The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The GOP’s deficit with suburban women starts at the White House

Attendees cheer during the Women's March on Jan. 20, 2018, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
Attendees cheer during the Women's March on Jan. 20, 2018, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Three years ago, when he was a candidate for president, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) lamented that his party was “in a hole with Hispanics” and said then-candidate Donald Trump should not be the party’s spokesman on the issue of immigration.

Now, in the wake of Republican losses in House races in last week’s midterms, Graham has found another problem plaguing his party. “We’ve got to address the suburban-woman problem, because it’s real,” he said on Fox News as Democrats were claiming the majority in the House.

Graham conceded that “style does matter, and sometimes it can drown out substance.” He said he thought President Trump was moving to address the issue of his tone. But there’s little evidence to back that up. Trump is the principal reason for the GOP’s woeful performance in competitive suburban House districts.

For many suburban women — not all, by any means, but for many — Trump is toxic. It is not just that they disagree with him. Disagreement on some policy issues did not create the energy that brought so many women off the sidelines and into political activism. It was the president’s style, his behavior, his treatment of other people, the allegations of sexual misconduct, the disrespect he has shown.

These attitudes were on display in the days after the midterms, when Trump berated three female African American White House correspondents, all professionals and all doing their jobs. What he said to them — calling out one for asking what he said was a stupid question, when it was not, and claiming another had asked a racist question, which it was not — was more than disrespectful. It was beneath the office he holds.

Women see those moments and form lasting opinions about the president. Women who have fought discrimination and endured sexual harassment in the workplace or elsewhere recoil when the president makes comments like that. Judgments began solidifying early in his campaign when he labeled illegal immigrants from Mexico as rapists and worse, when he attacked a federal judge of Mexican heritage, when he went after a Gold Star family whose Muslim son had been killed in combat, when the Access Hollywood video went public.

That was enough to bring women into the streets the day after Trump’s inauguration, and it hasn’t stopped. Women talked to one another about the despair they felt when he won, about the feelings of depression that lasted weeks or months. Women formed the backbone of local resistance groups that sprang up after his election two years ago. They found strength in one another as they became active in campaigns around the country.

Suburban women talk about what 2018 election means to them

Two races in the Denver suburbs, where I spent time talking with female voters during the late summer and fall as part of a project with my colleague Mary Jordan, highlight what happened when women became active.

In the 6th Congressional District, which wraps around the east and south sides of Denver, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) had survived multiple attempts by Democrats to defeat him. The district is highly diverse, from classic suburban housing developments to areas populated by immigrants from all over the world. More than 100 languages are spoken in the schools in Aurora, in Arapahoe County. Coffman was constantly attentive to those communities. He also sought to keep the president at arm’s length when he felt it was necessary, rhetorically at least if not in his voting patterns.

Coffman won narrowly in 2012 after the district had been redrawn to become more Democratic. In 2014, he won by nine percentage points, and in 2016 he carried the district by eight points. President Barack Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 were winners in the 6th District.

Last week, Coffman was buried in his reelection bid, losing to Democrat Jason Crow by 11 points, 54 percent to 43 percent. His loss came in part because of the tireless work of many women who made phone calls, knocked on doors and volunteered in other ways.

In the suburbs on the other side of Denver, a race for the state Senate brought similar results. This race pitted two women against one another — Democrat Jessie Danielson, a member of the Colorado state House, and Republican Christine Jensen, a business executive running for the legislature for the first time.

This race was seen earlier in the year as probably one of the most competitive in the state — and one that could determine whether Democrats gained control of the Senate. Outside money poured into the district, and locally both women were aided by volunteers. The outcome in Senate District 20 wasn’t even close. Danielson carried the district by 12 points — 54 percent to 42 percent.

Democrats ended up in control of the state Senate, along with the state House and the governorship, with Gov.-elect Jared Polis defeating Republican Walker Stapleton by 10 points. Colorado has been described as a classic purple state, but it is going to trend blue unless Republicans find a way to regain strength in the suburbs, particularly with female voters, as well as among Hispanic voters.

Record number of women headed toward the House after midterm vote

For some women in suburban areas, Trump’s policy priorities override their feelings about his personal behavior. I have exchanged emails and talked with a woman who lives in the Richmond area, is college-educated and employed at an urban school. She asked to be identified only as “M. Davis.”

“Donald Trump is like no other individual in office today,” she said when she first wrote last summer. “I would never promote his marriages, lifestyle, tweets, comments, language as something to be emulated. He is a coarse man on many levels. His policies and appointments that decrease red tape, encourage employment, lower taxes, promote jobs, enable freedom of religion and speech are what I expected when I voted for him in 2016, and I am looking forward to reelecting him. I am under no illusions about his personal character.”

This is to say that female voters are hardly monolithic and that there are many college-educated women in suburban areas who back the president with intense loyalty. But the results of last week were a stark reminder that there are many more women in the suburbs who feel the same way as Jessica Rogers, who helped organize the first Women’s March in Denver.

Rogers has never liked Trump. When he was the star of “The Apprentice,” she found him “abusive.” When he won the election, she was in denial. Before Trump’s election, she was not particularly active politically. That changed with the election, as her reaction to what happened brought her to action, although career issues sometimes kept her from doing as much as she wanted to do.

Asked a few months ago to describe how she felt about Trump as his presidency unfolded, she replied, “Gut-aching rage and anxiety.”

For Rogers, the confirmation of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court also motivated her in the final weeks of the campaign. She said the retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy last summer was as wrenching as the election of Trump, if not more so. Republicans such as Graham said that the Democrats’ handling of the hearings energized their voters and probably contributed to the defeat of three Democratic senators in red states. But for Rogers and many women, the opposite occurred. It probably contributed to GOP losses in suburban House districts.

Other issues helped the Democrats take control of the House. Health care and protection of coverage for people with preexisting conditions played a role, for example. But more than anything, it was the president who sparked the revolt among suburban women — and the candidacies of female candidates — that played out in district after district.

Those in the Republican Party, such as Graham, who worry about their deficit among suburban women cannot deny the role their president has played in creating the conditions that led to last week’s results. Whether they will act on that is another question. So far it doesn’t look like they are prepared to do so.