been disloyal to them, and who say they won’t easily forget it.
“[I]t won’t be just Trump that drives me from this party. I’m disgusted with the male leaders of the Republican party,” Texas right-wing activist Brittany Pounders wrote on Oct. 18. “They may not be sexual predators; they may not be sexist or misogynist—but they are clearly okay with others in our party who are.” On Oct. 21, Nancy French, a conservative who has co-authored books with Sarah Palin and Bristol Palin, wrote in the Washington Post about her own childhood history of sexual assault; her essay implied that the GOP itself has become a sort of sleazy predator in the age of Trump. “My party—which should’ve been a place of a certain set of values—now shelters an abuser,” she writes. “I’m thinking of this when the GOP presses against me and asks me to close my eyes just one more time.”
Trump is unique in his ability to repel the most conservative of women as well as the most liberal. Liberals sneered at Paul Ryan when, in response to Trump’s now-infamous Access Hollywood tape, he said, “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.” In response, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who worked in the State Department under Hillary Clinton, tweeted, “No. Women are to be treated as equals. Full stop. #nopedestals.” But some socially conservative women like pedestals. For them, the deal implicit in an embrace of traditional gender norms is that instead of equality, they get protection. Trump offers neither. “We hear them talking a lot about being our defenders and protectors,” Julie Roys, a conservative Christian writer and radio host in Illinois, says of the Trump-supporting men in her movement. “Well, OK, when someone insults us so blatantly, why are you defending him instead of defending us?”
For Roys, the sense of abandonment is intensely personal. Speaking of old-guard leaders like Tony Perkins, Ralph Reed, and James Dobson, she says, “It’s hard for me to say anything against some of these men because I love them. Some of them are friends of mine.” But that just makes her sense of disappointment deeper. “I’m somebody who has defended the religious right for years and years,” she says. “For a lot of us, we don’t see a lot of misogyny per se in the religious right, because that wasn’t our fathers, that wasn’t our pastors, that wasn’t a lot of the men we came in contact with. But is it there? Probably.”
This sense of disillusionment isn’t limited to religious conservatives. It’s also acute among young, more socially moderate Republican women, and is likely to shape their political identity for years to come. On the night of the last presidential debate, about 30 mostly millennial Republicans gathered at Hawthorne, a Washington, D.C. restaurant and bar, for the Republican Women for Hillary debate watch party. Among them was Camden Stuebe, 26, a former assistant to the CFO at the Republican National Committee. Last year, Stuebe traveled to one of Hillary Clinton’s early rallies in New York to help Republicans campaign against her. She says she still has a “Stop Hillary” T-shirt in her bedroom, alongside all her new pro-Hillary buttons.
“To switch from actively anti-Hillary to supporting Hillary Clinton has been an interesting 360 and an interesting experiment in what it means to split from a party,” says Stuebe, who describes herself as a small-government libertarian. She’s still grappling with what her relationship to the GOP might be in the future. Does she feel betrayed by the men in her party who support Trump? “Absolutely. I think it’s embarrassing not only to the Republican Party but to the electoral system in America that we were unable to mount a candidate equally qualified to be president as Hillary is.”
Toward the end of the debate, as Trump droned on about foreign policy, another woman at the Hawthorne party, Sara McAlpin, turned to me and asked, “Doesn’t this just hurt your soul?” When the debate ended, she looked at Clinton on screen and said, “She literally has the smile on her face of every woman that’s been talked over by a man who has no idea what he’s doing.” Impressed as she was by Clinton, McAlpin, who’s 28, wasn’t completely sure she was voting for her; she’d toyed with writing in the name of anti-Trump Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse. Still, casting a protest vote is only an option for her because she lives in solid blue D.C. “You have to make sure that Donald Trump is not president,” she says. “If that means Hillary is president, that’s fine.”
Culturally, McAlpin seems about as Republican as they come. “I learned to shoot when I was 7,” she tells me proudly. She’d been in a sorority at Florida Southern College; in D.C., where she moved for graduate school, she’d interned for Republican congressmen and worked for a right-leaning digital strategy firm. But three months ago, in despair over the direction of the Trump-era GOP, McAlpin went to work for a flower-delivery startup. “I’m so tired of politics, and I felt totally abandoned by my party,” she says.
McAlpin hates the way most Republicans fell in lockstep behind Trump after he cinched the nomination, and was especially heartbroken to see Paul Ryan, puppy-eyed icon to her generation of beltway conservatives, support him. “I was so disappointed, because I had fangirled over Paul Ryan, obviously,” she says. “And it was just disheartening to see the leaders of the party fall so quickly.” She isn’t sure if she can ever be an enthusiastic Republican again. “As Evan McMullin recently said, there isn’t that much of a future for the Republican party,” she says, citing the former CIA agent who is making an independent bid for the presidency. “There needs to be a new party. This is a dumpster fire, and I don’t how to recover from this. I don’t know how anyone will recover from this.”
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Indeed, if the Republican Party cannot win back the women it has lost, it will not recover. “This is an extremely important turning point,” says Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster and co-author, with Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, of the 2005 book What Women Really Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live. Since 2008, Lake says, the Republican Party has been focusing on “groups of women that they could win: older women, white women, married women.” The idea, she says, is that “if you are constrained among people of color, then go get white women. It was never expressed that explicitly, but that’s the compensatory strategy. Trump has blown to smithereens that strategy.”
Consider the recommendations issued by the Republican National Committee after the 2012 election, in a document known as the “Republican autopsy.”
Communicating, organizing, and winning the women’s vote should be part of all activities that the RNC undertakes. Women are not a “coalition.” They represent more than half the voting population in the country, and our inability to win their votes is losing us elections. While the Co-Chair of the RNC should continue, as has been the case, to lead the effort to create and implement programs to connect with female voters and help female candidates, this effort should not be restricted to the Co-Chair’s office. It should be a mandate for all relevant departments in the building.
Even now, some Republicans are explicitly trying to appeal to the distaff electorate. Lake points to an ad by Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson titled “Diapers,” featuring Johnson’s wife and two daughters lamenting how “vicious” politics have become while Johnson himself changes his grandson’s diaper. (The boy pees on him, but the senator is unfazed.) One of his daughters says, “Just like dad helps with the kids … ” and the other finishes her sentence: “ … he’s exactly the guy we need to clean up the mess in Washington.”
This family-friendly message has to compete with Trump’s naked machismo. “The Trump candidacy is a huge setback for this long-term strategy that they were engaged in,” Lake says. All over the country, Democratic congressional candidates are running ads slamming their opponents for sticking with Trump after all the revelations of his misogyny. If it works, Lake believes Democrats have an opportunity “to seize this gap for a long time, so it’s not just going to be a Trump phenomenon.”
Whether Democrats are able to press their advantage depends in part on how long Republican women stay demoralized. Women aren’t just crucial voters, after all; they’re also often the conservative movement’s foot soldiers. “There is no doubt that women are among the Tea Party’s most active movers and shakers at all levels,” the political scientist Melissa Deckman wrote in her recent book Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Leaders, and the Changing Face of the American Right. We’ll soon find out if these women are willing to keep working to elect Republicans.
Day, for one, isn’t sure she’ll return to politics. “I’m considering going and being an Uber driver,” she says. “I don’t know what comes next. No matter who wins the election, there’s going to be a lot of healing to be done.”