A growing number of prominent Republican women are worried that as members of their male-dominated party step up to defend Donald Trump against accusations of sexual assault, they are causing irreparable damage to the GOP’s deteriorating relationship with female voters.
Trump has faced questions throughout his campaign about his crass comments about women, but concern escalated this month following the release of a 2005 video in which Trump boasted that he had sexually assaulted women and subsequent allegations by 11 women that Trump had inappropriately touched or kissed them. A series of mostly male Republicans have come to Trump’s defense — dismissing the accusers as liars and, some worry, further alienating the female voters that the party desperately needs to survive.
“For next-generation professional women, the party is going to have to do something very, very drastic to change the course of where this candidate has taken us,” said Katie Packer, a deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney in 2012. “I think the leaders in our party are going to have to aggressively reject this. Come November 9, they better be prepared to make very strong statements condemning all of Trump’s behavior.”
This division within the Republican Party comes as polls suggest the nation is on the verge of electing its first female president even as misogyny remains a part of American life and culture. Ironically, it is Trump’s candidacy rather than Hillary Clinton’s that has brought sexism to the forefront of political debate.
The controversy also comes as the Republican Party continues to struggle to attract women, who make up a majority of the electorate and who have supported the Democratic presidential candidate in every election going back to 1992. President Obama won women by 11 points in 2012, and several polls show Clinton leading among women by an even bigger margin this year.
A growing number of well-known female Republican strategists and politicians have had it with Trump. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) said earlier this month she “cannot and will not support a candidate for president who brags about degrading and assaulting women.” Former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, whose looks Trump once mocked, said “Donald Trump does not represent me or my party.” And former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice wrote on Facebook earlier this month: “Enough! Donald Trump should not be President.”
The latest flare-up came Tuesday night, when former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R) exploded at Fox News’ Megyn Kelly during an interview, repeatedly shaking his finger at her and accusing her of being “fascinated with sex” because she brought up allegations of sexual assault against Trump. In a scolding tone, Gingrich tried to tell Kelly which words she could or could not use.
Gingrich once had a fascination of his own with Bill Clinton’s sex life, as he was a driving force behind the movement to impeach Clinton following a consensual sexual relationship he had with a young former intern. Clinton became the second president in American history to be impeached by the House, but he was acquitted by the Senate. Voters, meanwhile, punished the Republicans for what they saw as an overreach: The GOP lost five House seats in the 1998 midterm elections, which led to Gingrich’s resignation as speaker.
Trump and his supporters deemed Gingrich’s interview a victory, with the campaign’s director of social media tweeting that Kelly is “not very smart” and telling his followers: “Watch what happens to her after this election is over.”
“Congratulations, Newt, on last night. That was an amazing interview,” Trump said at a ribbon-cutting at his new hotel in Washington on Wednesday. “We don’t play games, Newt, right?”
Two of the women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct piled on. Juanita Broaddrick tweeted: “Beauty is only skin deep. Megyn Kelly is ugly as hell on the inside.” Paula Jones wrote in a tweet that has since been deleted: “Woohoo, he slammed this nasty heifer!”
But many other Republican women have concluded in recent weeks that this is not the party they know.
“Looks like Newt Gingrich just proved my point again,” tweeted Amanda Carpenter, a conservative commentator and former communications director for Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. Carpenter wrote this week in The Washington Post about how her party has left women like her behind by ignoring Trump’s chauvinism that was “well-documented in decades’ worth of publicly available smutty television, radio and print interviews long before he became the nominee.”
“If the GOP has truly convinced itself that openly engaging in sexual assault fantasies is something normal that men do among one another, I have a suggestion. Relocate the Republican National Committee headquarters into a men’s-only locker room,” Carpenter wrote. “Eliminate all pretenses of wanting to let women in.”
Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster, said in an interview that Democrats no longer have to push a “war on women” narrative because it’s playing out on its own thanks to Trump — and comments like those that Gingrich made on Tuesday.
“It’s just one more clueless middle-age-to-older white guy taking to task a woman,” Matthews said. “It’s so unhelpful on every level.”
Nicolle Wallace, former communications chief for George W. Bush who is now a political commentator, tweeted that Republicans are now “engaged in a hot war against women that will end badly” for the party.
“Men like @newtgingrich are a big reason the GOP has lost women,” Packer wrote in another tweet. “Men like him don’t make women like me want to share a ‘tent’ w/them.”
Earlier this week, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager and the first woman to lead a GOP presidential nominee’s campaign, seemed to struggle when asked by CNN’s Dana Bash if she believes the women who have accused Trump of sexual assault.
“I believe — Donald Trump has told me and his family, and the rest of America now, that none of this is true,” Conway said. “These are lies and fabrications. They’re all made up. And I think that it’s not for me to judge what those women believe. I’ve not talked to them, I’ve talked to him.”
Trump has repeatedly denied allegations of abuse or sexism and has bragged about empowering female employees in his businesses.
“Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” Trump said during the last presidential debate when asked about his accusers, prompting laughter from the crowd in Las Vegas.
Carrie Almond, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, has traveled to 39 states in an RV this year, talking with thousands of women who enthusiastically support Trump and believe the party speaks for them.
“It’s very important to not put all women into the same basket because not everyone sees everything the same way,” said Almond, who is from Missouri.
When confronted with criticism, Trump tends to go after women in much more personal and demeaning ways than men, even though he insists he is an equal-opportunity counterpuncher. Trump’s attacks on female journalists, accusers and rivals over the past year have been heavy with criticism of their looks, their intelligence and their mental health.
After the first debate during the Republican primary — which featured three moderators, two men and one woman, who all peppered him with uncomfortable questions — Trump zeroed in on the woman, Kelly, for asking him about comments he makes about women. After the debate, Trump said that Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
When the Muslim American parents of a soldier killed in Iraq in 2004 appeared at the Democratic National Convention in July in opposition to Trump’s candidacy, Trump zeroed in on the mother, Ghazala Khan, saying in an ABC News interview: “She had nothing to say. She probably — maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.” Khan later said it is still too difficult for her to talk about her son’s death.
In early September, when the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” were critical of Trump, he zeroed in on the female host, Mika Brzezinski, tweeting: “Just heard that crazy and very dumb @morningmika had a mental breakdown while talking about me on the low ratings @Morning_Joe. Joe a mess!”
Trump has told NBC’s Katy Tur to “be quiet” when she pressed him during a news conference, and snapped at CNN’s Dana Bash on Wednesday that she was “rude” to ask about the propriety of holding an event boosting his new Washington hotel. He urged his millions of Twitter followers to search for a seemingly nonexistent “sex tape” of a former Miss Universe whom he had criticized as fat. And he has accused Hillary Clinton of lacking “a presidential look.”
When Trump made a similar critique of Fiorina during the primaries, she responded: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
Trump’s rallies have also been hotbeds of incendiary rhetoric around gender, including popular anti-Clinton T-shirts in many locales proclaiming, “Trump that b----!”
John Weaver, a GOP consultant who worked on the presidential campaigns of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said he is stunned by “the misogyny, the lack of understanding of where this country is now” coming from Trump’s campaign.
“If you have a gender gap the size of the Snake River Canyon, why do you trot out Newt Gingrich, and [former New York mayor] Rudy Giuliani and your nominee to talk about it and further make it worse?” said Weaver, noting that all three men have been married three times. “The only ones I can see who seem to be obsessed about sex in this campaign are those three people.”
Weaver continued: “He’s going to lose the general election, and the credit goes to the women of America who are saving us from this guy.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.